The Unending Assaults on Girlhood

Rape culture permeates adolescence. The lessons that it teaches girls cast long shadows.

A grid of yellow rectangles superimposed over a photo of a girl hugging her legs on a couch
Kypros / Getty / The Atlantic

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.    

Girlhood, Melissa Febos writes in her new essay collection of the same name, is “a darker time for many than we are often willing to acknowledge.” The overall impression she creates is a collage of discomfitingly familiar rites of passage, all distinct and yet all tied together by a thread of learned self-abnegation. The book reads at moments like a meme built from various half-buried abuses and indignities, in which you pick the ones that apply to you—“Tag yourself. I’m Sexually Harassed as a Teenager by My Middle-Aged Boss, but also Stalked on the Way Home From School and Consented to Acts I Didn’t Want to Do to Avoid a Worse Outcome.” Febos is an intoxicating writer, but I found myself most grateful for the vivid clarity of her thinking. During girlhood, she argues, “we learn to adopt a story about ourselves—what our value is, what beauty is, what is harmful, what is normal—and to privilege the feelings, comfort, perceptions, and power of others over our own.”

The week I read this book, seven women and one man were murdered in Atlanta by a man who seems to have resented his desire for women so much that he decided to kill some of them, privileging his comfort over their lives. That same week, a document drawing from hundreds of reports alleging rape, assault, and harassment at my London high school and its brother institution was made public. The file, an open letter to the headmaster of the boys’ school, Dulwich College, is filled with stories of violations both large and small that girls minimized because, like Febos, they were taught extremely early on to protect boys from the reality and the consequences of their behavior. The document is painfully long; each story tore at my heart and made me burn with useless rage.

I haven’t vetted the stories and don’t know whether they’re all true. (The school’s headmaster responded by condemning the attitudes and behavior detailed in the letter, and he has since passed on allegations against specific students to the police.) But they track with my experiences, and with those of the women I’ve spoken with who attended my school over the past three decades. Woven throughout the accounts is an ingrained acceptance among all parties that this is just the way things are, and that questioning it is pointless. “I pretended I was asleep,” one young woman recalls about realizing that a group of boys had surrounded her in a bedroom after she had passed out at a house party, “as I didn’t want to make it awkward for some stupid reason.”

The story that girls are taught to adopt, as Febos puts it, is not a logical one. To internalize it requires a lifetime of careful conditioning, and an absence of anyone trying to counter it. I graduated 20 years ago, but as far as I can tell, the culture I remember remains intact without a corrective—only now those who have been conditioned to abuse have more tools with which to do so. When I was 16 (puts on senior voice), texting was still so new that you had to request it as an upgrade; not one week after I did, some friends of my first boyfriend, an arrogant kid on the hockey team, sent me a string of misspelled messages calling me a frigid bitch for not sleeping with him, and detailing exactly how far he’d gone with a different girl to get what they saw as his due. If they could have, I’m sure they would have sent proof. A decade later, when my sister was attending the school, she told me that nudes and revenge porn had infested its culture as silently and damagingly as moths colonize a closet. Misogyny will always occupy any space it’s given. Expecting girls to be able to stanch its creep by themselves is too much.

To be a girl is to be perfectly vulnerable to predation: sexual, emotional, and even intellectual. It isn’t just one school—a slew of others have begun addressing charges that current and former students have raised in recent weeks. And to be clear, a culture of institutionalized misogyny also puts queer people in danger, and people of color especially so; the Dulwich document contains a whole section on how the alleged “discriminatory worldview” of certain students encouraged homophobic abuse and racialized violence. In the absence of specific lessons that emphasize self-worth and autonomy, internalizing the things some boys say they’re entitled to becomes disturbingly easy. As teenagers, we were taught how to put condoms on bananas, but not how to ask boys to wear them. We were taught trigonometry and Catullus and the history of feminism, but not how to apply the idea that we are equal human beings to social situations in which we are seen as prey. We were also taught to prickle with shame for being frigid, or being easy—a taxonomy so reductively designed that it leaves little room to simply exist. For decades, Febos notes in her introduction, “I considered it impossible to undo most of this indoctrination. Knowing about it was not enough. But I have found its undoing more possible than I expected.”

Progress, Thoreau wrote, is when we “unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before,” which is likely the most insight Thoreau ever had into the hostile state of female adolescence. Unlearning is what Girlhood is all about. Febos is a memoirist whose previous books, Abandon Me and Whip Smart, laid bare her history as a professional dominatrix, a writer, and a heroin addict. Girlhood, though, struck me as more of a treatise. It’s disquisitive and catalytic—it doesn’t demand change so much as expose certain injustices so starkly that you might feel you cannot abide them another minute.

When Febos was 11, a girl growing up on Cape Cod, her body began to change. “Before puberty,” she writes, “I moved through the world and toward other people without hesitance or self-consciousness.” But the metamorphosis of her physical self changed the way the world related to her. Her mother bought her a book, The What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls, which explained the hormonal changes but not, Febos writes, “why grown men in passing cars, to whom I had always been happily invisible, now leered at me.” Or why an older boy at her bus stop now repeatedly chased and spat at her, or why a 25-year-old man followed her into a bathroom. That event became a story passed around by Febos’s friends, one eventually reclaimed by Febos. In hindsight, Febos is an obvious victim, a child devoid of power. In her friends’ reading at the time, her new physicality was responsible for what happened, and something for which she deserved to be shamed. The scene exposes how insidiously childhood logic twists events into a kind of poisonous pretzel, infinite and self-perpetuating.

