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
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,
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,
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
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.