I wish I had shaved my legs. I really should have shaved my legs. I was about to shave my legs, but then I heard the sharp tone of my mom calling my name from downstairs. We had been fighting all Sunday. So instead of shaving my legs, I rinsed off and hopped out of the shower.
The next morning, as the slippery hand of a boy I’ll call Jake slid up my thigh in the middle row of a yellow school bus, all I could think about were my hairy legs. “Are you nervous?” he asked as he plowed through the unshorn thicket of thigh hair. “No,” I said. I was sure that any moment he’d rip away his hand, a fog of disgust creeping across his face like he’d suddenly smelled my underarms. Blood would trickle down his fingers and drop from his elbows as he showed me his maimed hand, shredded by my sharp, barbed-wire leg hair. “Are you nervous now?” he asked again, tracing the belt loops of my khaki cargo shorts with his palm.
I was very nervous. I was nervous that he would tell the boys in our grade the hideous secret of my briery thigh stubble. I was nervous that he could see the expanding rings of sweat in my gray V-neck. I should have never worn a gray shirt. I knew better! But mostly I was nervous that during all of this, when my beastly adolescent body had betrayed me so badly, as he moved his hand up my abdomen, that surely my tender solar plexus was not the goal destination of this expedition. He, I assumed, had the confidence of an ill-prepared Everest climber who would risk traumatizing the rescue crew to summit the highest peaks.
But then the school bus stopped; we had arrived. Leafy branches canopied us in the cul-de-sac of our private, suburban middle school in New York. Jake removed his hand from my midriff, swung his backpack over his shoulder, and walked down the aisle. And that was the end of the game. Indeed, this was all “a game.”
The pimpled perpetrators of my middle school would sneak attack the nervous game with a thigh grab whenever the mood so struck them: field trips, bus rides, birthday parties, TGIF recess. Girls remained on guard. Swiper, no swiping! As an adult, I’ve heard my friends recount this boob-grabbing, vagina-cupping sport, too, calling it various names depending on where they grew up. “Are you nervous,” “touch touch get a little bit,” “the nervous game,” and “feel-ups.” Regardless of its moniker, all versions operated virtually the same, teaching boys with blotchy beards and scanty pubic hair that women’s bodies were theirs to grope, prod, and fondle, so long as they did it in good fun.
In 2009, I did not own the language to articulate my discomfort. All I could grasp was that within the parameters of the nervous game, I had yet to find a winning option. The odds seemed fixed in favor of the boys. I could either abort the game prematurely and admit my nervousness, pegging myself as an inexperienced prude, or I could betray my boundaries and permit a set of sweaty hands to feel up my body. Either choice left me vulnerable to whatever label came with my decision. Slut. Whore. Prude. Loser. Were these my only options? But even with the losingest odds, playing was always better than not getting the invite at all. An unsolicited touch was some small validation that I was worth fondling.
How could an experience so oddly specific to my childhood be universal among the women I know? One study found that 56 percent of teenage girls in grades 7-12 experienced sexual harassment on school grounds in the 2010-2011 school year, much of it physically intrusive in nature. In middle school, during the clumsy period of early adolescence, interest in sex is intensifying, and thirst for information, experimentation with thoughts, and surveying of peers’ attitudes often spill onto school pavement. Games function as a form of exploration in a format familiar to children—rules, transactions, and pacts. On school pavement, teams are often divided along gender lines, and girls are taught a lesson, too. “All socialization of girls is grooming them to be more pliable for heterosexual male advances,” Dr. Sharon Lamb, professor of counseling and school psychology at UMass Boston, told me. “So why do it in a game? Because it gives a level of approval to it.” If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.
We always suspected that in this country women’s bodies are not their own to govern. When we got our confirmation, it precipitated an inward look on our own histories of personal autonomy and self-ownership. Jake’s hand probing my pubescent body stuck out as a strangely overlooked aspect of my childhood. Was this sexual assault? Child-on-child sexual abuse happens when a child initiates a sexual encounter with another child “without consent, without equality, or as a result of coercion,” according to a 1993 definition from the National Task Force on Juvenile Sexual Offending. The relentlessly coercive nature of the nervous game fit that definition. In 2022, with a clearer understanding of what is at stake, I wanted to know why these games are played, and how they both illuminate and warn participants about whose bodies are available to touch, judge, and control.
Whether it was the nervous game, truth or dare, seven minutes in heaven, or spin the bottle, those who wanted to initiate sexual contact were at an advantage, as the games encouraged, if not demanded, touching. Among my peers now, touching is precluded, ideally, by active consent. Sexual contact made without an enthusiastic “yes” is a date gone wrong, a creepy co-worker sent swiftly to HR, and for celebrities, often a cancelable offense. But when I was a child, consent was not talked about, and boundaries weren’t defined by it. If participating in the games was agreeing to the rules, then the contract drawn up was flawed, assuming consent for whatever followed.
“How can a developmentally immature child of 12 fully understand the possible consequences of being touched up in public by some sniggering boy?” said Dr. Eileen Vizard, child and adolescent psychiatrist and expert on sexually abusive behavior exhibited by children. She questioned whether “the age of consent to creepy little games, which are kind of softening children up for real sex” should be the same as the legal consent age, meaning no child could actually consent to playing them. In the U.S., the age of consent varies by state between 16 and 18, years older than the middle school culprits I had faced. “The fact that it’s being done by one child to another has nothing to do with it. It’s the behavior we’re talking about,” Vizard said.
