An Open Letter to Girls’ Life Magazine
OMG, a magazine, like, just for girls. Wicked cool. Only not. Why? Because you, GL, are shooting girls in the feet when you’re trying to get them running.
We had high hopes. Right there, amidst the advice column on fifty ways to flirt, the incisive investigative report on lip balm addiction, the savvy section on bedroom redesign, and the photo shoot of perfect swimsuits, is an article by Katie Abbondanza on nonconsensual sex (Feb/March 2014 issue).
“Hands Off!” tells the stories of several girls who, in a GL reader survey, said their rejections were ignored by guys bent on pushing the boundary. So far, so good. Even though it’s just a survey of GL readers, we know that girls and women across the United States report similar experiences, and we know that one in five college women are sexually assaulted while they’re there. So we do need to reach girls while they’re still teenagers.
This article offers girls the important message that “NO” is a boundary, and girls have a right to assert it, and that it’s always unacceptable when a girl’s boundaries are disregarded, whether the “NO” is to give her phone number, walk with her, go to a private place, or touch her. You’ve even provided girls with the phone number of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, in case they have been raped or sexually assaulted.
You are right: girls get to say “N-O”. And the article’s “five more things you need to know about saying N-O” includes some basic things girls will hear once they get to college from their sexual assault prevention program: that no means no and that a guy should stop as soon as he hears the word; that some guys will try to negotiate with or pressure girls into saying yes but that girls are entitled to stick to their guns; that a girl should, if possible, remove herself from the situation; that if a guy pressures a girl in a social setting he’ll probably continue to do this once he’s alone with her so let that be a red flag; and that if a girl says no, and it’s ignored, then “it’s not [her] fault.”
Hold up. What’s not her fault? If a girl says no and it’s ignored, then sure, the guy’s ignoring her is not her fault. But we’re afraid you’re assuming, and leading any given girl to assume, that if a guy ignores her no, then she’ll have been assaulted.
It’s important for girls to be aware of boundary violations, small and large, and to assert their boundaries. It’s also important to know what sexual assault is. While its precise legal definition varies from state to state, sexual assault is generally unwanted sexual touching that stops short of (completed or attempted) forced sexual intercourse; forced sexual intercourse, whether the force is physical or verbal, is rape. Sexual assault includes all kinds of troubling and illegal behaviors that can lead to rape. But here’s the good news: both verbal and physical self-defense techniques can stop these behaviors from progressing along that continuum.
This is not the time to be vague; it’s the time to be crystal clear, just like the word “N-O”. So let’s be clear: assault is never the victim’s fault. Never.
But’s let’s be clear about this also: “Ignoring a N-O” can mean a variety of things, including a guy trying to assault or rape a girl. And a girl has a LOT of things she can do in between indicating, saying, or yelling “N-O”, and a completed assault or rape. And it’s just as important to tell our girls that as it is to tell them all the other things we tell them about safety.
Here’s the crucial information missing from your article: How a girl can enforce her N-O if it’s ignored. It’s called self-defense. Self-defense training empowers girls to go beyond hoping their use of assertive communication techniques don’t fall on sexually entitled, arrogant asshole ears.
That’s right, an important thing to know about saying N-O is how to F-I-G-H-T.
Your article tells a story of a girl who quickly told a guy, “Don’t touch me!” and I consider that a great example of self-defense. When girls learn self-defense, they practice speaking precisely that way; but they also train to use physical techniques that can back up such verbal techniques. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to tell a guy to back off when you know that you can, if necessary, land an elbow strategically into his nose. A broken nose is a whole different level of N-O.
Please, GL, let girls know that there’s more that can happen between saying N-O and calling RAINN.
Martha McCaughey and Jill Cermele