Consent by Proxy

BY KATI CORLEW

My first sexual assault was when I was four

    in playgroup, on the carpet

    in the middle of everything.

I said no and he said You started it

I said no and he said It’s your fault

I said no and he said You want this

I said no and he said

    You can’t tell on me.

    You’re the one who will get in trouble.

And he was right about that.

 

My first sexual assault was a preschool introduction to rape culture

    to the power of men versus the power of women

    to the complicity of bystanders

    to the willful ignorance of authority

    to victim-blaming, to helplessness

    to society granting our consent by proxy

You see, this preschool parody

    was Harvey Weinstein,

    was Donald Trump,

    was Bill Cosby

This four- or five-year-old boy was a powerful man

  in our preschool world

  his mother was the director

  he could get away with anything

    And everyone knew it.

We were in playgroup at the time

    no dark corners, no locked closets

  He was not hiding what he did

    it was there

  for all to see

My protests there for all to see.

 

The other children did not intervene

    Well, my bystanders were four.

    They should not be expected to.

 

The adults in the room.

    Three of them

    sitting on plastic chairs,

    looking down at the group of us

    Looking away.

The questions – the answers – in my four-year-old-self’s memory

    did they not see?

    did they choose not to see?

    did they choose to ignore the Director’s Son,

  choose to protect themselves from the consequences

of calling out this wrong?

  Did they see us and think, Oh, boys will be boys

  just can’t help themselves

  Did they see us and think, she was asking for it,

  If she didn’t want it, she would  fight back,

Did they see us and think, This is fine.

  Did they see my struggle?

  Did they see the look in my eyes?

  Did they see that this was my initiation

    into rape culture

  a four-year-old’s invitation

        into the life of a woman

  What, exactly, did they see that day,

  before they avoided my gaze,

  heads turned resolutely to look another way?

 

Because I was four years old,

I was not asking for it.

Still, I learned that this was my fault, this assault

    That my nos were yeses

    That he was entitled to second guesses

      to read everything I did or said

      as permission to access my body.

    That society – the adults in the room – would tacitly agree

      would grant my consent by proxy

    That my actual consent did not play any role at all,

      in my bodily autonomy.

 

And my perpetrator, he was also about four years old.

    He was not some testosterone-fueled megalomaniac,

      raised in the 60s,

      sex-addict celebrity

He was four.

    Already he had learned his position of power

      that boys will be boys

      that men would be men

      that this is what men do

    Already he had learned that he would be granted a blind eye,

      that he could get away with anything – grab ‘em by the pussy.

He was four.

 

My first sexual assault was an introduction

    to the rape culture life I would lead as a woman

My first sexual assault was a childish recreation,

    preschool premeditation,

    prophecy, prediction,

    reflection,

    of the world we lived in then

    of the world we still live in now.

My first sexual assault was a revelation

    and not a good one

    about who we are as a society

    and what we are willing

      to allow

      to overlook

 

My second sexual assault was the next day.

The circumstances didn’t change.

So, no, I am not surprised to see this same scenario

    enacted on a national stage.

 

Kati Corlew is a poet, an activist, and a Community and Cultural Psychologist. In all spheres, her work focuses on social and environmental justice, especially regarding climate change, poverty, and discrimination. In her 2016 book Finally, A Song from Silence: Poetry from When I was Young, Corlew uses principles of developmental psychology to reflect compassionately on the poetry she wrote as a troubled, at-risk youth. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Maine at Augusta.

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