Last week we asked you if you remembered getting checked out the first time by dudes, and you told us. Though women are certainly not a monolithic group, it’s startling how universal some of our experiences are. To find out, just ask some ladies what it’s like to live in a female-identified body, sit back, and bum the fuck out.
Inspired by a reddit thread asking women if they remembered being checked out by dudes for the first time and how it felt, we put the same question to our readers, and got similar tales of shame and embarrassment, of feeling somehow responsible for eliciting lust.
I still remember how traumatized the first time I was street harassed by a grown man (I believe I was 12?), and my immediate impulse was to blame myself. (In fact, I raced home to change because I was convinced it was my fault for wearing a tank top and shorts on a hot summer day.)
5th grade (‘90 or ‘91). The boy sitting next to me rubbed the hair on my leg and told me I should shave. I did. My Mom was like WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING??
FieryAntidote recounted this chilling tale:
To me there is a HUGE difference between attention from boys of the same age and from adult men. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t get attention from boys. Sometimes it was awkward (being pelted by rocks) sometimes it was sweet (like the boy who kissed my hand in the kickball line in 1st grade and proposed. He left me the next day for Nicole, the heartbreaker). I was never traumatized by attention from boys my age. I even liked some of them back, rock pelting aside. But I was scared when grown men started making sexual comments and looking at me oddly. I think I was 8 when I started noticing grown men coming onto me, but I also had some odd things happen when I was 5. I have one very very distinct memory of being 9 and wearing a Christmas sweater with a huge Peter Pan collar. I had a red headband with a big bow. I went into a store to buy milk while me mom waited in the car. The store owner was really intense and followed me out to confront my mom to tell her that i was a huge temptation to men and she needed to be with me or someone might rape me. She also remembers this and was traumatized.
I actually believe most humans are good and am very trusting. But I’ve looked into the heart of darkness.
I don’t remember when boys started checking me out, but I remember grown ass men being creepy as hell. I was about 12 years old walking home from my mother’s job (less than 1/2 a mile from our apartment) when a guy in a car pulled up beside me and made lewd comments about how pretty I was. He kept gesturing for me to get in his car. I turned and headed in the opposite way, and he actually circled around the block. I saw him cruising slowly as I hid. Once he took off, I ran home. I have never been so terrified in my life as I was during the exchange.
I also remember being cat called at by taxi drivers as I walked to the bus as a high school freshman. Ugh.
Yes, I was 16 when this happened and I developed a major attitude toward men as a result. Some old ass man at a water park wanted to take pictures of me and my friends in out bathing suits. He said he was a “modeling scout.” (sure). We said “no thanks” and he kept hounding us about how he was the “real deal.” I was so enraged that I ended up cussing him out LOUDLY to embarrass him for even thinking that at least one of us had some damn sense to see through that.
I was a really aggressive teen. Lol. But honestly, I felt I had to be in order not to be taken advantage of or abused in some way. I thank God I had parents who encouraged me to always defend myself against people...both my age and older.
momthecoach relays this creepy memory:
When I was 12 years old an 18 year old senior boy told me that I “had the body of a 20 year old and he could show me how to use it.” at a joint HS/MS choir concert. I remember sort of just slinking away from him completely freaked out, and a sophomore I knew said to me completely straight faced, “Stay away from Sid, he rapes.”
We all wish gross men understood this salient point from Vwolf:
I wish gross men understood this about young girls: when you’re young, you like the attention of boys. Not of old men. Once you realize adult men are checking you out, you feel gross. Being teachers, parents of your friends, neighbors, friends of your parents, the attention of a grown ass man is UNCOMFORTABLE. And gross.
And to young girls, old can be even a man still in his 20’s. If he looks much older than my friends, he’s OLD.
This is sadly all too common, as this mention from artless.dodger illustrates:
St. Jude’s Bike-a-thon. I was about 12 or 13, skinny as a rail (I was a late bloomer). I was BOOKING IT, back and forth on this road that they used to count as our “laps” that we were sponsored for. By booking it, I mean, out of my bike seat and just pedaling standing up. A man working one of the lap stations at the end of the road told me that he “wished he was my bicycle seat.” At the time, I thought he meant because I wasn’t sitting on the seat much. After I told my mom that I did so well and repeated what he said, I wasn’t allowed to do the bike-a-thon anymore. Eventually I figured out what he meant.
And then there’s just this terribleness from cat-cha-cha:
Completely agree. When I was 12, my mom’s loser boyfriend reportedly told her he was moving out because he couldn’t handle the temptation of my developing body. She told me so that I would never go near him again and suddenly I understood all his comments about eating my vegetables to support my budding womanhood or how much the boy-next-door’s eyes were gonna pop out when he sees me in this shirt. :(
It just goes on and on and on like that, like this account from TeamRBG:
I grew up as a figure skater. I would often to go the grocery store, etc after practice with my tights and skating dress on. One day, I went out and checked the mailbox in front of my grandparent’s house before heading to practice. My grandmother noticed that a guy was, literally, hanging out of his truck, gawking at me. A few days later, my grandmother had a knock at the door and a guy said he was there from The Home Depot, my grandmother said she did not order anything and closed the door. After he left, she realized it was the same guy who had been hanging out of the truck, oogling me. From then on, I had to wear pants over my skating clothes on my way to and from the rink. I was probably 12 and was NOT an early bloomer.
