I was in the 5th grade, sitting down and unpacking my purple, plastic lunch box, when I first experienced sexual harassment. At my school, cafeteria seating was assigned, and I had been instructed to sit between a group of boys I came to call “The Pervs.” There was Jorge–with his red-lipped joker smile, Fernando–the lanky kid with the round-framed glasses, and Carlos–the tamest of the three. Sometimes the other kids nearby would join in, but it was mostly them making the comments, the so-called “jokes” that I inevitably found unbearable.
My memory is a bit hazy, but there is always one incident that I remember clearly. And I can recall this vividly because it happened on multiple occasions. My mother packed a lunch for me every day, usually consisting of a bag of chips, a Handi-Snak, a Little Debbie snack cake, and some sort of juice box (how I survived childhood on this diet is a whole other subject of discussion).
Sometimes, I would get a Capri-Sun bag for my juice box. Other times, I’d get a Juicy Juice. But back in 1995, one of the more popular fruit-flavored sugar-water options marketed toward children was a brand of juice bottles called Squeeze-Its. The whole point was that you ripped off the top and could squeeze the juice into your mouth. Adults reading this might already have an idea of where this is going.
In the 5th grade, I was a young girl, just 11 years old. I was incredibly naive for my age in regards to sex. We had taken Human Growth and Development classes in school already the previous year and again that year, but the classes mainly covered what genitals looked like (as diagrams), and how they functioned. Sexuality wasn’t really covered. I knew that a man and woman had sex and the man’s sperm somehow made it to her eggs, etcetera. But as an 11 year old, I had absolutely no idea what on earth oral sex was.
The Pervs, however, apparently did.
I wish I could say verbatim what kinds of comments they made whenever I brought those Squeeze-It bottles to lunch, but nearly 20 years later, I can’t say that I fully remember. But I remember the laughter that erupted every time I brought my juice to my lips. I can still see them pointing and yukking it up at my expense. I think I remember asking them why it was so funny, and having them respond with more laughs. At the time, I had a vague idea that it had something to do with sex and maybe a penis because the bottle was, indeed, somewhat phallic looking. But at that age, I had absolutely no idea what on earth sexual harassment was.
When I first started Kindergarten, my mother warned me never to follow any strangers, especially not men. Especially not the janitors or security guards, she would warn. She told me if anyone ever tried to get me to leave with them, I should run and scream and look for my (female) teacher or some other trusted adult, and that I should tell her if such a thing should happen. It never did, thankfully, but what my mother never warned me about, what she perhaps didn’t realize, was that those harassing me in any way would actually be my own age. My peers. My pre-pubescent classmates. Kids who had older siblings or cousins who had taught them jokes about sex and sexuality. Kids whose parents were perhaps more crass than my own. Kids who maybe already had internet access or whose parents never learned to block the “adult” channels. Kids who laughed when a little girl tried to drink her juice out of a bottle instead of just allowing her some peace at lunch time.
I was too shy to tell my mother anything. Instead, I hoped and prayed that my mother would pack a Capri-Sun with my Lunchables Pizza instead of a cherry Squeeze-It. I began to dread lunch time with the Pervs, especially Jorge, who was the cruelest and most unrelenting of the three. He was also the kid who decided to whip out of penis and pee on the floor of the Planetarium during our field trip to the Science Museum–an incident that resulted in the entire 5th grade class losing the privilege of having Field Day at a real park instead of the school P.E. field.
On a particularly trying day, I was in tears by the end of lunch, and sought out my teacher, Mr. Hernandez. He took me into a back room and asked me what was wrong. I told him that the boys that all sat with me had been teasing me about my lunch, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to explain the harassment to him.
“You know, next year you’ll be in the 6th grade. Crying like this every time someone bothers you isn’t going to make it any better, so you should probably try to get over it and stop,” he told me bluntly. Did I mention I was 11 and being sexually harassed?
Maybe if he’d been a little more empathetic, he would have gotten to the root of the problem. Instead, he brushed it off as a little girl being overly dramatic and made me feel as though I were somehow at fault for what was happening to me. While I was pissed back then, but slightly appreciative of the advice (which, however cold, was sound since middle school was much more brutal), I would love to talk to this man now and let him know how easily he failed me, and possibly other children who were having similar issues.
Part of me wants to brush it all off. “It was just boys being boys,” right? Except it really wasn’t okay. The fact that I had anxiety-induced stomach aches from sitting with these boys when the teacher could have just as easily moved my seat to a different table, or separated the boys in that group to other tables, is absurd.
A recent study done on middle-school children found that 25% of boys and 27% of of girls had experienced some form of sexual harassment at school, either in hallways or the classroom or the locker room. And this is only a small sample, not to mention many kids will never speak up at all or even know what is happening to them. The study also found that the overwhelming majority of these kids were quick to normalize their harassment as “jokes.”
“We are not talking to kids about what sexual harassment is. We are not talking to kids about boundaries,” [principal investigator of the study, Dorothy] Espelage says. “So when these things happen, they don’t know what to call it. They may know they feel uncomfortable and they can tell us it was upsetting to them, but the adults around them aren’t necessarily talking to them about their rights.”
Dorothy Espelage gets it, so why didn’t Mr. Hernandez? Why did I have blame for my crying placed on me rather than reprimanding the boys who caused my tears in the first place?
I’ll file that one under Bullshit From My Childhood for now.