“Close your legs”. Such a loaded statement. Every woman and girl above a certain age knows the shame that comes with that comment. Especially in society that promotes rape culture – in part: that girls/women who do not want to be sexually assaulted should not wear certain clothes, or act in any way that can be even loosely defined as suggestive, or else she is inviting rape. We start early to put the responsibility of sexual assault on girls. We make them hate their little bodies, reducing them to sexual objects that elicit bad behavior from others. Such sentiments feed the still prevalent argument for female genital mutilation as a necessary to ‘cure’ girls’ peculiar and natural promiscuity! ‘Vagina’ is deemed a dirty word and body part, hence: “close your legs and hide your shame”. And while sex between consenting parties is not a bad thing, religious teaching to children overwhelmingly portrays sex as taboo. Consequently, as a child, it’s not a big leap to believe that even God also confirms girls/womens’ sexuality as shameful. So it must be true.
I internalized this message strongly. By the age of 6, I was well aware of the dangers that lurked because somehow, I was a temptress that needed to control how other people reacted to my body. By the time my breasts started to grow (and they grew early), I was terrified of how much attention I would get. I started to layer-up on bras and bra tops to flatten them. I also wore cycling shorts underneath my clothes in an effort to make myself disappear as much as possible. Senior secondary school was a whole new torment because I had lost the protection of the pinafore with its loose skirt and broad chest straps, and now had to wear a blouse and a pencil skirt that seemed to show everything! I walked stiffly all the time to reduce the likelihood of jiggle in my breasts and/or my butt. It was all confounded with the additional big shame of periods which I of course also had to hide at all costs.
I had accepted My Curse as a sexual object and was left to reduce, subdue, contort and torment myself for the rest of my life or risk deserving assault. It didn’t help that the boys/men around me had also been taught to sexualize all female bodies, made sexual jokes at my expense, stared at my chest, or ‘accidentally’ groped me for ‘quavs’. My parents even had a driver that would secretly make eyes at me through the rearview mirror. There was nowhere to hide. I felt myself shrink and shrink, dying to disappear from the sin of my existence. I felt so dirty and of course, still felt it was all my fault.
You cannot even begin to imagine the mental burden on my every waking hour. How many girls still go through all this everyday? How often are boys/men even aware of it and how do they perpetuate this burden intentionally or unthinkingly? If this tells you nothing else, it should show you that though women and men are supposed to be equal, from a very young age, girls are yoked/encumbered with centuries of invisible shame and self consciousness, reinforced at home, at school, in music, on TV, at church, on the street, and…everywhere! In school, girls have to compete with the same academic rigor as boys, whilst carrying the burden of the world’s sexual gaze on her back (and front). Then the world turns around and says boys are just naturally better at this or that. (Deep sigh). Extrapolate this to sports, the workplace, etc. and you are only beginning to scratch the surface of the imbalances that are accepted as normal.
So while we start early to teach little girls that they are responsible for the sexual attention they draw to themselves, I have hardly seen the same energy used to repudiate the assaulters or the act itself. Somehow, we have accepted that “someone might look at you inappropriately/rape you” as the fault of the girl/woman not doing enough to protect herself, instead of strongly rejecting/denouncing such onlookers or assaulters. If even at home, a child is unable to move freely and be herself because someone might get ideas, you are harboring rapists, and your home is not safe for your child. This has nothing to do with the child and everything to with who you accept in your home, and what you have implicitly/explicitly expressed condonation for.
This egregious, or at best misleading language/attitude is so prevalent and accepted, it is honestly frightening. I remember seeing a rape ad on those absen screens on the Lekki-VI toll gate which said “Say no to rape” and it had a picture of a traumatized little girl in a corner. FFS, who says no to rape? This is so stupid. Who exactly is this message for? The rape victim or the rapist? As if anyone who was raped just didn’t say ‘No’. If by some stretch, this message is for the rapist, do we really expect that entitled-rape-culture-rapists will stop because a billboard said “Say no?” Another billboard on Osbourne (with yet another little girl) said “A moment of pleasure for you, a lifetime of hurt for her” as if it was trying to some how civily reason with the unreasonable. Instead of simply calling them out as the devils/animals they are. The sign might as well have said «Kindly rape with care. And if you can, remember the girls might not like it ok? » Also, why are we still putting emphasis on the victim and not the dastardly perpetrator? We coddle the wrong, and allow these soul-less creatures remain anonymous/nameless, while we use the victims pain as currency for publicity stunts. It’s horrendous. Let us put faces to the animals that do these things, instead of using the path of least resistance (little children) who are already bearing the brunt of the crimes in the first place.