I feel like FeministKittenjoy really sums up the paradox inherent here with this comment:
Being suddenly sexualized, after years of being ignored because I wasn’t one of the “pretty” girls, really fucked with my head at 13. Especially because it wasn’t like the boys suddenly found ME attractive; they just liked my tits. I know this because they didn’t ask me out or want to date me. They just gawked at my chest.
Years later, I’m still grappling with how to own my own sexuality, with wanting to feel attractive while also not wanting to draw attention. It’s exhausting.
Via email, I received a heartbreaking account from a reader in Sweden about her experience with an older man when she was 10, which laid the groundwork for a young lifetime of fear-driven experiences with men:
I must have been about 10-11 years old, still years away from puberty (I was really late). My mom left me at the library while running some errands - this was the first time I was all by myself in town. An older man, around 40, sat down next to me where I was sitting in the kid’s books section. He sat too close. No one else was around. He pretended to read some magazine but was constantly staring at me, and my legs. I wore my new green mini shorts. I loved them. They were the only cool piece of clothing I had ever owned. I was genuinely terrified, too scared to move. There was something about him and the way that he approached me that made me scared enough to become apathetic. Nothing more happened, after about twenty or so minutes my mom came and picked me up. She alerted the staff that a creepy man was hanging around the children’s books behaving strangely. I never wore those green shorts again, because clearly, it must have been them that caused that man to feel entitled to invade my personal space. I felt very guilty that I had not walked away. For the following ten years I had a few good experiences with guys, but mostly bad ones - they all had in common that I found something about myself to blame the situation on. I never said stop. Ten years later I was raped. I did not fight. I just said no, quietly. Then I stopped saying no and waited for it to be over. The apathy again that I had felt so many times around men that were in some way taking advantage of me. The fear that something way more horrible than this could happen if I spoke my mind too clearly. Another ten years later my then boyfriend stepped over the line and tried to force me while drunk one night. I stood up for myself. The next morning I told him (while sweating profusely - standing up for yourself for the first time is very scary) that his behaviour had not been acceptable the night before. He agreed. A little while later I broke up with him, there could never be trust again. But damn, I now trust myself to be allowed to have a say in what goes on with my body. I can do whatever the f*ck I want and no man will ever scare me into silence by his mere presence again. I stare down creepy guys in the subway that stare at me until THEY avert their eyes. And in this I have re-found my own sexuality and can for the first time feel secure enough to say what I want in bed. I am free from you now, stupid library man.
And another account in email also underscored how lasting the impact of these early experiences can be:
The first time I realized a ‘dude’ was ‘checking me out’ was on my 12th birthday. I have pretty clear memories of my childhood, but on my 12th birthday the details are a secondary blur to the lingering and latent trauma I experienced. I was in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, stalled at a red light. Braided pig-tails, and a light-blue Paul Frank hoodie (you know, the one where he’s in braces - wish I could still rock it). I happened to be crying (I was a really sensitive kid, then hormones kicked in - fuck).
I looked over to my right and a man presentingly older than my dad was sending kisses my way and gesturing for me to come into his car, indicating, that he - at the very least could turn my frown upside down - HE could make me feel better. I was immediately shocked, the safety of my mothers car had been violated by a complete pervert. I had no idea how to protect myself or my mother (who was oblivious to what was going on anyways). Already emotionally wound up, I made a split second decision that remains one of the highest points of my life — I FLIPPED HIM OFF. I - flipped him - the fuck off. My finger stayed high and I confronted the feeling of adrenaline mixed with justification, vindication, disgust, fear and shame for duration of our time on the same road.
When my mother realized what I was doing (cursing was not tolerated in our home) she was livid. When I justified my actions, she deplored me not to engage - to ‘ignore’ it. This incident, including my mothers reaction, set the tone for how I how I continued to ‘ignore it’ for far too long. In high-school - I ignored it when ‘friends’ looked up my skirt as I’d exit their car, or when I walked up the stairs at school. I ignored it when others would aim to throw rolled up paper into my breasts beneath the crease of my polo. GOAL! I ignored when they would ‘hug’ me to feel me up. I ignored it when I lost ‘friendships’ because I didn’t want to be sexual. This intentional ignorance eventually resulted in the extreme guilt I faced upon sexual assault in college and the years I wasted trying to deny what I happened - or worse yet, the years I wasted trying to maintain a ‘friendship’ with my assailant.
It took me about ten years to regain the strength and fierceness to confront unsolicited desire, but I’m happy to report that I’ve got my swagger back.
And as we’ve noted here before, girls who develop early become easy marks for easy rumors:
John Boehner writes:
I was one of the first girls to get breasts in school, so basically I was miserable for an 8 month period. SO MUCH BULLSHIT from guys that were like, 12 and trying to tell people that I’d had sex with them.
