par·a·noi·a: perəˈnoiə/noun:

  1. a mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organized system. It may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.

I cannot write this post with judgment of paranoia looming in the audience, so let me first clarify this. I’m going to talk about persecutions. I’ve worked hard to be introspective, to be accurate, and to be unbiased in my quantification of these persecutions, and yet, from the depth and breadth of them, you might think my perception is sensationalized or exaggerated. You might think I am delusional or self-important. I write loudly, and it can come off as all-encompassing. Do keep in mind that this is just one train of thought I’ve put to paper. It is just one piece of a very complex person. I am happy, confident, secure, creative, and loved. But at the same time, there is this dark dotting that comes along with a happy life. A dotting of “Me Too.”

The dots are often dark spots that loom around corners. And they are shared by women and girls (and boys and men) around the world. These are real facts, placed in black and white text. They are not sensationalized or exaggerated. They are true.

I am 5 years old: I can never hear the words “You’ll see” again without cringing. He was 11 years old, a friend of a sibling. He had a plan for the night, and he was clearly excited about it. I asked him what the plan was, and all he would say is “you’ll see.” That night, he took me up to the attic of our shed. The taste was strange, the feel in my mouth was so different, the actions and requests were puzzling, the attention…was weird but not altogether unflattering— clearly I was the star of this show. He was the child leader, most likely a victim in his own right, of a group effort which victimized all of us at once, likely himself included. At the end of it, the flattering feeling was gone in an instant, replaced by an entire mountain range of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, crushing down on me hard. I could barely breathe. I was 5 years old.

I am 6 years old: Sexualized now, I have dreams of being watched. I find it elegant. I imagine my hair sprawled out on the bed. I have never even seen pornography, yet I sit and wait to be voyeured. This is not innate; I was taught this. It is not natural. It is not good. Being victimized at a young age pushes the clock forward on sexual maturity both physically and emotionally, literally raising your hormone levels. Having that sexuality taught through a power dynamic where I was manipulated means it created synaptic connections between sexual arousal and victimization. Already my worth was being tied up in knots with my ability to turn heads. This was not innate; I had been taught this behavior. It was not natural. It is not good.

I am 7 years old: I sit on the way to Disneyland with my family. They sing loudly to John Denver and CCR, off key, as usual. They are happy and everyone is excited. Everyone except me. I have suddenly thought to myself that I could be pregnant (from the incident at 5 years old). I agonize, as I have come to do from time to time. It haunts me. I think once again about how I am dirty and sinful and terrible, about how everyone thinks I am something I’m not, and now they might find out what I really am, what I really think about, what I really dream about. What I really did. What I really do.

I am 10 years old: I am riding my bike to my best friend’s house, crossing a busy street, I make eye contact with the man in the right lane, as I have been taught to do (to make sure he sees me and doesn’t turn into me). The man is rugged looking — hair sticking out from under a cap, a shadow of hair on his chin and neck, burnt from being in the sun too long. He’s 35 years old at the very least. As I make eye contact, he puts his index and middle fingers up to his mouth and pushes his tongue through his dry, cracked lips, and out his fingers at me. I know what this means. On the outside: “this is gross.” On the inside, that synaptic connection somewhere buried deep in the tissues of my brain tells me I must be beautiful.

This is not an isolated incident. It is simply one that I remember the most. I knew what this gesture meant because it had been hurled at me, along with several others gestures and words, time and time again (even by this age), hitting the side of my face, smearing down my soul and dripping at my feet. It was a second language I had learned through acquisition, like a child learns the tongue of his parents. I grew accustomed to it’s slimy stain on my face and clothes. It was fitting for such a disgusting child as myself.

I am 12 years old: I have started growing hips; I have started wearing shorts and tank tops. I have a two-piece swimsuit that I wear around the yard (but not in public). I have cut my hair to look like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, and I love it. I have a house full of family coming and going, inviting friends over.

