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The #MeToo campaign placed a necessary spotlight on sexual abuse and rape. The #MeAt14 campaign followed on its heels after politician Roy Moore was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old when he was 32 and district attorney. The point of the latter campaign was to show what 14 looked like, reminding everyone that a 14-year-old cannot legally consent in any state.

However, there were problems with the #MeAt14 campaign that I sensed but couldn’t identify for days. Women posting pictures of themselves at 14 and telling what they were interested in during that time in life was powerful. It drew attention to how serious the allegations against Moore were, an important accomplishment since he somehow still has defenders.

Why, then, did this campaign leave me with a sinking feeling?

I stumbled across an article in the Washington Post and immediately saw part of the problem. While most girls were posting pictures of themselves with phrases about being carefree and waiting to get their braces off, a slew of already-abused girls were underrepresented. The pictures of innocence and carefree living weren’t real for girls who had already been preyed upon by the age of 14. They couldn’t put up a picture of their young virginal selves because that reality had already been taken from them.

Purity culture, an unfortunate sub-culture within religious establishments that I am all too familiar with, leaves these women on the sidelines, much like the #MeAt14 campaign unintentionally did. As a woman who survived multiple rapes during her teen years, Elizabeth Smart said her upbringing in the purity culture made being repeatedly raped even harder to endure. “After that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now?” she said,  pointing out the dangers of equating a woman’s worth with her status as a virgin.

The other problem with the campaign hit me the day after reading the Washington Post article. It wasn’t only problematic for those who had already been sexually assaulted or raped by the age of 14. It was also problematic for girls who weren’t innocent, as many described themselves in the #MeAt14 campaign, by choice.

I knew girls who fit the image of the nerd who was listening to New Kids on the Block and trying to record songs from the radio onto cassette without getting any of the commercials. Some version of that saccharin-sweet image appeared constantly as the #MeAt14 campaign rolled out.

I also knew girls at 14 who were giving blow jobs after school. These girls didn’t seem to be represented at all in the campaign, even though they also shouldn’t have been preyed on by a 32-year-old district attorney. The sexual desires and perceived innocence of girls aren’t factors when we’re talking about rape.

This campaign, though well-intentioned, played into the idea that “good women don’t get raped,” a belief that Yolanda Moses, anthropologist and consultant for preventing sexual assault, says is prevalent in our society. It’s a major reason that women adopt the approach of looking innocent, don’t talk about masturbation, and don’t express their desires. Exploring those issues is normal and expected for boys, but they aren’t largely welcome topics coming from girls.

This is especially true of women who have been raped or sexually assaulted. There’s an instinctive need to appear like sex doesn’t cross our minds, that we didn’t do anything to “deserve” what happened to us. Moses says “society tends to blame victims,” and it’s easy to look across the landscape today and see how true that statement is.

The world has a problem with girls who want: they don’t fit into the desired view of female innocence that is still seemingly necessary in order to cultivate sympathy when a woman is harmed. When a woman accuses a man of sexual assault or rape, people try to cast her as a girl who just might have sexual desires and who just might have had consensual sex at some point before being forced to do it against her will, as if these are horrendous acts comparable to her attacker’s decision to rape her.   

What would be the reaction if women actually stepped forward and said they want and that they figured out how to want at a young age? Those women know instinctively that they will not be listened to when sex is forced on them because, in the eyes of many, to express sexual desire means giving up the right to say no.

What do we do for our girls?

Girls need support, and psychoanalyst and author Joyce McFadden says that moms not talking about sex with their daughters can be life-changing in all the wrong ways. She’s found that grown daughters “felt resentful that, without support, their sexuality couldn’t be assimilated into their sense of self like other facets of living could, like their intellect, creativity, kindness or athleticism.”

We give our girls permission to be anything they want in most cases, but we still don’t want to talk to them about sexual desires and where that fits into their lives. McFadden confirms that the consequences are many, because daughters will not likely turn to their mothers for support after sexual abuse or rape if the conversations about bodies and desires aren’t taking place under normal conditions. McFadden said that the daughters “reasoned, if my mother couldn’t even talk to me about normal sexual stuff she certainly won’t be able to handle being there for me around sexual complications or traumas.”

What can we say and do to help our girls express desire and give them permission to come to us when they are harmed? Here are some ideas.

Talk about sex like it’s a good thing

Every parent is going to come at sex talks from a different place based on their values and religious beliefs. It’s still universal that sex can, in fact, be awesome.

No matter what we are telling our girls about sex, we don’t need to forget to let them know that it’s okay to have desires, to be excited about sex when it’s the right time, and to feel free to ask every question on the planet.

We also need to eliminate the idea of what Shulamit Almog and Karin-Carmit Yefet call the “humiliation scale.” This scale rewards girls who engage in sex that is considered acceptable for their gender and seeks to humiliate those who step out of line. It’s a way to keep girls who want to talk about sexual desires in line and, unfortunately, silent.

Don’t make girls the gatekeepers

The words that seeped into my brain when I was younger stuck, and they’ve resurfaced lately. They aren’t pretty. As a child and teen, I heard:

  • Women might not get raped if they dressed modestly.
  • That guy has three kids by three different women. When will these girls stop spreading their legs?
  • Boys can’t stop. They get turned on, and if a girl lets them go too far, they can’t stop themselves.
  • Normal girls don’t want sex. Boys are the horny ones.

That’s a lot of responsibility for girls. Females aren’t supposed to want, plus they are supposed to keep men’s desires in check at all times. That leaves very little room for girls to talk about and understand their own desires. It also paints men as uncontrolled animals with a testosterone overdose, an unfair depiction and a cop-out.

Don’t make girls the gatekeepers for boys or men. Don’t ever make them feel like if something happens and they come for help, they are going to be questioned about their roles in their own rapes or abuse.

Don’t give permission for others’ bad behavior

There are always going to be people who believe women constantly lie about being raped, that they somehow ask for it, or that what they wear or how they act means they deserve their fates. Speak truth boldly in the face of these lies.

There are times to let people agree to disagree, but this isn’t one of them. Speak up and speak out to help others understand the absurdity of their words and the thought processes behind them. Whether or not minds are changed, it’s important to put the truth out in the open so people who choose to be willfully blind won’t have any excuses. We need our girls to see us stand up for what is right so they will know we take no part in a mindset that says they deserve to be harmed.

The #MeAt14 campaign wasn’t bad, but like many things we try to do to prove we shouldn’t be victims of sexual assault, it put the pressure back on women to provide innocent pictures with innocuous anecdotes to safeguard them from judgment. Moore should have been the one on the defense, not women, even those who were thinking about more than Caboodles and getting perms at the age of 14. When we’re living in a world where a woman is comfortable saying she loves sex and people still understand this in no way gives someone the right to force her into sex, we’ll be making real progress.

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