Within clinical psychology, the growing field of research on child-on-child sexual abuse spurs discussions of what is “normal” in childhood play. “Assumptions of abuse arise when children’s sexual curiosity extends beyond what is considered appropriate or normal,” said Dr. Paul Flanagan, senior lecturer on counselor education at New Zealand’s University of Waikato. But there is room for debate about what constitutes “normal” sexual behavior in young people to begin with. Flanagan was quick to tell me child-on-child sexual abuse must “be qualified” with context. “When you were speaking about the idea of ‘are you nervous?’ there seems to be an element of consenting by saying ‘no.’ Which means ‘carry on,’ right? So there’s a kind of playfulness there,” he said.
Lamb believes that yes, children can abuse other children, but depending on the age difference, she characterized instances of what some would call child-on-child abuse as “in the realm of bullying and coercion that goes on in children’s play.” “I feel very protective of kids, because I think kids experiment,” Lamb said, “and they need to make mistakes in order to develop, and some of those mistakes will be bullying.” She also criticized “the height to which people are comparing [bullying] to adults abusing children,” adding, “I don’t think children should necessarily be put into detention centers.”
Vizard is uncompromising in her opinion of the nervous game assailants like those my friends and I faced. “They certainly don’t fall into a category of normal sexual exploration. Because they’re making each other feel nervous. Because somebody’s creeping up your leg towards your private parts—that is not normal.” What if that behavior created a new normal for game participants—“normality” defined by the active players and instilled in the passive ones in these first sexual encounters?
The lines between experimentation, bullying, and more serious abuse are for many experts subjective and context-driven, especially among children. But those I spoke to agree that displeasure like the kind I felt in the nervous game could not be called normal.
“The slightest sort of innocuous game can have hugely traumatic effects on one person,” Lamb said. “I wouldn’t say it’s abnormal to have a strong reaction. And I wouldn’t say it’s abnormal to brush it off as a children’s game.”
If games are clammy-handed pantomimes of society at work, then they act as unwanted prophecies, priming game participants for what is waiting for them in adulthood. “In the future, there are going to be consequences for saying ‘no’ too early. Or for not saying ‘no’ strong enough,” Lamb said. “Think of Aziz Ansari.” She was referring to the #MeToo allegation against Ansari in 2017, when the internet engaged in a fierce debate about whether a bad date with Ansari qualified as sexual assault. An anonymous woman told the website Babe.net the comedian attempted to pressure her into sex, ignoring both verbal and non-verbal cues urging him to stop. “It was 30 minutes of me getting up and moving and him following... It felt like a fucking game,” the woman said. Among children, a game, as Lamb explained it, becomes “an enactment of the status quo, which is girls as gatekeepers, and the tricky line that girls have to walk between being called prudes or a slut.”
The nervous game planted a seed of doubt under my skin that was watered by every man I’ve dated since. “How many guys have you been with?” one boyfriend asked as we played footsie under a high-top pub table. Like the nervous game, there was no correct answer to this question. Any answer at all was permission for judgment as he pictured other hikers climbing through my mountain range. My body became a battleground for ownership where I was perpetually on the defensive. In college, an unwanted touch morphed into other unwanted things. The stakes were higher but the rules to the game seemed timeless: Terminate the game and you’re a tease; cede your defense and deal with the consequences tomorrow.
Before it gets to that point, Flanagan said that adult reactions are one of the most important factors in fostering positive experiences with sexuality for children. When behavior is discussed and mistakes are corrected, there’s an opportunity for growth. But when adults respond to adolescents with shaming, “they’re going to take on a notion that anything sexual is dirty and rude and has to be hidden,” Flanagan said, adding that parents, teachers, and counselors should ask questions to try to better understand a child’s motivation before defining a situation. Again, context.
With the proliferation of language around sexual assault on sites like TikTok, I am relieved for—and sadly envious of—today’s young people, who seemingly have an earlier entrance into exploring topics of agency, sexual harassment, and their overall facility. In the “Put a Finger Down” challenge on TikTok in 2021, for example, teenagers took the opportunity to share stories of sexual harassment. But offscreen, families often struggle to broach these topics. Dr. Maureen C. Kenny, clinical psychologist and expert in childhood abuse, can identify a direct correlation between adolescents who come from homes where sexuality is talked about, and those adolescents’ ability to delineate and articulate boundaries. “It’s great for the schools to cover sex ed, and I wish they would,” she said, “but it’s really got to come from the home.”
In New Zealand schools, sexuality education starts from year one, “with preventative, safeguarding work around helping children to know the names of body parts and how to tell people if they’re not feeling comfortable,” Flanagan said. In the U.S., a child is lucky if they get any kind of comprehensive sexual education at any age that doesn’t hinge solely on abstinence. As Kenny pointed out, the government won’t meaningfully fund sexual abuse prevention programs for school-age kids.
At my private school in Long Island, sex education was casually thrown into our “Health” curriculum. I don’t remember much of what was covered other than a sheet where I had to identify the fallopian tubes. What I do remember is that my middle school health teacher was known to make inappropriate remarks on his former female students’ Facebook pages. I still have the screenshots.
For those who didn’t find a way to voice their boundaries until it was too late, newfound language doesn’t necessarily come with newfound salvation. A decade of discussing the nervous game has given me words to describe my discomfort, but not the tools to find that winning option I always searched for. At the ripe age of 12, I believe that Jake meant me no harm. A decade later, I hope that he’s had time to reflect like I have. If only we all could learn from the mistakes we made in the middle rows of a school bus.
I’m going on a first date this week and I anxiously anticipate the acrobatic tightrope-walking to establish myself as neither prude nor whore, the unforgiving dichotomy instilled in me when I was 12. As I explore the playground as a metaphorical site for intimidation, accountability, and growth, all it does is remind me that my adult landscape is little different. I was then, and still am, very nervous.
Alessandra Schade is an arts and culture journalist based in NYC. She writes about the overlapping worlds of nightlife, sexuality, music, and subcultures.