Love Letters: Sexual Pressure, Harassment and Rape

Love Letters

‘Love Letters’ is a Petal + Sass blog feature that regularly asks a group of diverse women in their 20’s and 30’s about their experiences with health, sex, emotional wellness, body image, college, careers – and what they wish they had known themselves as teenagers. Visit the Love Letters’ To My Former Self page to learn more about the contributors.

Question posed: Were you ever sexually harassed or pressured into engaging in sexual activity that you were uncomfortable with as a teenager? If so, how did you handle the situation? What would you advise a young person who was being pressured or harassed today?

Miss Magnolia

Miss Magnolia

Miss Magnolia: In high school, I got the sense it was cool to be sexually explicit, so I did feel pressure in that way. I just wasn’t sure how to do it, since I was a bit of a tom boy – so I soon gave up trying to look sexy. But internally, I was very sexual and had a hard time working that out with boys in general. I lived in a small town where it was ‘cool’ to have an older boyfriend; the only thing was that these boys were a bit harsh towards women. At parties or bonfires in the woods, I would see guys be very physical with their girlfriends, and no one said anything, so I thought this was the norm. I felt that girls were sort of ‘owned’ by their boyfriends and that was how it went. I got myself into a sad and scary situation because of this, and I felt pressure to not say anything or do anything about it at the time. After that, I swore to myself that I would own and control any sexual experience I engaged in from there on out – and I have ever since.

My advice is that it is totally ok to be sexual as a young person, but be protective of your desires and know what you’re comfortable with. Nothing and no one is worth feeling ashamed the next morning. “Maybe” means no, and “no” means no, period. A full on ‘Yes’ is the only consensual way to agree to sex, and even in the middle of it all, you can always stop. I bet Beyonce would feel the same.

Miss Bluebells

Miss Bluebells

Miss Bluebells: As a really young tween/teen, I used to feel excited if anyone whistled or said something sexual to me walking down the street. When you’re very young, it feels so “adult” to finally be viewed as a sexual person – a wanted person – like every woman you see on tv. But as I got older, it started to feel more unsafe and gratuitous. There were several times in high school where, looking back, I was taken advantage of or pressured. I say “looking back” because at the time, I was somewhat confused about what was happening and whether it was normal or “desired” behavior (I was not outwardly used to being approached by boys in high school, so any drunken attention from a boy at a party where he felt that he could touch me inappropriately, I felt uneasy and that it was wrong, but also a nagging relief that someone thought I was “pretty.”)

At one party in 10th grade, I remember very distinctly that most of the girls had been pushed into a swimming pool, and afterward we all started drinking and I only had on pants and a borrowed tank top since what I had worn was wet. An extremely “nice,” trust worthy boy at some point in the night felt he could lift my shirt up and touch my breasts, commenting on “how big” they were. I was stunned and didn’t know what to do. This was “one of the good guys” who came from a reputable family. Thankfully, his friend stopped him and told him it was “probably inappropriate.” Many similar instances happened throughout high school, and more often than not, I don’t think I did anything but try to gingerly remove myself from the situation without seeming “uncool” or “unwilling” or “uptight” or hurt the guy’s feelings.

I’m not sure if that has ever changed, in all honesty. Sure, if it were a stranger, I would easily scream at someone to stop touching me. But what about when it’s someone you know or even care about? It’s harder when you don’t want to believe that someone’s a bad person. I’d advise young girls to say “Don’t touch me like that” or “who the hell do you think you are?” and to let a trusted adult know, because truly, the people who feel entitled to touch you inappropriately at a party in high school are the people who become the unassuming frat party rapist who “thought it was mutual” when it wasn’t. But it’s hard to say “no” when you have grown up in a society where women are taught to always make sure others feel comfortable, to avoid confrontation, and to appear genial even when things are spiraling quickly out of control.

Miss Peony

Miss Peony

Miss Peony: I made the mistake of telling my first boyfriend that I would consider having sex with him. I meant ‘at some point,’ if everything kept going well, but he took that to mean ‘right now.’ He asked me all the time if I was ready, and it made me feel like sex was the most important thing to him. When I finally did say yes, it was when he had stopped asking and it was completely on my terms.