When you get boobs early on, you tend to get the big SLUT reputation through middle school. Doesn’t matter if you don’t kiss a guy until high school.
Yep. Same story here, D cup by 7th grade. I still remember finding an “I want to motorboat you” note in my locker and having to go home and Google “motorboating.” Or maybe it was AskJeeves back then? Still so gross.
Maybe someone could start a search engine called Translate Gross Dude Speak? I guess that’s what Urban Dictionary is huh.
And PS: It’s not always having boobs! You could just have ass. Like Mo did:
7th grade. I have ass. Always have. My parents were keenly aware of this and made me aware of it as well. While my little sister, who is not built like me, could wear biker shorts and certain skirts, I could not. My parents weren’t trying to be mean either. They knew. Anyway, I used to wear a long coat ALL THE TIME to not have to deal with people noticing my shape. It worked for a while but it was hot one day in class and I took the coat off, thinking I was cool cuz my shirt was long. Nope. One of my classmates said, “I had no idea you had an ass.” He teased me a lot about it in class after that until one day I had enough and kicked him in the balls. Maybe not the most savvy move, but as a pre-teen I wasn’t sure how else to address that after words had failed.
No one said shit to me about my body after that and I liked it that way.
And for the love of God is there a woman in this universe who grew up eating bananas with carefree abandon? I think not. Plant Girl lays it bare:
I was twelve or thirteen, it was the summer, and I saw my seventh grade history teacher at the grocery store. He stopped and looked me up and down, and then said, “Mmm, you’re looking blonde and tan.” Gag. Also I would like to thank middle school boys for ruining forever the experience of eating a banana without worrying about looking to fellatio-ey.
But alongside this conversation was another, which is the pervasive feeling of helplessness in the face of the onslaught of attention. Grownups had often shamed these girls for drawing unwanted attention to themselves or explicitly encouraged them to cover up, and even the well-intentioned grownups had inadvertently made the girls feel judged.
Dunemi relayed this anecdote:
When my niece was 15 or so, she told me how annoying it was to have adults tell her what she could wear, how short her skirts could be, etc.. I told her that nobody distrusts HER, but that we were worried that predatory men would see her and target her. I told her I was sorry that the world was full of these men, and we were trying to protect her. She was amazed and ask why no one had ever told her that before. She honestly thought that we were all judging her.
Worth noting: Early in the comment thread, a dad of a 9-year-old girl asked politely what he could do to prep his daughter for this experience without shaming her, which fostered another branch of discussion—the balance between helping fathers be a force of good against this negative male attention in the world without invoking the old sexist trope of the overprotective macho dad who makes it clear than any man who so much as glances at his daughter will end up in a world of hurt.
That’s kind of the rub: How to help girls feel empowered to deal with this inevitable attention without shaming them, while also allowing them the space to come of age as sexual beings who make their own choices about what they enjoy and don’t enjoy when it comes to attention and their bodies.
Lots of commenters chimed in with advice that might’ve helped them in retrospect—namely, having a present, engaged father or mother who could help them navigate the experience without judgment, shaming, or jackass-y inappropriate jokes (such as the commenter whose father jokingly popped her bra strap the day she got her first bra).
Numerous readers said that every household with a girl in it should have a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, or the teen version, Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. (Hell, every household with anyone in it needs both.)
Also critical was that fathers didn’t suddenly back off in terms of closeness and talking once puberty hit, something that increased the feelings of alienation and shame for many girls. And to not go all macho and threaten any dude who so much as looks her way with violence.
But this is easier said than done, as newalexburrito’s response illustrates in her advice to the inquiring dad:
I wish I could think of something you could do. Men often joke about meeting their daughters’ dates with a shotgun, but the street harassment/environmental harassment is really the most damaging thing to a young girl. Better she has to negotiate face-to-face with a peer about how far she wants to go while on a date than be demeaned in public or in school.
One thing that comes to mind is to make sure she knows her value as a person is related to her character and personality, not prettiness or sexuality. I remember being confused - wanting to look sexy like women in ads/TV/movies and yet not wanting the type of attention it attracted from men and boys. This is why it is so important to keep kids away from the pop culture/Kardashian kind of influence. My son and I both love dancing, but I won’t let him watch Dancing with the Stars because of the physical display/beauty/sexy focus of costumes and the dances.
My son is 10 and I never say anything to him about girls being pretty, or cute, or point out women in magazine ads and so forth. I talk about the girls who are smart, did a fantastic science project and are great friends to him.
One of the most infuriating things that happened to me in 7th grade was when a boy in art class coated his hand in printing ink and slapped my butt. The teacher was only concerned that my mom would be made about the stain and virtually nothing was said/done about the boy’s behavior. It was humiliating to be abused in that way and to have that mark on my body the rest of the day in school.
And as always, this refrain, to be shouted from the mountaintops for the rest of eternity:
I feel like we spend a lot of time teaching girls how to respond to jerks and very little time teaching boys not to be jerks.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.