Note: This commentary covers the triggering topics of sexual assault and trauma. If these make you uncomfortable, we urge you to stop reading. If you are have been a victim of sexual assault, please reach out to a trusted friend or family member, or contact the Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE. The Vashon DOVE Project also provides a wide range of services to support domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, find out more at vashondoveproject.org.
In mid-April, I started an important and long-overdue conversation in my Junior English class at Vashon High School. The class had begun the book Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and within the first 20 pages, I had already begun to recognize the narrative.
For those of you who don’t know, this book is one that deals very personally with assault and abuse. I want to be cognizant that this book is one of the few books in our curriculum by and about a Black woman. It serves a different and important function in English class to most of the books we read, but they are all a part of a larger pattern. And while it is more graphic and more explicitly about these same themes, my issue is not with it specifically, but rather the wider culture.
Our society spoon-feeds women assault stories from a very young age, and I got sick of hearing them. This led to an impassioned speech given in my English class, and then again in my teacher’s fourth-period class, and now I write this commentary, hoping to gain community support for my effort.
My teacher was kind enough to offer an alternate book to read for those of us who find the material too difficult to manage. While this is a good solution for some books, it still places students in an uncomfortable position where they must decide between a more thorough education and their own safety. Furthermore, repeatedly subjecting students to this kind of material desensitizes them to it, and it teaches many young women that these stories are simply a reality of their lives.
People socialized as women grow up hearing these assault narratives over and over, told as bedtime stories and warnings and we learn the morals well. Don’t walk alone at night, make sure someone always knows where you are, and yell fire, not rape. I don’t remember when I learned these lessons, but I know I’ll never forget them.
Fairy tales, the news, and family horror stories weave themselves into a waking nightmare and teach many of us that it’s not a question of if but when. Even if you do manage to escape childhood without your own nightmare to add to the pile, we’ve all been taught the same thing, both in class and out. Sometimes you have to read between the lines when the gender of a pig is aggressively emphasized, and sometimes it’s not even disguised when your teacher tells you to “pretend like it never happened.”
Autonomy is an illusion. Your body is not yours. No one is interested in protecting you. These are the lessons I learn every day, and honestly, it’s exhausting. Trying to fight these messages is a constant, daily battle, and without the proper support, it often feels like I’m fighting alone.
I’ve read this story almost every year since sixth grade, found it in Giambattista Basile’s Sleeping Beauty, the hunt scene of Lord of the Flies, Curley’s Wife in Of Mice and Men. Women are taught that our place is to be assaulted and die: nameless, but with every crevice of our bodies described.
I’ve already learned my role in society, and yet English class is still determined to remind me of it. It’s the same every year. Trauma on a silver platter is still trauma, and when my grade depends on my interaction with it, you’ve barely stopped short of shoving it down my throat.
There is a place for these kinds of conversations; it’s important to discuss rape culture, but in general, these conversations are not actually happening. We are not discussing the genderedness of this kind of sexual trauma and abuse, and we are not discussing how we are going to combat it. Instead, we are exposing students to horrific and scarring content, and then grading their analysis of it, or debating whether or not the events count as assault. As though that is something up for interpretation.
There are a lot of ways school curriculum and culture are failing us — from sexual assault being woven in from a very early age, to a lack of diverse voices and perspectives. This is not something that can be fixed overnight, nor is it a problem with an easy solution. But it is something we need to change; it is irresponsible to ask students to silently stomach atrocities that many of us know very personally.
I want to be clear that this is not a direct attack against any individual. This is a systemic problem, and it takes systemic changes to fix. It’s bigger than any one person, it’s bigger than this school district, and it’s bigger than even this community. But right now this is what I have access to, and I decided I could no longer, in good conscience, continue to silence myself.
Katherine Kirschner is a junior at Vashon High School, a proud member of Vashon’s Teen Council, and co-chair of Washington State’s School Safety and Student Well-Being Advisory Committee Youth Advisory Council.