As a teenager and a young adult, I think I had a pretty open and honest relationship with my parents.
My father would dutifully collect my friends and I from late-night parties, even if it was 2am, to ensure we all got home safely (and I was always encouraged to call home for a lift).
I could talk to my mother about my problems, hopes and dreams and knew I would always receive support and guidance.
I’m very lucky to have the parents I do.
That said, I never – not even to this day – told my parents about being sexually harassed while at college. I wasn’t terribly surprised by the results of the recent survey Consent and the Youth Sector: What Do We Know? It was published by the National Youth Council of Ireland in partnership with the HSE and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The results showed that over 58% of the young people surveyed did not fully understand the meaning of consent or the language used in terms of communicating consent.
I should be surprised because it has been almost 20 years since my own on-campus experience with sexual harassment. But I’m not. Because even nearly 20 years later, I can’t bring myself to talk about my experiences with my own parents. As a girl, I was socialised to make the men in my life feel at ease – and, in many cases, young women do not feel comfortable saying firmly and explicitly: “I am not interested. Please leave me alone.”
If this had happened to me today, the man in question would have no doubt about my opinion or feelings. However, whether a firm “no” would have made any difference to 20-year-old me is up for speculation – my harasser was a very strong, large fellow with whom I worked an on-campus job. In fact, he was my manager.
He would frequently say things of a sexual nature to me and I would laugh nervously.
Our other co-workers would notice and say things like: “He must really like you.” Sometimes they would say things like: “He is really inappropriate with you.” And it was true. He would frequently grab my hips, lift me off the ground or start rubbing my shoulders. I couldn’t tell him to stop. “At least we’re with a group of people,” I would reassure myself.
Aside from laughing off his comments and wriggling away from his grasp, I don’t think I was giving any indication that I might have any romantic interest in him.
Then, one evening we were alone and on duty together when he finally crossed the line – he went too far. I was forced up against the wall and he kissed me. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so helpless – or scared – in my life.
The next day, I went to our on-campus employer and made a formal complaint. I was nervous and scared to come forward but I was even more afraid of having to endure another night shift with him. My employer listened to my story and effectively brushed it off, saying: “Oh, he’s from another country. I think that’s a cultural thing.”
I’ve since made some close male friends from the same country and they have assured me otherwise. It is all about how we speak to our children – and the example we set for them.
I don’t think my parents would have blamed me for what happened but I still couldn’t tell them. First of all, I didn’t want to have to talk about it. Second, I didn’t want them to blame themselves. The fact that I struggled with whether or not to tell them is part of the problem – in an ideal world, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Men – young or old – should simply understand how to treat women with respect and dignity. Twenty years later, this is still not a reality.
Another reason I kept this harassment from my parents is because I wasn’t sure if I might somehow be blamed for what happened. From a young age, I was warned about predators – about bad people who might steal me away from my parents. About how, even sometimes members of your own family or community might try to hurt you. I was taught to be aware and not to put myself in bad situations.
But it still happened.
Maybe we need to stop preparing little girls for a life of harassment and start teaching all children about consent: what it means, how it is communicated, why it is important.
I wish I could end this with some uplifting advice for the young women starting their college experiences. I will say that my college years were the most formative and fun years of my life. I met my best friends there, started the path to a fulfilling career and learned so much about myself. I loved my time there. This was a mere blip on the path, even though it left a lasting impression.
I will say that, if someone makes a young woman feel uncomfortable, that’s their problem – not her’s. They shouldn’t be worried about hurting feelings, causing a misunderstanding or getting in trouble at work or school. Parents: tell your daughters to find their tribe, make a solid group of friends and take care of one another. And have fun.