I fall asleep in my room and awake to a strange silhouette in the doorway. Partial memories of voices conversing in the living room earlier lead me to believe it is just a friend of a sibling, that maybe he needs a blanket or something. “Hi?” I offer. “Hi” he returns, emerging into the moonlight coming from the window now, the color flows to him like a blood rush to the head, and I can see his sweaty skin, his dank hair, his faded, reddish shirt holding only around his neck, not all the way on. I see the dangling of his belt and hear the clink of his buckle — undone and pants open. I hear the shift of his feet as he comes toward me, heavy. I smell a certain cologne mixed with sweat — a scent I still catch from time to time at random — pungent. He sits on my bed and I scamper to the other side. He pulls me in, he smells my hair, grabs my crotch. A handful of my blue camo boxer shorts in his fist, he leans in close and whispers with soft, wet breath — lips to ear — take these off.

A battle of pleading and persuasion ensues and he finally leaves without getting what he wanted (or maybe that was enough for him?). I stare for hour-long minutes at the clock on my nightstand. I look sideways for hour-long minutes at the shadows in the doorway. Were they there before? Is that him, waiting to see what I’ll do? Does he have a weapon? Is this a test? If I move, will he come back in and kill me? I wish I could just be brave enough to reach over and set an alarm; would that scare him away? I am not brave enough.

The ensuing months are filled with constant panic. I awake every night at 1:00 am, 3:00 am, and 5:00 am and listen more intensely than I ever knew possible. I hear every creek in the house, every shift of the foundation. I try to convince myself that the sounds aren’t heavy enough to be his footsteps, but I don’t believe myself. It could definitely be him, inside again.

It takes me several minutes to open any given door in the house. I shower with my clothes on. I call my mommy for rides home from church activities. Church was literally three houses away from mine. I wish someone would just stop expecting me to brave and would stay with me every minute. But I will never vocalize this. Just as I will never vocalize the thing I said to him before he left. The thing that proved I was dirty. I will never say it. I too expected myself to be brave. I wasn’t.

I am 13 years old: I walk into the lunchroom with my friend, my first week of Jr. High. I am bombarded by calls of “Meow” and “Woah, insta-boner.” I am flattered. I walk through the hallways with a different friend and hear “Oh my God, Sara, you are so fine. And you’re hot too, Brie, just not as hot as Sara.” I make my way through the crowds from one class to another and constantly get “credit carded” (swiped between the butt cheeks by someone’s finger). Other boys snap my bra in jest. I practice with the dance team and boys flock in to watch our bodies bend. Multiple boys ask me out without knowing a thing about me except for how I look.

I am forcibly kissed multiple times against my will by an 18 year old at the local skating rink. He and his friend ogle and guffaw. So do many of the figures in cars on any street I happen to be walking down.

A male friend takes it upon himself, in public, to spell out the word written across my chest on my shirt. He uses his fingers and traces the letters. I do not stop him. I am no longer shocked. No need for bravery to fight or fail. It’s normal now. My body is not my own. Not a whole, just a couple holes.

I am 14 years old: a group of boys at the mall asks me and my friend to hang out. We say yes. The friend gets in their car. I am not so sure about it. She pleads. I sit. They shut the door: “Do you girls put out?” one asks. “I do, she doesn’t,” my friend responds. Whereupon I am of no more worth. The door opens, and I am shoved out onto the asphalt by two strange and sweaty hands. My friend reluctantly decides to stay with me rather than the group of strangers. The car speeds away.

By this stage, the honking and ogling has become a game we play. We count the number of times it happens on the walk to a given place. It is never zero. If I recall, 23 was the score to beat. We had been walking less than an hour.

I go to Youth Conference, a church event. I have not escaped my watchable-ness, even on this, God’s retreat. A group of boys stare at me from the balcony. I am warned by a Good Samaritan that they are all talking about my body, sizing it up, verbalizing what they’d like to do.

