It was a normal day at school when I asked a friend if he could tell my teacher that I would be late to class while I grabbed something from the library.
“Oh, I’ll tell her you’re off having sex with all those guys.”
This was my friend. It was a disrespectful comment, but I brushed it off. He was known as a bit of a comedian, but I knew he considered me a nice girl.
It wasn’t until I walked away that I heard another voice say, “Because it’s likely.”
We’re taught that sexual harassment is an often violent and deplorable act found in the workplace or on the street. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This phenomenon is hitting the nation’s high schools in alarming ways. In recent years the lines between insults, bullying and sexual harassment have become increasingly blurred. Teens are rude to each other, calling out “Hey slut!” in the hallways at school and comparing their bodies to others’.
About two years ago, I was introduced to what I now understand to be sexual harassment. I was called a slut and a whore. People I didn’t even know were making judgments about me. If I wore high heels to school, they were “stripper heels.” If my skirt was a bit too short, someone made a comment about my sexuality. Everyday I was being called out, not as a human being, but as a sexual being.
When I told someone about it two years later, I realized what was happening to me. Before, I felt that sexual harrassment was an extreme phrase; it was a term closely related to sexual assault and rape. I certainly was not being bullied in a way that was in the same category as rape. People were mean to me; that was it. I felt bad about myself.
This form of bullying might not have gotten to me, had I not started to believe what was being said. This was my downfall, my ultimate mistake. The repetition of insults flung my way destroyed me, until even a single look from an attacker would leave my confidence shattered. I would be left shaking after being around someone I knew could abuse me. I wouldn't talk around them in case they decided to spring an insult on me around my friends. I didn’t want to walk down the hallways if I was wearing a dress, because I felt that everyone I passed would be thinking about how much of a slut I was.
It didn’t help that my peers didn’t view the bullying in the same way I did. They weren’t targeted all the time, and they didn’t know how it felt. They thought they were unnecessary insults and cruel comments but did not classify the comments as sexual harassment. No, that’s a big accusation. The general attitude was: Save sexual harassment for when someone is in danger of being physically assaulted, but don’t go messing around with saying a high school bully is sexually harassing someone.”
My friends telling me to brush it off only made it worse, because I felt that it was meaningless advice. I felt that I was brushing it off. I was doing nothing about it. They also didn’t know how it felt, and I think they couldn’t identify with the image I had of myself because of the constant insults. Brushing it off was part of what allowed the problem to occur and then fester. Passively handling the situation allowed it only to escalate to a breaking point.
So, after having a panic attack in school one day after being called names, I told my counselor. I had been contemplating suicide and felt that I had reached the lowest point ever. I needed to tell someone who would help. I needed my situation to change, or I would no longer be able to attend the same school. Telling her, I felt like a rat. But she fully respected my wishes in how I wanted to handle the situation, with the understanding that some action had to be taken. The people who were causing my distress got help to understand what was going on. They were not punished. I guess you could call it therapy, and my school made sure to handle the situation with sensitivity and with as much respect to both sides as possible.
However, for the amount of time that the people who disrespected me had to undergo therapy, I will be in therapy for an infinitely longer time. I now have to repair the way that I think about my actions and myself. I have to learn to forgive myself and believe that I deserve respect from my peers. I have to learn to use my voice when I feel that I am not getting respect and learn how to be confident again.
My advice to anyone who can identify with what happened to me is use your voice. Tell someone who can help, and it doesn’t have to be a counselor or a therapist. It could be a friend who can stick up for you. There are also organizations ( No Place for Hate for example, is in Atlanta, New York, St. Louis and a dozen other places around the country) that encourage positive school environments.
But it is crucially important to always know that the situation can change. There is always something you can do about being bullied at school, and no one should ever have to deal with being disrespected on matters that are so intensely personal.
The writer attends school in Atlanta.
This piece originally appeared in VOX Teen Communications’ newspaper. Read more and weigh in on stories written by and for Atlanta-area teens at voxrox.org, or write a letter about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.