I am a teenager. He is a stranger waiting next to me for the train. When he calls me “sexy” and tells me to smile, I blush as red as his baseball cap. “aww are you blushing, baby?” My stomach churns. I do not want his attention, but I cannot say no. I smile for him, hoping I look more bashful than scared. On the train I seek out a seat next to very large older woman and bite my lip to hold back the tears brought on by adrenaline and embarrassment.
My smile does not belong to me.
You taught me this when you ordered me to smile for your friend who was over for dinner. I was 5. I didn’t like him, but you took me aside and told me to “smile and be nice” or I would have to sit alone in the other room.
I am 14 years old. He is my sparring partner in Martial Arts class. “I’m gonna punch you in the boob!” He laughs like it’s the funniest joke he ever heard. I am uncomfortable, but I don’t know what to say. He jabs at my right breast, like it’s a target, and pain blossoms across my chest. He laughs, his buddies laugh, and I laugh with them. I don’t want to be rude. “Do you need me to kiss it and make it better?” More laughter. I tell myself we’re all just kidding around, it’s just fine… everything is fine.
My body does not belong to me and I do not have the right to decide what I think is funny.
You taught me this when you let my cousin tickle me without my consent. I was 7 and he was 19. I screamed through the involuntary laughter and everybody just smiled and laughed along. When I finally got away I was angry. Hot tears sprung up in my eyes and shouted at him, at all of you, “I told you to stop!” You gripped my arm and pulled me aside. “Your cousin was just joking with you and you were very rude to him. Go apologize and give him a hug!”
I am 19. He is my sexually aggressive co-worker. He traps me against the wall and whispers explicit things to me, hot breath against my neck. Sometimes he sneaks up behind me and wraps his arms around my waist, purposely pressing his body against mine. He grows bolder each day, and he never listens when I insist that he leave me alone. I never tell anyone, just befriend an older man who works with us, and hide near him when I’m feeling afraid.
My sexuality belongs to the most powerful male-bodied person available.
You taught me this when you bought me a purity ring at age 16 and made me promise that I would never let anyone touch me until you gave me away to a man on my wedding day. And all the times you ordered my brother to protect me, instead of teaching me to defend myself.
You just wanted me to behave. You wanted me to obey the rules as children should. You didn’t known that children are just tiny adults. You couldn’t have foreseen that your words would shape the woman I would become. You never thought that I would carry the lessons meant for a five year old with me for the rest of my life.
But I know now. And if I ever have a child I will remember that she does not belong to me. I will never force her to talk to my dinner guest, because I do not own her voice, or her smile, or her body, or her heart.