Later that year, I go to a party. I dance with my friends. Two brothers repeatedly pull me forcefully away from them, trying to bring me to who knows where. I am lucky that they are too drunk to hold their own.

All my male friends have posters on their walls of women they like to look at. Women whose personalities they do not know, whose words they’ve never heard in person, whose thoughts they’ve never thought about. Women who are just to be seen. Women are just to be seen.

The talk from them matches the display. Who is hotter in Hollywood is as deep as the discussion gets. Oh and, “Dude, did you know that she has a pic where you can see her pubes?” A hole. Not a whole.

I am 15 years old: I’m in high school for the first time, hanging out with my girlfriends. Within the first week, a group of senior boys start to snap photos during lunch when our backs are turned. They start a collection. They sweetly tell me all about it. “We have a picture of your ass in our ass-pic collection. It’s so hot.” I smile.

One of them takes it upon himself to come to dance practice each day and give me emphatic hugs with his sweaty body. They are emphatic enough that it’s obvious he has been dared to do this. A game. I am a game.

During performances — at school sporting events — we have coins thrown at us. We can be bought. Our bodies can be bought.

I work at the mall. A male patron/friend asks to give me a hug. I say “okay.” But this is a hug where he grabs my butt with both hands and pulls me deep into his crotch area, eyes glazed over, breathing heavily. I am frozen.

Same job, different time, different person: a 30-year-old (he’s told me), mudflap-girl-clad, d-bag patron asks me out on a date. He knows I’m 15. An obvious no, but still that he would even ask me??? A silhouette, such as the infamous mudflap girl, is a body devoid of detail, devoid of person, devoid of humanity. It is an object. Displaying it is a sign of lust for the object. A sign of lust for women’s bodies. Not women. Just their bodies. It was a staple on his wardrobe. And in this case, it was clear that he wanted, in particular, a young body.

Other patrons showered me with their lovely, non-stop chatter about the bikini-model trading cards they were collecting. “Dude, I got one with a piece of her bikini!” “Holy hell, that’s so hot.” We are objects for collecting (I mean, if we’re hot enough. If not, we’re just objects to be discarded).

The honking and ogling has not stopped or ceased. Hordes of males crick their necks (purposely exaggerating it to make sure I know), they laugh and guffaw, they elbow each other and point, another “Damn, girl” comes at me by the minute. Walking to work one day, I am even groped by a man riding by (fast!) on a bike. I have a daydream of slamming that bike into traffic.

My second boyfriend decides to call it quits after only about a week of going out (because I won’t make out with him). His friend and I play the game of “Was that a compliment or an objectification?” as the friend generously explains to me that “I told him he wasn’t going to find anyone hotter than you.” This is what matters. How hot we are, how we look, what we’ll do.

My third boyfriend breaks up with me as well (after I wouldn’t let him feel me up). A completely different friend also plays the game of “Was that a compliment or an objectification?” as he lets me know, “Well, he did say you have a basically perfect body though.” I guess It’s just my personality that’s lacking.

But when did anyone ever tell me I was supposed to share my personality with these boys? I have one. I just thought it was supposed to stay hidden. Oh I see, I am supposed to be the object of your every sexual desire and keep you entertained when you’re done using me sexually. I get it now.

Later that year, I have a different group of guy friends. We enjoy an evening in a hot tub and then go home to hang out. Everyone sits on the couch talking, but another guy (a friend of a friend), very drunk and half-asleep, proceeds to grope and pull and drag and mount me. He’s trying his best to kiss my neck, to touch my chest, to pull me in as I shove him off over and over and over again. No one does a thing to help. This is what I am there for, after all. The kind of thing you just keep around in case someone wants one. Like a twelve pack of beer.

