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Anyone who meets current, 20-something activist me, would probably describe me as crass, outspoken and abrasive. I talk smack about the patriarchy for a living and am pretty darn good at it. But teenaged me was shy, awkward and determined to remain in her parents’ good books.
I went to a Catholic school run by nuns and stayed out of trouble by having a long-distance boyfriend. Living in a small town, there were few employment opportunities for high school kids. I was stuck in that “Can’t get a job because I don’t have any experience but I can’t get any experience until someone gives me a job.” So I did what most high school students in my situation did: I did a ton of baby-sitting.
I baby-sat my little cousins, I baby-sat these adorable rich kids down the street and I baby-sat two boys who one day, sexually assaulted me.
It’s only now, as someone with a decade or so of experience supporting survivors of violence that I call what happened to me sexual assault. Most survivors take days, months and even years to define their experience as violent because most us are assaulted by partners, family members and acquaintances. In my case, I was 16 and assaulted by a 9 year old and his 5-year-old brother; not exactly an obvious “I am the victim of a crime” kind of situation.
I had baby-sat for them maybe a couple of times before that infamous night. They were fairly wealthy, lived in a really nice house and had all the essentials baby-sitters love: A fridge stocked with food, satellite TV and fairly obedient and cooperative children. They also paid more than the going rate at the time.
The exact details of what led up to the assault that night are pretty fuzzy to me now; a combination of fading memory as time goes on and an immediate desire to forget it happened. But the exact moment in question I can remember in vivid detail.
I was a very active baby-sitter, shamelessly running around the house with the kids, playing make-believe and going along with all the weird imaginary worlds that kids’ create. On this night, we were running around their basement, climbing on furniture and playing a variation of tag meets Julie-is-a-monster-chasing-after-us.
I remember standing and growling at them, while they laughed along and then the oldest charged at me and in the process, grabbed at my chest. It’s still not clear to me if this was accidental or “testing the waters,” but I clearly reacted in a shocked way. Then he furtively put one hand up my shirt and the other down my pants. His younger brother saw what his brother was doing and joined in. Before I knew it, I had the both of them jamming their fingers into my underwear while grabbing at my breasts, laughing at me.
I was yelling at them to stop and shoving their hands away but they were on top of me at this point, pinning me down. I remember grappling with two simultaneous thoughts “I need to get them off of me” but “I can’t hurt them or else I’ll get in trouble.”
I was their baby-sitter. I was in charge of making sure they were OK. I was 5’10 and 16. They were in kindergarten and grade school. If I harmed them in defending myself, who would believe me?
I eventually managed to heave them off me and stand up in one swift motion. I tried to give them a stern “That was NOT OK. You should never do that!” but I was holding back tears and clearly lacked any tone of authority.
They just shrugged and went off to play with their Gameboy while I counted down the minutes until their mother got home.
When the doorbell I rang, I sprang up the stairs and quickly threw on my coat and shoes. She asked me how the night had been and I gave a quiet and non-committal “Oh it was fine.”
The youngest son had followed me up the stairs and as the mother turned to ask her son how his night went, he blurted out “We were playing and me and John* wouldn’t stop putting our hands down Julie’s pants and up her shirt. She was mad but it was funny.”
The mother immediately turned scarlet with embarrassment and started apologizing profusely as she fumbled with her wallet to find the money I was owed. In turn, I apologized, told her it was no big deal and we both played this weird dance of awkwardly rambling on too fast, talking over each other and apologizing to each other while the young kid just looked on.
She mumbled about how it would never happen again, that she would talk to them, Oh my god I’m so sorry until she gave me way more money that I was owed and I showed myself out the door.
I needed a shower.
The experience itself left me shaken, but the fact that I was essentially paid for the experience made everything worse. I was mortified, ashamed and confused.
Fast forward to present day Julie. I spend my days advocating for sexual assault survivors and educating the public at large about rape culture, consent and healthy relationships. Lately, I’m spending most of my time working with middle school and high school youth.
Schools are struggling with a “sexting” epidemic and acting so darn surprised that young people are so public about their sexuality. To add fuel to the fire, we have parents who adamantly refuse to recognize that their children pressed “Forward” rather than “Delete” when someone else’s naked photo came across their screen. Or that their children are assaulting people in the flesh.
But clearly, we gotta get real about what youth are up to. In Canada, the demographic most likely to perpetuate sexual violence are young men between the ages of 12 and 17. Yes, you read that correctly. Twelve and seventeen.
So why are people so surprised that I was assaulted by a 9-year-old and his little brother? Was it because I was so much older? Was it because I was physically bigger? Or is it because we really can’t conceive that children that young are capable of sexual violence?
I have so many of my own questions about the experience. Namely, how did a 9-year-old get the idea to do that? Was he mimicking behaviour he’d seen on television or worse, in real life? Had someone abused him or was he the witness to violence against someone else?
Looking back, one of the most surprising things about the assault was their mother’s reaction. The fact that she didn’t even take a split second to question what her son said has always nagged at me. I fully expected her to refute what her son had said and either point the finger at me or dismiss his comments. But she didn’t. (And what does that say about rape culture that I was surprised to be believed?!)
Their mother’s total remorse and immediate response made me wonder: Had they done this before? Was she aware of anything going on?
What’s haunted me the most about this experience is wondering what ever happened to those boys. I’ll never know if this was an isolated incident or a preview of horror to come. Unsurprisingly, their parents never called me again.
Present-day-Julie keeps on fighting rape culture and advocating for the voices of survivors. And I am lucky to be supported in that. When I told my father I was going to write this story, he told me that sharing our stories is how we create change and keeping things a secret means protecting the wrong people.
And so I tell. And re-tell. And keep telling. And hope that in doing so, nobody else has to experience the shame and horror that I did.
*Not his real name