I was never trouble
As young as 4 years old I would be introduced to men often, usually along with my sisters, (one older and one younger) while we were at my father’s restaurant. These men (delivery guys, customers, bankers, etc) would smile and then say my younger sister was “cute” and my older sister was “smart”. And then, regardless of whether I stood quietly or spoke up I would hear the same thing: “that one is going to be trouble. You’re going to have to beat the boys off with a stick”. They would say it with a smile and wink.
I got attention from men. It began young. I was thin, dark skinned, big brown eyes, long eyelashes, deep brown hair, a smart mouth, a quick mind. I enjoyed crafting arguments, talking to adults, talking to strangers, practicing outwitting people, mastering the double entendre at a young age. Growing up in a restaurant I considered the employees, most of whom were transient adults, my friends. I knew about things kids probably shouldn’t: I knew the manager knocked up the waitress; I knew the waiter didn’t have allergies but a nasty cocaine habit; I knew the dishwasher wasn’t tired but he was drunk; and I knew that some men made me feel safe and some made me uncomfortable.
In the past few weeks the term ‘rape culture’ was introduced to me. It has had me thinking back to my early childhood and how being labeled “trouble” has impacted me. I never understood why they said it to me and I never connected it to rape culture, until now. I now am on a mission to make sure no one ever calls my girls “trouble”.
When a man tells a girl (or a woman for that matter) that she’s trouble it’s not a compliment. It’s not the same as telling her she’s beautiful or valuable or intelligent or even desirable. What he is really saying by telling her she is trouble is that others won’t be able to control themselves around her. That her very presence brings out the worst in others. And for me, being called trouble at a young age taught me that the behavior of men towards me was my fault – because after all, I am trouble.
When I found my voice and complained about men whose hands would linger too long on my back, or sit too close to me in a booth blocking me in so I couldn’t get out or think it was funny to lock me in a walk-in box with them, I was told to just ignore them. I learned not to bring it up anymore. I learned to deal. I learned it was my fault, because I was trouble. Being called trouble by grown men effectively silenced me. It made everything that ever happened to me my fault. It allowed others to treat me in a way that I can only explain as disposable or less than. I was a temptation and that was my fault. The way I was handled, abused, or spoken to would always be something that I was at fault for.
Because I was trouble I never told anyone ever that in the 8th grade as my parents sat on the back deck barbecuing with friends I was inside watching a movie with our guests’ teenage son who thought it was funny to pull his bathing suit down and rub his penis on my face while I was pinned to the couch.
And because I was trouble I never said a word when, as a freshman in high school while I walked back from the office and the halls were empty, I was grabbed by an upperclassman who pushed me face first against a locker and rubbed his hand against my crotch telling me he liked my jeans. I told no one. That was in 1991. I still think about it. I can still feel the cold metal against my face, I can still feel his hand on my wrist holding me against the wall and his other hand with fingers together rubbing back and forth against my clit through my jeans. It was 25 years ago and my heart is in my throat writing this and my hands are cold and I am still mad and embarrassed and feeling like I am choking on a scream. He let me go, laughing while I walked back to class straightening my shirt.
But I was trouble. I was told I would have to beat off the boys. This was my lot in life. Who was I to complain? I should be lucky I got so much “attention” my girlfriends would say when guys catcalled me. Until now I honestly thought this is just what it’s like to be attractive. The price I would pay for a pretty face. Somehow I should be flattered.
Because I was trouble no one took me seriously when later in high school my guy friends left me alone in the woods with an older neighbor who pushed me down in the dirt, his drunk hands on my thighs trying to kiss me and I found myself running full sprint through woods to find my way back to my friend’s house. I told them – “that asshole was gonna rape me” and they laughed. But I meant it. Later that same night the neighbor told me I should “lighten up”.
And, now in my late 30s. I had just begun seeing my current boyfriend. One night we went out where we met a group of strangers who warned us about a drunk man at the bar. Later that same man walked up to me and drunkenly said, “Hello.” I held my drink up higher to put more space in between us and before I could say anything he put his arm around me, his hand on my right ass check, his fingers in between the crack of my ass and pulled me into him. I was wearing a dress. His fingers were thick, hard and fat. I yelled and with my drink in my hand tried to push him off of me. Instantly my boyfriend pulled the man off of me and pushed him shouting. I stepped far away and pulled my underwear out of my ass and grabbed a napkin to dry the spilled drink off of my arm.
We left. Walking for a few steps before my boyfriend broke the silence. “No one will ever treat you like that again. Ever. Never.” And he held my hand. We talked while we walked. I believe I said “It’s okay” more than a few times. “It’s just the way it is,” I would say to him. But you know what? It is not okay – it has never been okay. And I have never asked for this. And I have so many stories. Worse stories. Scary stories. Stories that the only thing good about them is that I am alive to tell them.
I am going to be 39 this year. I know now what those men meant back in 1985 when they first called me trouble. When a young girl is beautiful, fiercely independent, funny, smart, mischievous, creative, and quick witted and a man calls her trouble what he’s really saying is she won’t be easy to control. She has a spirit that will need to be broken. She is a threat to him. And so he calls her trouble, to devalue, to shame and to blame her for the atrocious behavior she will experience at the hands of men who see it as their job to make her subservient, to put her in her place.
I know now I am not trouble. I never was. Now I know my value. The only people who see me as trouble are the ones that fear my potential and want to hold me back.
When I see my daughters being tenacious, beautiful, smart, relentless, and full of fire, I will not call them Trouble. Instead I will call them Promise, Change, Hope. I will call them Leaders. I will call them the Future because that is what they really are.