A random, 18-year-old guy (he said he was 18, looked more like 20) named Steve gets my address from a friend and shows up at my house. I have been introduced to him fleetingly just one time before. He comes right in and convinces me to let him hang out for “just a minute.” He asks me about church…and then he asks me about drinking and partying (I don’t do either). He tries to kiss me, and I show him the door. Before he leaves, he forcefully pushes me up against a brick wall and kisses me anyway. Then he tells me that all my friends said I was gross and had bad hygiene. I guess he gets off on the slut-shaming bit. I am lucky my dad shows up and tells him to go. He is much bigger and much stronger than I am.

At the end of the school year, I review the signatures in my yearbook. One of my favorites comes from a guy who has once lovingly reminded me that I really ought to shave my legs every day, rather than ever other day, looking out for my best interests as a female object of what men want. The yearbook sentiment: “Brie, when are we going to fuck?”

I am 16 years old: I find a group of friends who cares about me and my personality. But they struggle, as all do, to treat humanity as humanity should fully be treated. I paint a picture of my pain — a woman in a shower with the darkness running from her hair down her body. As I reveal this piece to a male friend, looking right past the pain, his immediate response: “That’s hot.”

An impostor joins my group of friends. It is difficult at first to see the manipulation, easier to see in writing in hindsight. He is addictive in that he almost pathologically obsesses over me and yet in word he is gruesome. “I hate your taste, I hate how you treat my friends and family, I hate your personality,” comes between the lines of his every sentence. He starts waiting outside my window at night. Every night.

Another impostor joins the group for a short time. On this warm, summer night, he flirts and pulls me into his blanket as the group is out for a walk by the pond. We all sit in a van, I in my own row. Then he literally pulls me over the armrest into the front seat with him and kisses me hard. I scramble back to my row. I tell him “no.” I explain why it’s a “no” (I’m dating someone). He pulls me again and kisses me so hard I cannot talk. He shoves his hand inside of me. I gasp for air and say “no” again. Exacerbated with me (I mean I shouldn’t have led him on by sharing that damn blanket), he and his driver-side buddy open the sliding door to the van and push me hard to the ground. I stumble down to a knee then try to play it off as funny, as the door is slammed shut behind me. I walk home by myself in the dark, all my other friends still in that van. I am embarrassed and ashamed.

My friends remain in good company with this impostor. They had talked to him and he had said I was lying, so that was that.

I find a therapist. On the second session he asks me to come in without my mom (I’d asked her to be part of the sessions). Then he asks me excruciating and meticulous details about my relationships, like whether I had ever reached orgasm. I think of the lyrics to a favorite song:

Oh doctor, doctor, can you fix me, can you fix me? Oh-ho

Oh Pretty Baby, you’re so naive — but it comes off so cute;
We don’t want to fix you.
We love you just the way you are,
The butterfly pinned to the page,
The nightingale locked in the cage — won’t you sing for me?
Sing for me, oh-ho.
Yeah, we love you just the way you are,
Crushed ‘neath fashion magazines,
Trampled by circus pony dreams — won’t you kiss me?
Won’t you kiss me, oh-ho.

I am 17 years old: I always carry a knife in real life. At the same time, I have dreams of being pursued by lustful figures, of stabbing these rapists. But the knife never hurts them, the phones never work, I can never run fast enough. They always laugh about it.

As time goes on, the knives in my dreams get harder and more destructive: I can wound, but I still can’t maim.

Longer still, and now I can fight back, the phones work, the knives slice, I find cars to flee in, but it’s still about the fight, flight, or freeze. The trauma is still there.

And the objectification doesn’t stop in real life. People meet me and tell my boyfriend (an amazing person, finally) that I have a “nice rack.” Men, panning me up and down, sensing the newly-formed darkness and danger, tell me I have a unique look, as something destructive flashes in their eyes.

I am torn. My arms are torn. My clothes are torn. I am tired of being “pretty.” I am making my own progress, but I cannot stop the world from constantly, constantly watching and stalking and commenting.