My second time, an older boy plied me with drinks until I could hardly speak. I wasn’t very suspicious because I thought we were friends. I said no, but he had sex with me anyway. Later that night my friend’s dad found me naked in the bathroom.  Everyone thought it was hilarious.

Writing that story, it just seems horrible, like cut-and-dry rape, but it’s hard to accuse someone of that. It’s hard for me to even think of it that way, even now. It’s easier just to turn it into a joke and try not to think about it. I told some people that I had said no, and it got back to the guy. He was like, “You don’t think I raped you, do you?” I folded and said no. He seemed really relieved, and I thought that meant he was kind of sorry.

It’s hard to say if I would do anything differently now, 10 years later, other than refuse all the drinks. It’s a lot of work to report a rape, and the consequences for everyone just suck. Like, the guy, Scott, I didn’t think he was a terrible person or that he deserved to be in jail. And I didn’t want my decision making process dragged through the school or town.

Later in high school, my friends had crushes on Scott’s two friends. We snuck out of my friend’s window and met the three of them at the lake in the middle of the night. I had asked the girls not to leave me alone with him, but they both snuck off with the other two guys. I remember sitting on the picnic table as Scott tried to make his move, but I was dead sober. I was able to enforce my “no,” and when he tried to ignore my words I was able to get up and keep the picnic table between us.

I can imagine how Scott felt that night. Like since we had already had sex once, I shouldn’t care about sleeping with him again. That both his friends were getting some, and he felt like he was entitled to sex too, having driven all the way out here. Like even if I said no, as long as I didn’t actively resist, then I must not really care that much.

Does that make him a terrible person? Does he deserve to be in jail? I really don’t know. Part of me thinks that so many men feel this way about sex and women. That a no isn’t really a no unless the woman tries to escape. A lot of my friends have experienced these situations. I don’t think that so many men can just be “terrible” people. Maybe it’s our culture, and they just need sex education, or something. But then, I think about my husband, and my brother, and my dad, and all my guy friends. I know that they would stop at no. So it can’t be normal, right? Maybe he does belong in jail.

Miss Rosebud

Miss Rosebud

Miss Rosebud: When I was younger, I didn’t value attraction enough. I felt a lot of internal pressure to do things because they were what people did and it was “time,” even if I wasn’t particular interested in doing it. The simple concept that you should be attracted to someone before hooking up never really clicked until mid-college at least, and even then I struggled to overcome the urge to be “polite” or go with the flow. This led to some awkward situations, and more than a few ruined friendships. During one particularly awkward hookup, when my friend “unveiled himself,” I started laughing out of discomfort. It didn’t help that he was very insecure about his penis size. We never spoke after that one — and I don’t blame him!

I’d tell girls that nice + smart + cute isn’t enough. You need to be attracted to the person and be ready. It sounds so obvious when I see it in writing!

Miss Hydrangea

Miss Hydrangea

Miss Hydrangea: In high school I snuck out to a party because the “cool kid” that I liked was going to be there. Long story short, I had several drinks and found myself in a situation that escalated to unwanted sexual activity. Afterward, I told two people at the party and they all said that this was a “classic move” on the part of the kid. He even had a nickname. He bragged about it shortly after and I felt humiliated and ashamed. I didn’t tell anyone outside of my friend circle. Some stopped talking to him, but this was a popular person, so his house was also the social scene.

To be honest, I know what I would tell a friend, a friend’s child, a family member – but to go back and tell myself that this wasn’t okay and it wasn’t just some part of a high school rite of passage? It’s hard to tell myself to be stronger, to have the courage to speak up and not blame myself for what happened. To say that “telling someone” is the right thing to do and that there’s always another party without being assaulted. But in that moment I am not sure I would be able to listen.

My advice is that if you find yourself pressured or being harassed then tell an adult you trust. Go with a friend if you are scared to go alone. Call 800656HOPE (sexual assault and abuse hotline) if you want to remain anonymous.

If you or someone you know has received unwanted physical or sexual attention, has been molested, harassed or raped, know that you are not alone and that there is help. It is NOT your fault, and you can put a stop to it. Talk to someone you trust, and visit RAINN.org for more resources.

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