This upside-down logic pervades the accounts of things Dulwich College boys are alleged to have done. At 13, one girl recalls, she went to a party with boys who encouraged the girls to take shots, even though they’d rarely had alcohol before. “Soon I was being pressured and essentially forced into giving one of them a blow job with my friend,” she writes. “We both reflect on this in horror now but at the time were labelled slags and felt we deserved it.” There is, and always has been, a trap within the bafflingly short virgin-whore continuum: Girls are shamed into doing things they don’t want to do and then shamed for doing them. Another girl, too drunk to consent to sex with the boy she says raped her, recalls how she later overheard him excoriating her to his friends for being too lazy to get on top. When I read this, I thought about the first season of Game of Thrones, and how Daenerys Targaryen compels her rapist to be nicer to her by essentially putting on a more exciting performance when he rapes her.

Untangling the lessons of girlhood from the cultural works that teach them to us is impossible; they are often our most committed teachers. Febos lucidly scrutinizes the movies that taught women to accept stalking as a gesture of devotion. In 2004, when she was in her 20s and living in Brooklyn, she was reading one night when she heard a male voice outside her bedroom window. “Pretty girl,” the voice said. “You touching yourself?” She froze; she pulsed with terror; she realized he couldn’t actually see through the window shade, which was drawn. That meant he’d been watching her long enough to know who she was. She wondered what she might have done in the past to catch his attention. “How brazenly uncareful I had been to stand naked in my own bedroom,” she thinks. “We all know,” Febos writes, with irony, “the ways women invite their victimization by walking after dark, wearing short skirts, or having big breasts. The pathology of victimhood would also claim that self-blaming and shame were my very ordinary attempt to explain what had happened to me, to assert control over it by assuming responsibility.”

But then she thinks about Brian De Palma’s movie Body Double. The homage to Rear Window and Vertigo is about a man who begins watching a woman who dances every night in front of her window wearing only panties. This voyeuristic act is presented not as a violation but as an appropriate response to a woman who is clearly performing. This kind of narrative, absurdly common in popular culture, exonerates men, Febos writes: “If we want it, where is the crime?” She flits through some of the stories that have reinforced this pernicious myth: Revenge of the Nerds, American Beauty, Animal House, Porky’s, The Girl Next Door. “What a powerful message it is,” Febos continues, “that your body ought to be available to any man passing by. It will only inconvenience you to protest. Better to tolerate it. Reframe it as nothing memorable, as a joke, as journalism, as privilege, even as a precursor to love.”

What is a demand for nudes if not an enforcement of the belief that women are supposed to perform for male pleasure, and even to want to do so? One girl in the Dulwich College document recalls how, while she was having sex with a boy, she turned around and saw that he was filming her without her permission. “I started crying and felt even more uncomfortable and scared that he had that power of the video over me,” she writes. Another girl remembers being filmed without her consent in a compromising position at a party, and the resulting videos being posted all over social media. “Since then,” she writes, “I have been incredibly paranoid in any kind of intimate situation or party, I feel as though I can’t enjoy myself without the fear of being watched or ridiculed.”

When I was thinking about this story, I asked my sister whether she remembered receiving any meaningful education about consent as a teen; she said she didn’t, and asked her friend’s sister, who graduated high school three years ago and remembered a single video with no follow-up discussion. (In recent weeks, petitions have been circulating in the United Kingdom demanding that the government build into the national curriculum better education on consent, sexual violence, and harassment.) One bizarre lesson my sister did recall involved policemen coming to school to teach internet safety. The assembled girls were told to imagine that they were chatting online with “Nadia,” a supposed peer, only to have an adult man surprise them from behind a door at the back of the auditorium, saying menacingly that he was Nadia. When I heard this, I couldn’t stop laughing. It’s exactly the kind of slapstick, quaintly uncool scenario that cops would dream up to terrify teenage girls, and that teenage girls would entirely ignore. Not trusting the Nadias you’ve never met is, mostly, obvious. Not trusting the people you know, the ones you’ve grown up with, is much harder. To do so is to reject your own instincts, your entire history of being. I still struggle with it. And I am so tired.

School is where you learn what you are worth. Not your actual value as a human being, which is a much more complicated blend of the person you’re trying to be and how you treat others, but your social worth, an arbitrary appraisal by others that’s inherently flawed and yet hard to shake, even in adulthood. It’s a construction, and a trap. Febos refers to Foucault’s panopticon, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze, and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as she analyzes how women are constantly surveyed in the world—how, often, their response is to begin surveying themselves through the same defective lens, and to find themselves unworthy. This kind of self-scrutiny, Febos writes, “is an integral part of the mechanism that induced my own bifurcated self-image at eleven years old, at fourteen, at twenty-three.”

Enough, we should say. Male pleasure is not paramount. Boys do not get to keep shaming and bullying girls into doing things they don’t want to do. Boys should want not to do this. Not incapacitating girls until they’re beyond refusal or blackmailing them into sending nudes should be a point of pride. And girls should learn to resist those who propagate the lie, as Febos writes, that “women’s bodies are inherently defective, aesthetically defective … We are too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too dark, too stiff, too loose, too solicitous, too yielding, too assertive, too weak, or too strong.” We should question why, as Febos puts it with bracing simplicity, “both men and women prioritize the comfort and wellbeing of men over women’s safety, comfort, even the truth of their bodily experience.”

To do all this isn’t easy. The established, false metrics of self-worth are insidious and serpentine. Jumping out of a door in an auditorium is easier than explaining the nuances of consent and self-love. But changing the lessons of adolescence is important. I never once needed trigonometry and I couldn’t find Catullus in a crossword these days, but Febos’s education is a kind I surely could have used.

By Melissa Febos

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.