I give in. I no longer want to be loved. I force my appearance into the ground. And now I am faced with the whispers that come from friends of friends. Whispers of “What happened to Brie?” and “She used to be so…pretty.”

“I don’t want to be seen as a pretty thing, ’cause it’s the pretty things that we’re always breaking”

I am 21 years old: I have found a middle road. I am standard. But it doesn’t matter. People (many) congratulate the once-boyfriend-now-husband on his score. “Your wife is so hot.” That’s what matters, even when I stopped trying to be counted as such. Even when I tried to hide myself. Relatives comment on my breasts. Co-workers of relatives comment on my breasts. Great breasts. As though they are cuts of steak. You can’t really hide breasts. And so the men stare and their necks crick, they elbow each other, they point.

I am 25 years old: A baby born to me and my body healthier and even stronger than it used to be, I have started to just try to be me, whatever I want myself to be. And I still get the looks, the honks, the stares. Some are more benign, kind even, than others: “You look amazing, by the way.” That one (from a stranger who didn’t know I’d had a baby) kind of made my day. “You don’t look like you’ve had a baby” was also kind, especially since I knew it came from a law school co-ed who was learning about domestic violence prevention. “How do you get your body to move like that?” came another at a Zumba class. Objectification or sincere compliment on my dancing abilities? I didn’t know. In context, kind; en masse, another addition to the mountainous emphasis on female appearance.

I am 30 years old: I cross the street, heading to the building where I try to prosecute criminals who sexually abuse children. “Thank you!” comes the cajoling, riotous cat-call from a honking and speeding car, “thank you” shouts the second male, in the passenger seat, leaning out the window and whistling. They aren’t thanking me for my job as a prosecutor. They aren’t thanking me for my kind heart. They are thanking me for existing for their viewing pleasure. For walking across the street so they could see the movement of my legs and imagine what they’d like to do to them. They are thanking me for being an object. They, and dozens of others who had done similar things to me throughout my career there.

And it isn’t just strangers. Harassment in the workplace is subtle, but ever present. It comes from judges who think they can comment on my appearance (repeatedly) and from drunken superiors who say just a little bit too much or get just a little bit too close, all the while sending the subliminal message: “thank you for existing for my viewing pleasure.”

I am almost 32 years old: I have seen enough neck-cricking, pointing, elbowing, and sick gestures to know when I am being watched. I have heard enough whistling, honking, cat-calling, and “friendly greetings” to know when I am being used. I know how prevalent it is. I am aware. I am aware when I go to the grocery store alone. I am aware when men at the department store make up questions to ask me (questions that Google could have told them in seconds ). I am aware that they know nothing about me except how I look. I am aware when I go to the car wash that I have to bend over to vacuum out my car and what that means for the hungry onlookers. I am aware — when I walk alone — of the exact distance between me and the group of men who just elbowed one another and stared. I am aware of their movements, of whether they’re splitting up or not, of my proximity to the nearest building and whether it’s open or closed, of their possible speed, of my possible speed, of whether or not their clothes indicate they could be concealing weapons, I am aware of the fact that it takes emergency services 6 minutes on average to get to an emergency, and I am most certainly aware of what all can be done to me in 6 minutes. It doesn’t take long.

And I am sick. And I am tired. Of being aware.

I am tired. I am so, so tired of being the object of desire — the addiction — for the psycho-sexual deviants and for the locker-room jocks and for the good ‘ol boys and for the packs of every other man-wolf out there. I am so, so tired of being aware.

From birth to age four, I had a body that was my own. I wore the clothes that felt comfortable. I sat how I wanted (except when I had to sit still). I stood how I wanted. I slept without visions. I awoke without stares. I walked without whispers. I ran without fear. I dreamed without death. I am lucky I have memories that go back that far — a safe space for me to retreat to.

From ages 32 on, wouldn’t it be nice not to have to be aware anymore? But then, Me Too. A lot.

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