By Laura Lucy
When I was a kid, we would take a weekly trip to K-Mart. My mom is an expert discount shopper who needed to shop the sales on the regular. It was the 1980s, the glory days of K-Mart, when you could still get an Icee and popcorn and wait with great anticipation for the manager to announce a blue light special. My older brother went with us unless he had football practice. My grandmother never learned to drive, so we usually picked her up to tag along too.
On one particular shopping trip when I was in third grade, one of the outings my brother missed, I stayed behind on the book aisle while my mom and grandmother went two aisles over to look at something else. This wasn’t common practice, but we lived in a fairly small, quiet town, it was a slow night at the store and they could hear me if I called out. The Mr. Men and Little Miss books were my obsession at the time, and I needed another minute or two to check out the latest titles.
As I perused such classics as Mr. Happy and Little Miss Tiny, a man came down the aisle. He had a cart with a two-year-old little girl in it. Just a dad looking at books with his daughter, nothing to worry about. He reached in front of me, I thought for a book, but then grabbed my vagina. It wasn’t a violent attack, but it was very confusing to me. I froze for just a moment before calmly replacing the book I was holding and walking away to find my mom and grandmother.
In short, what I’m trying to say is…#MeToo.
I told my mom what had just happened. She immediately went to the front of the store, found the manager and told him what happened. He was young and had no idea how to handle the situation. Just then we saw our former neighbors walking in. I had pointed out the man who touched me. By this time his wife was with him; she had been in another part of the store when I first saw him. My mom dispatched the neighbors to follow them to the parking lot and get his license plate.
We reported to the police. I had to tell my story in the district attorney’s office but not in court. When the man was confronted, he confessed and ended up serving two years in prison. In my kid’s mind, I thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t until recently, some thirtysomething years later, that I realized the impact it had on me at the time and even now.
Looking back, from third through fifth grade, I recall going home early from school often because I had a stomachache. I was a good student and no one ever accused me of faking it to get out of work. I was quiet and teachers always loved me, but I remember my third grade teacher being especially solicitous, even buying me gifts when my classmates got nothing. Now I realize that my parents had told her what happened and she was going out of her way to let me know I was in a safe place where I was loved when I was at school. Thank you, Mrs. Taylor.
As far as sexual assaults go, mine was minor. I’m allowed to say that because it’s mine. No one else can make that determination for a survivor. Even so, it still had lasting effects. I cannot begin to imagine the emotional scars survivors who know their abuser have, and those account for the vast majority of abuse.
Over the last several months, we have seen a dramatic change in how sexual assault and harassment are viewed and talked about in public. Long-hidden secrets are being revealed by Hollywood actresses and Olympic gold medal gymnasts are speaking out. What started as a handful of women exposing the bad behavior of one powerful movie producer turned into the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, empowering thousands of survivors to share their stories. It didn’t take long for #MenToo to gain momentum as people began to realize that men and boys can be victims of sexual violence too.
Seeing this topic all over the media dredged up memories of my own incident, but some things were fuzzy. I sat down with my mom over the holidays to get some clarity on what happened. My memory of what he did to me in the store is completely clear, but I couldn’t remember what came next. I knew he had been convicted, but I didn’t remember testifying. At times over the years, I even worried about him, knowing that the accusation of an eight-year-old girl had sent a man away for two years. I hadn’t recalled that he admitted doing it. That gave me some peace. I even asked my mom if she remembered his name. She did. Of course she did. I googled him and found he is a registered sex offender living eight miles from that same K-Mart. Seeing his photo was hard, and I cried for the third grade version of myself. But you know what? She was way tougher than anyone could have imagined. Way to go, me!
As the mother of a five-year-old girl, I want to protect her from the Harvey Weinsteins and Larry Nassers of the world. I want to slay every dragon and chase away the boogeyman. As a survivor, I know the strength of #MeToo and the power of #TimesUp and #MeStronger. It is my job to equip my daughter with the knowledge and confidence to stand up to any would-be abuser and to be a safe haven for her if anything bad does happen. I’ll wrap her in my arms and say, “I understand, Sweetpea. Me too.”
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. There are no guaranteed safeguards that will protect every child from predators, but these tips can improve the odds:
- Tell it like it is. Cute names for private parts seem like a good idea when kids are little but can actually confuse the matter if they need to disclose abuse. One family’s cha-cha could be another family’s hoo-ha. A teacher hearing these terms might not even realize a child is attempting to tell her about abuse. It can be uncomfortable for adults to hear a preschooler say “vagina” or “penis,” but no one is confused about their meaning.
- Hugging is not required. Empower your kids to take control of their own bodies. That means hugging relatives is not mandatory. You can intercede, particularly with older relatives, to let them know your child is not being rude with a handshake, high-five or fist bump.
- Identify trusted adults. Talk to your kids about which adults they can turn to if someone hurts them or makes them uncomfortable. Teachers and school counselors are required to report suspected abuse.
- Be a safe place. Maintain a good relationship with open communication so if something does happen, your child knows you will believe them and love them no matter what happened and no matter who harmed them.