Summer of 1994. I was fifteen years old. Like thousands – perhaps millions – of teenagers before and since, I lied to my parents. Told them I was going to the beach with my friend – we’ll call her Brittany – and her family. It was only a partial lie. Her brother and his fiancee, age nineteen, were our dubious chaperons. Her mother even lied to my mother, for us. Told her she was driving us down to the coast for a week, when she never planned to leave her home.
Instead, we rode down with the brother’s low-rider club. A bunch of ratty teenagers, looking for a good time. There’s never been a worse idea than a six hour road trip in a miniature version of a pickup truck, the vast majority of its suspension sacrificed for the low profile, except, perhaps, for cramming as many kids in every tiny cab as physics would allow. By the time we arrived, every single joint was buzzing, every muscle tight and achy.
But we were fifteen and easily passed for nineteen. We were at the beach, had money in our pockets, and were pretty much on our own, so who cared? Every day, we got dressed up, debated this top with those shorts, hands in or out of pockets, hair up or down. Does this makeup look too slutty? Does this bathing suit make me look fat? Is this too much cleavage, or too little? We’d stroll up and down the beach, or shop on the strip, or pour quarters into the crappy little bar tables and well-stocked jukebox at the arcade.
We bungee jumped off a crane, without ever showing our IDs. We got our belly buttons pierced.
We behaved like teenagers.
Only a couple of days left in our trip, Brittany and I had a falling out. I honestly don’t remember why, but we were pretty angry with one another. We’d told her brother we wouldn’t go out alone. That we’d practice the “buddy system.” And she was going, whether I wanted to, or not. I was firmly in the “or-not” camp, but I pulled on clothes and followed her onto the strip, anyway. She was walking quickly, and had a head start, so I was struggling to keep up, and maybe forty yards behind her. As we were walking towards one of the many aquamarine-painted-concrete motels, two things happened simultaneously. A young man in an orange VW Beetle pulled into the parking lot ahead of me, effectively cutting me off from my friend, and started to flirt. About the same time, a group of older boys and young men walked out from the motel itself, and started talking with Brittany, also effectively halting her.
I didn’t want to be rude, so I talked with the young man in the beetle. I didn’t find him attractive, and didn’t really care about hurting his feelings, as I’d been taken completely off guard. I was anxious, and unnerved, and worried about Brittany, who was suddenly surrounded by strangers. But I knew being rude could cause even more problems. I chatted – politely – for a moment, then told him I was sorry, but I couldn’t talk, because it looked like my friend needed me. I shuffled quickly around his back bumper.
By the time I caught up to her, Brittany was being … herded… towards a room in the motel. I jumped in, and tried to extract her from the situation, but she was still angry with me. She said she wanted to party, and they were having a party. I told her we could party back in our room, but by then they were ushering her through the door. My choices were to follow along, or to go back to our motel and try to find her brother. I’d promised not to separate from her.
I won’t go into many details, here, but we were both gang raped that night. Filled with booze, and possibly more, used, and quite literally dumped on a curb, wearing someone else’s clothing.
And it started with street harassment. It started with a demand for attention.
Rape got its foot in the door, the moment those boys and young men cut off our route, expecting us to be polite – and we were.
Really, though, rape got its foot in the door in so many ways. Ways that started long before that orange Beetle and that sleazy motel.
Rape got its foot in the door when our parents, who should have been teaching us about boundaries, who should have been keeping us safe, taught, instead, for us to be polite.
Rape got its foot in the door when we were forced to endure cheek-pinching from that dreadful great-aunt who smelled like mothballs and wore too much rouge.
Rape got its foot in the door when we were made to understand that it didn’t matter whether or not we wanted to hug the uncle who always hugged just a little too tight, held on just a little too long, we were going to hug him, and smile while we did it.
Rape got its foot in the door when those young men were little boys, being told by older boys, and sometimes even fathers, uncles, and other authority figures, that girls play hard to get, so “no” just means you’re not trying hard enough, not doing the right things.
Rape got its foot in the door when we were told that good girls didn’t enjoy sex, that sex was shameful, that talking about sex was bad, that learning about sex was tantamount to actually engaging in it. When we were only told that it was off-limits, while the boys were being told it was their job to talk us out of our “no.”
Rape got its foot in the door when we learned we were only allowed to have boundaries if they didn’t make other people feel bad.
So don’t tell me street harassment is a compliment. Don’t tell me it’s no big deal. I have seen and felt, firsthand, where street harassment can lead. It’s not a compliment; it’s a threat. It’s rape, shoving its foot in the door, demanding access. If some strange man shoved his foot into my home in that way, I’d be baffled to find a single person who thought it was then my job to make the invader’s feelings my first priority, my job to be polite to someone who was intruding on my home. In fact, there are laws on the books in most states in the U.S. that grant citizens the right to use up to lethal force, if they feel their home is being violated. And we’re talking about houses, here. Brick and mortar, wood and stone. Things.
How, then, can you excuse someone commandeering my agency, and tell me to be polite, lighten up, it’s just a compliment? Maybe not every stranger who shoves a foot in your door is a threat. Could be a salesperson, or someone handing out religious literature. Are you willing to take that risk, and welcome them in, once they’ve shoved a foot in there? Once they’ve pushed past polite, as if they were entitled to access to your home, are you willing to then offer them tea and cookies, just to be polite? Of course not. The very notion is absolutely absurd.
And so is the notion that we should have to be polite to those shoving their feet into the door of our very ability to determine to whom we wish to speak, or how we wish to spend our time, or whether or not we wish to have company at our table, or at the bus stop, or on a stroll. Whether or not we’re okay with you standing so damned close. Whether or not we want to have a drink with you, or hear your opinions about our bodies. When you assume you are entitled to someone’s attention, and demand that without concern for what they want?
That’s rape, shoving its foot in the door. And we have every goddamned right in the world to crush its fucking toes, as we slam that door in whatever way we choose.