One might argue that I am suggesting you let your children fall victim to abuse. Your child is going to be a victim if you do not stop protecting and enabling abusers. How many rape stories have we heard against girls or women, even those wearing burkas? It is the world you have permitted and continue to permit when you police girls’ dressing and bodies. Rape culture distracts in order to perpetuate itself. There is clearly a shaming force and I have suffered it first hand. Take your shame and redirect it to where it is deserved. Direct the full freaking force of your shaming at abusers so they stop themselves before they even start because the overwhelming narrative does not mince words about the atrociousness of what they are about to do! These ambiguities only protect/enable sexual predators convince themselves and their victims that it is the victim’s fault.
Meanwhile, stop shaming girls/women. We cannot continue to let our girl-child turn against herself by conscripting her into self-policing on behalf of abusers. That is a brutally crippling burden and you might as well just tie her up from birth, put her in a sack, and keep her in the corner of your house for life. To start to correct this, never criticize/rebuke them about their bodies because…why would you even do such a thing? Instead of shame, teach her to enforce her boundaries by rejecting unwanted touches. Teach your child consent!Stop forcing them to hug people they don’t want to, so they understand body autonomy and learn that their bodies are not subject to someone else wants. Validate their unwillingness to be touched to their hearing and to the hearing of the person that wanted to touch them. Let us stop using ‘respect’ to permit abuse. Remind your child that no matter what, they should listen to their bodies and leave an uncomfortable situation at the first chance, and they should report such instances to an adult they trust. Never dismiss even the smallest of such complaints from your child. Always investigate, while affirming your child’s feelings. If someone is looking at your child inappropriately or saying inappropriate things to them, kick that person out of your house and publicly shame them.
Honestly, we underestimate the need for our children to see and learn the right reaction to abuse. Imagine a world where abuse perpetrators thought twice because they knew that girls/women had been empowered to fight back? I used to feel so much rage, but had to direct it inwards because first, it was my fault that I was sexually assaulted and second, if I expressed the violent reaction I was having, it would have been met with strong disapproval. How crazy is that? Permit her to be angry and to react physically if necessary. Very importantly, vocally (to the child’s hearing) condemn anyone who disregards their boundaries or people who suggest that your child is ‘asking for it’. This way, the child learns and has no doubt who is in the wrong. It is useful for your child to hear you affirm yours and other people’s boundaries as well. Prosecute to the fullest extent, such violating acts. Remember that your reaction will effectively send a strong message to your child and everyone around, of what is tolerated and what is not.
You might make some rape apologists upset but how is that more important than disincentivising abusers, protecting your child from harm, and building their confidence for the future? Such apologists may complain that they fear their own innocuous actions may be misunderstood. But that’s okay. They should bend over backwards to prevent such misunderstandings rather than maintaining the current burden of ‘understanding’ and risk of assault on the innocent children and women (which has overwhelmingly been theirs to bear for far too long). Teach girls (and boys) zero tolerance for rape culture, that girls/women are not sexual objects, and under no circumstance is anyone asking for sexual assault. Teach them that everyone has the capacity for self control and it is a lie to suggest otherwise.
These seem insignificant, but done over and over, are necessary and powerful messages which are honestly just the beginning. There is so much to be done and we have to start somewhere. But we cannot conceivably promote a fair and equal world if we do not address the injustices that start right in the cradle. We MUST take responsibility for the rape culture that we have permitted, accept the discomfort of correcting it, and be intentional about preventing the inheritance of shame for our little girls. Shame/punish abusers and stop shaming girls. And going forward, think twice before you say “close your legs”.