“You’re going to need this.”
I remember my mother’s words clearly as she handed me a small makeup pouch. She was smiling, encouraging me to take it from her. I reluctantly took the pouch and stuck it inside of my backpack for the next day at school. At thirteen years old, my period had finally arrived.
Over the years I continued the habit of carrying my feminine products around in inconspicuous bags. “That way,” my mother had explained, “you won’t have to make a scene if you need to go to the bathroom.”
A scene. Despite my mother’s good intentions, she had set me on an educational track that taught me I should be ashamed of my own biology. If I openly discussed my menstruation, proclaimed that I needed a bathroom pass to change my tampon, it would inevitably make others uncomfortable.
My experience is not an isolated one. Girls are constantly reminded that a major characteristic of their femininity should not be talked about. “When girls first start their periods, they embark on a decades-long journey of silence and dread” (Jones, 2016), says Abigail Jones in her article “The Fight to end Period Shaming is going Mainstream.” Unfortunately, the forced silence does not end with menstruation, though for many, it’s where it begins. During young women’s most impressionable years they are conditioned to ignore the implication of school dress codes that tell children their knees are too sexy—a distraction to the young men in their classes. To keep walking as if no one is bothering them when strangers shout and catcall them on the street. To laugh along when someone makes a snide comment about female intelligence.
Individually, these circumstances do not appear threatening or malicious; teaching girls to stay silent or to ignore uncomfortable situations is a way to create polite adults who are only confrontational when absolutely necessary. Therein lays the problem. Just because something is not born out of malevolent intention, does not mean that the outcome isn’t dangerous. A lifetime of being told that their voice, their opinion is irrelevant or will make others uneasy when faced with minor female-belittlements, can lead to greater problems later in life when true dangers arise.
When it comes down to it, the reason women are not taught to be vocal from childhood—from the first bathroom break they take to swap out their pad—is to maintain a comfortable environment for men. Ask any woman if she has a story from when a man asked her if she was on her period because she appeared to be in a bad mood, received a blatantly obvious one-up from a stranger while wearing a dress or was told to take the catcalls she received as a compliment, and I guarantee the percentage of women who respond “yes” will be astounding—to men. Women will not be surprised because this is the painful reality of our day-to-day lives.
This is an exhausting reality to experience, but more importantly, it is a dangerous one. Someone who has been trained from a young age to be embarrassed anytime they feel uncomfortable by a woman’s-issue is significantly less likely to report sexual harassment, domestic abuse or sexual assault than a woman taught to vocalize her discomfort.
“It is believed that only 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police” (MCASA, 2010), explains the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Reasons victims remain silent include:
- Fear of reprisal
- Personal matters
- Not important enough to report
- Belief that the police would not do anything to help
- Belief that the police could not do anything to help
- Did not want to get offender in trouble with law
- Did not want family to know
- Did not want others to know
- Not enough proof
- Fear of the justice system
- Did not know how
- Feel the crime was not “serious enough”
- Fear of lack of evidence
- Unsure about perpetrator’s intent
While all of these reasons are valid, they are nonetheless frightening. Notice the repetition of the word “fear,” the reoccurring thought that others finding out what happened to them would be shameful, the belief that their experience is not worth complaining about and the fact that some victims don’t know who to reach out to.
All of the reasons female survivors give for not reporting their abuse can be traced back to the conditioning they received as children. That being said, this cycle of silence does not have to continue and can begin much earlier than a daughter’s first period.
Dr. Bob Sege, the director of the division of family and child advocacy at Boston Medical Center and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, advises parents to teach their children to say the word “vagina” as freely as they say “toes” or “chin.”
“It makes communication clearer because [children] can tell someone, ‘He put his penis in my vagina,’” Sege explains. “More importantly, it communicates that the adults can hear about that part of the body… [and that] it’s not something [children] have to hide” (Flam, 2013). Parents who educate their daughters to speak freely about their anatomy encourage openness later on.
It is impossible to completely protect women from sexual assault, but it is possible to teach them to feel comfortable reporting their abuse. Conditioning begins during the developing years. Adults have to make the decision to educate children and provide them with a safe environment to share their feelings about themselves and the society they live in.
For another look at why women do not report their abuse please read, “Want To Know Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault?”
- Bahadur, N. (2016, October 13). Want To Know Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault? Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.self.com/story/why-women-dont-report-sexual-assault
- Flam, L. (2013, April 23). Just say ‘vagina’: Using correct body part names empowers kids, experts say. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.today.com/parents/just-say-vagina-using-correct-body-part-names-empowers-kids-6C9551650
- Jones, A. (2016, July 21). The fight against period shaming is going mainstream. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.newsweek.com/2016/04/29/womens-periods-menstruation-tampons-pads-449833.html
- (2010). Reporting Sexual Assault: Why Survivors Often Don’t[Brochure]. Silver Spring, MD: Author. https://ocrsm.umd.edu/files/Why-Is-Sexual-Assault-Under-Reported.pdf