I recently read an Associated Press interview with singer and actress Mary J. Blige in which she shared her personal account of sexual harassment, beginning at age 5. “From age 5 to 17, I [went] through hell with sexual harassment … By the time I got to the music business, it was like, ‘Don’t touch me or I’ll kill you,’” she said.
This statement resonated deeply with me. It highlights what I believe is the next logical step for the #MeToo movement — a frank and explicit discussion of what was initially included by Tarana Burke but then overshadowed in the movement’s current iteration, namely, that #GirlsToo experience sexual violence and abuse.
Beginning early in my life, I felt the lack of safety, control and ownership of my body impressed upon me. Imagine feeling so unsafe, as I did, that you strategically hide six kitchen knives around your room from the ages of 13 to 18. Sexual harassment and assault are generally not singular incidents in a person’s life, occurring only in adulthood. I am certain — as affirmed by my own life and a historical view of the work of Tarana Burke, Patricia Hill Collins, Anna Julia Cooper, Danielle McGuire and so many others — that many women experience their first bouts with violence when they are girls. In fact, 1 in 5 girls will be sexually abused before their 18th birthdays. Forty-two percent of female rape survivors were first raped before the age of 18 and 30 percent were first raped between the ages of 11 and 17.
This constant threat of violence against girls — specifically, poor girls and girls of color — must be elevated as a key part of the #MeToo movement. For too many, this threat has created pervasive paranoia and an understanding that the ownership of our bodies is transferable, seemingly to all but us. As a consequence, we internalize the lesson that trying to protect ourselves against sexual violence is a contentious and disruptive act that will likely result in our harm.
We see examples of this lesson playing out in different ways. In a case that has recently captured headlines and widespread public interest, 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for daring to believe she had the right to protect her body against a child rapist. In my own life, I have witnessed an immediate family member, at age 15, put into a mixed dependency/delinquency placement by the state for notifying authorities about their rape. More broadly, society reinforces this message when we allow perpetrators of sexual violence to operate freely in our families, our workplaces and in positions of power without repercussions for their actions, counseling or even an acknowledgement of their behavior.
At this tipping point in the #MeToo movement, we must be sure to elevate the stories and voices of girls who have experienced sexual harassment and assault before they fall victim to systems. All too often, we see a disproportionate number of child sexual abuse survivors in our juvenile and criminal justice systems, our child welfare systems our homeless shelters and engaged in commercial sexual exploitation.
We must demand that our systems account for their, at worst, perpetuation of sexual violence against and punishment of girls, and, at best, complicity in failing to protect and prevent the use of sexual violence as a tool of oppression against girls. Our girls deserve a juvenile and criminal justice system that is trauma-informed rather than indefinite years of detention and punishment. They deserve in-home family counseling services as opposed to indiscriminate child welfare placements.
At the very least, our girls deserve acknowledgment of the violence and harm they navigate daily. We all know about, and many have personally experienced, the sexual abuse that is perpetrated against girls. Ultimately, we will weaken our position and dilute our impact if we do not pivot back and refocus on the narrative of #GirlsToo.
Whiquitta “Kee” Tobar, JD, is a Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s Youth Justice Project. An attorney with experience in juvenile justice and child welfare policy advocacy, Kee helped launch the Legal Center for Youth Justice and Education and led the Juvenile Justice Working Group for Philadelphia’s 100-Day Homelessness Challenge. She is also co-founder of Safenight, an app that connects queer youth who need temporary housing with well-vetted hosts who can offer a safe place to stay.