Editor’s Note: This post contains sensitive material about sexual assault that may be triggering to some readers.
I can still remember the day it happened like it was yesterday: I climbed into my boyfriend’s car, dolled-up, doe-eyed and ready for adventure. My blonde hair whipped me in the face as we barreled down the turnpike at 70 miles per hour, my cheeks burning from the mid-morning sun.
“What a beautiful day,” I thought.
But less than an hour into our trip, our “perfect” plans were shattered when my boyfriend pulled off the highway and into a Burger King parking lot. He turned off the engine and didn’t unlock the doors. And almost instantly, I felt terrified.
Moments later, he placed one hand on my thigh and wrapped the other behind my head. He pulled me forward for a kiss and pried his way into my mouth. When I tried to get away, his grip tightened. He held me closer and harder; so close I could barely breathe. And then he exposed himself.
I can still remember the fear that shot through me in that moment. I was 15 years old — just a girl; a virgin — and I was dating a man three years my senior. A man who knew he was in control.
Things got worse from there, and I was uncomfortable and scared, to say the least. But most terrifying of all was how he reacted when I recoiled after he tried to force me into doing things I didn’t want to do, even after telling him clearly and defiantly “No.”
“Do it or get out,” he told me.
I had no car. No phone. No money. And no way home. So I did what I thought I had to do in that moment to survive — I gave in to his demands. And then we left.
We spent the rest of the day at a theme park pretending the moment in the car earlier didn’t happen. And for 20 long and painful years, I continued to pretend the whole incident was okay.
But I have grown a lot in these last two decades, and I now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that being forced into a sexual situation or act against your will is more than just “not okay”. It’s assault. And I want my daughter to know that, too.
I want her to be confident and strong. I want her to know she can say “no” — and that be the final word. I want her to know that no one owns her body but her. And I want her to know she is never helpless. She is never alone.
Right now, she’s still so pure and innocent. Just 4 years old and full of dreams.
But one day, I plan to tell her about that day in the car. And I know I can’t just stop there. I’ll need to also tell her about the colleague years later, who exposed himself to me in a back office. And the manager who threatened to fire me if I didn’t kiss him. If I didn’t let him touch me. And the time I was drugged by a complete stranger, who slipped something in my drink when I wasn’t looking.
I know this conversation will not be easy. In fact, it terrifies me just thinking of it now, years before I even have to have it. I’m sure it will be stressful and awkward for us both, but it’s also something that needs to be done. Because she needs to know these things happen every single day, and that if they happen to her, it’s not her fault. She is not wrong. She is not “bad”. And she should never ever be afraid to tell me — or anyone.
In some ways, I’ve already started to introduce the topic. I refer to my daughter’s body parts by their anatomical names and we talk about autonomy and ownership and boundaries in terms she can understand. She knows she has to give others permission to touch her body, no matter where, no matter when, no matter what.
Of course, the latter can make things uncomfortable, especially at family gatherings when she refuses to hug an aunt or kiss an uncle. But it’s imperative that my daughter feels in control of her body, right from the start. That she remains in control, understands consent, and knows that there’s nothing wrong with saying “no”.
Right now, the messages I try to send her are subtle, yet clear. But as she grows, I plan to continue these little talks, so that by the time she’s a teenager she gets the full picture. And I’ll use the language I wish my mother used with me: Explaining the realities surrounding sex, rape, abuse, and assault. Because I need to, in order to for her to be prepared. In order for her not to feel ashamed or afraid. In order for her to grow up with the tools I wish I had been given.