A Short Story About that Locker Room Talk

I’m going to put a warning here. This piece contains a brief description of sexual assault.

 

On my lunch break I needed to make a phone call. Like most things with me, as soon as I felt it, it had to be done. I walked aimlessly around the River North area of Chicago, weaving through tourists, business people, and medical professionals trying to drum up the courage to call. When my mom answered I began choking up immediately. I said, “Mom, I wanted to warn you because you might see something on social media that might upset you because I never told you about it.” Once I said that the floodgates opened and I was a mess. But my mom breathed warmth, love, and compassion into my soul, which had been burying this painful secret for well over a decade. At the end of the call I said, “Don’t say anything to Dad until I get a chance to talk to him.”

This summer, fellow bestie Paige and I attended the Slut Walk Chicago protest. It’s an event that happens worldwide to protest societies that promote rape culture, slut shaming, victim blaming, toxic masculinity and lack of access to reproductive health care. I decided to make a sign describing a traumatic event that happened to me when I was twelve.

Slut Walk Chicago 2016

The summer of 2003 landed just before a giant bend in the road ahead of a twelve-year-old girl. I would be turning thirteen soon, getting my period, and moving across the country to the Lone Star State. I was on the cusp of some dramatic changes in my life. My best friend and I were almost basically teenagers and her older sister was old enough to drive. Under her supervision, for the first time without parents, Ashley’s parents let her borrow the minivan and take us to the super rad water park at Six Flags Elitch Gardens. We were free and the novelty of having responsibility for ourselves was deliciously exhilarating. I also had a new swimsuit, a very grown-up bikini with *padded cups*. I felt like a teen in an 80’s movie: sexy, with all the boys looking at me! But, you know, I was twelve. I was a spunky string bean, always ready to get into some hijinks. A favorite past time at parks was to find a couple and pretend they were spies, and I was also a spy and my objective was to spy on them without them spying on me first. So I was really more akin to peter pan in a bikini than the Linda in Fast Times at Ridgemont High I thought I had transformed into.

In the locker room at the water park, we got into our bathing suits and put our stuff into a few lockers, whose numbers we immediately forgot. I remember feeling a little self-conscious suddenly and it surprised me. I felt a bit out of place in my body, as girls often do in their pre-pubescence – when your body stops being just a body and transforms into something that someone other than yourself can have thoughts, judgments, and ownership over. I looked in the mirror and wondered what my image was going to present once we walked outside. I felt kind of gross.

The thought quickly faded with the chitter-chatter of the other girls in the locker room. We talked about the best SPF lotion to get a suntan without getting cancer and which rides we wanted to ride first. We walked out into the sun and giddily raced to the nearest water playground to wet our hair.

The day was typical as far as a day at the water park goes. It was blissful, full of wistful imaginings, and wondering why grown ups enjoyed the loop river part so much. Also typical for me was that I managed to injure myself in some way. I scratched the top of my foot at some point on the concrete. T’was but a flesh wound, so I sighed wearily and found the nearest first-aid station. Some peroxide and a band-aid later, I was set out in the park again to locate my friends.

I saw that they were out in the wave pool – one of my favorite parts – toward the deep end. As I walked into the pool, I noticed this group of older dudes wading into the water next to me. They were definitely adults but very young, most likely sophomores or juniors in college. They were also attractive. Like, swipe right on tinder without reading their profile attractive. We were about knee-high in the water when one of them made his way over to me and “bumped into” my small body. To steady himself against my 5 foot 95 lb body, he grabbed the cup of my right, barely-developed breast and pulled on the top edge of my bikini bottom, sticking some fingers down them. He breathed “Excuse me” down my neck with a smug half-laugh. In this brief yet seemingly endless exchange, he had squeezed my chest and pulled at my bottoms with a force that suggested he wasn’t seeking balance from a living thing, but rather grabbing an object, like a stress ball or the rim of a basketball hoop. I can still recall with sickening detail what his hands and fingers felt like. I can still feel the lingering pain on my chest after he groped me like he was smashing a tomato. When he let go, nearly forcing me to fall over, I saw his friends pretending not to look while cracking up as they all walked past.

I don’t remember what I did after that. I don’t remember the rest of the day. I could have gone to security. That man just molested me, a twelve-year-old girl!  Why didn’t I just go to an adult, tell them what happened and happily go on my way as he spent the rest of his life branded a sexual predator? Well, I didn’t know what was done to me was really a serious crime. And I was too humiliated to say anything. I suddenly felt stupid in my bikini, with the padded cups trying to look grown up. I felt like it was my fault because my body was a joke: my tiny breasts, the pubic hair that was developing down there. But more dishearteningly, I also just resigned myself to the fact that this was something that men did. Nobody sat me down and said, “Well Michaela, sometimes men do this and it’s just the way of the world and it’s not that big of a deal.” Somehow, I had gotten the message that once I got to a certain age, my body would become fair game for mean boys, even men. I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously if they even believed me at all.

I carried this secret with me until I was 23 years old. I told a couple close friends after many tequilas during the twitter campaign #yesallwomen. Today a new campaign is exploding, called #notokay started by twitter user @kellyoxford.

 

The response has been far-reaching.  Over a million women have been using it to tweet the real world effect of “locker room talk” like that of the republican presidential nominee spewed from his mouth in 2005. When I saw this, my stomach dropped. I had experienced something so similar to Oxford. Then I saw the responses to her tweets. So many women had their own similar stories, too.

I wonder if those bros went back to the locker room at the water park and had a good laugh about the pussy their buddy grabbed.

The sign I made for Slut Walk Chicago read “Rape Culture is a 12-year-old girl getting groped by a bro while his bros snickered and kept walking.” But I wasn’t groped. I was molested. That man sexually assaulted a child and his friends laughed and kept walking. Even nearly thirteen years later, being surrounded by supporters and friends, I was still ashamed enough to soften the language on my sign.

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I wish I could scoop up my twelve-year-old self and say, “What he did was horrific and you didn’t do a single thing to deserve it. It wasn’t your bikini. He and his buddies are not whole. They thought tearing you down would pull them up, but it didn’t work. They are missing a piece of themselves but you are not. You are whole, beautiful, and human. What they did has nothing to do with your worth.”

The problem is not specific to those guys. I’ve encountered “those guys” more times than I can count. The problem isn’t just some Presidential nominee. The problem is the subtle, insidious tainting of message by anyone who says, “Hey, that’s someone’s sister/mother/daughter!” Because it implies that not only are our bodies to be consumed by the public but are owned and valued in relationship to the men in our lives. A man assaulting a girl in a water park is not deplorable because they’re assaulting your little sister. It’s deplorable because they are assaulting a human being and that should strike at the heart of your humanity itself. We don’t need to be questioning why this is happening to someone who reminds you of your wife. We need to be questioning what has allowed this to happen to a massive section of our population. Particularly, because I believe the majority of people to be good.

It’s thirteen years later and my body is my own, though often people try to make me believe otherwise. It’s funny because Trump was slobbering about grabbing pussies around the same time that someone was grabbing at mine. (For reference, I was twelve and he was fifty-nine.) But the owner of that pussy votes. And I will be spending a good long day researching every single nominee and office I can vote for. You know, I think I’ll compile a nice list and buy a gorgeous red felt-tipped pen. I’ll sit on the prettiest, comfiest couch and put my feet up. Every single politician that has expressed support for Donald Trump OR made a statement in outrage about how it’s wrong to sexually assault their mothers/wives/daughters is going to get a thick red line through their trifling name. Then I’ll take a luxurious sip of sparkling rose and sigh blissfully to myself.

 

You know, that list, I might even frame it.

 

Artwork and Article by Michaela Heidemann