I had my first kiss just before I began my eighth-grade year. The kiss led to a make out session, which then transformed into vicious rumor that I had gotten fisted — yes, you read that right, fisted — at age 13.
I recently watched Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” and while I’m glad the show has fired up the important and controversial conversation about teen suicide, I’m disappointed it hasn’t been the catalyst for a bigger conversation about an age-old double standard: that boys can do everything to seek sexual pleasure while girls can’t.
It’s not just an overused trope in young adult literature and television, it’s a reflection of society now. In eighth grade, my school “Hannah Baker-ed” me, too.
Sometimes as adults, we forget a rumor can snowball. And in a small town, a rumor like getting fisted doesn’t go away. For ages, a fist pump in the air meant something a whole lot different than victory. I endured endless tormenting from both boys and girls because I was dubbed the “easy chick.”
That summer, a boy I liked and had tutored in math invited me over. We watched TV, he kissed me, and we agreed to go further. What happened next, plenty of people have opinions about, but all that matters is that everything was consensual.
A few weeks later, when I approached the crowd waiting outside the doors on the first day of school, something was up. Literally. Several guys held their fingers or pencils in the air and sang “Pop Goes the Weasel,” except they inserted my name and swapped “weasel” for “cherry.” By the end of the day, plenty of guys felt fine cornering me for the sordid details or to grab my ass.
Over the years, the rumor changed slightly to include a tryst with a goat — such is the creativity and cruelty of rural America and teenagers.
I still don’t know who spread the second rumor. The boy involved had moved away before the rumors began. In retrospect, one of the friends I told had reacted in disgust, but what does it matter? Everyone wanted to believe the juicy story of a good girl gone “bad,” even if it wasn’t true.
Laughing through the pain
I’m 38 now and can laugh at the absurdity of the whole story. In some ways, I laughed back then, too, but my laughter had a much different reason. I was determined not to let a falsehood take me down.
I laughed to shove back the shame everyone wanted me to feel. I also laughed it off because it was the polite thing to do, and that’s how we teach girls to behave, especially in the Midwest. Also, laughing at the absurdity of the stories is partly what helped me cope. I could envision my future away from the ridiculous situation, and I worked hard to bring it to fruition. I took solace in writing and my dreams of being a journalist.
A lasting impression
Despite my coping mechanisms and love for school, I can’t say the rumor didn’t shape me. I continued to participate in activities, like becoming the editor of my high school paper, but I withdrew from certain friend groups and poured myself into an unhealthy, isolating relationship that took me years to get out of.
Looking back, I know I was tired of wrestling with my self-image and others’ perceptions of me. If they were going to see me as a fallen one, then I was going to date someone who was absolutely not good for me. Without fully understanding why, I think I was trying to prove that words didn’t hurt me.
Taking back my power
I can guarantee I wasn’t fisted, but I had gone as far as what the Netflix show depicts as “third base.” That didn’t make me a bad girl — just like it never made him a bad boy. Part of me always knew this truth, but accepting it was a learning process.
Understanding it affected how I treated female friends when they discussed sex with me. They thanked me for being so nonjudgmental about their stories, because I understood what they wanted to know: We don’t become bad based on the sexual choices we make.
I wasn’t a bad girl because of the choices I’d made that summer, and I’m not bad for any sexual choices I’ve made going forward. When I finally understood that, I was able to take charge of my sense of self and take back the power this rumor had over me.
Desire and pleasure have nothing to do with being bad. Girls, too, have the right to be unapologetic about sex. As I’ve grown older, the pervasiveness of this bad-vs.-good mentality surrounding women has shocked me. It lives everywhere, including in the media and the workplace, where adults of all genders aren’t immune to gossip and rumors. Bullying isn’t dished out just in our youth, and underlying mental health issues can become downward spirals at any age. It’s an ageist myth that adults have better coping skills than teens do.
How we can solve the larger issue
We need to be having the talk — in the media and at home — about equality and respect surrounding sex. We need to be having it with children of all genders, early and often, too. Throw out your rules of what you deem normal or appropriate, because those ideas contribute to the good-vs.-bad mentality and can even breed rape culture. One of the best current resources is Peggy Orenstein’s book, “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated Landscape.”
Talk about bullying and how it’s never appropriate to gossip, spread rumors, or harass someone else. If you’re harassed, talk to someone you trust — a parent, a teacher, a counselor, or any trusted adult you can find — and if that person fails you, find another. There’s no reason to face bullying about sex, identity, personal interests, or anything else, for that matter. I was fortunate to have a few teachers who intervened to make sure I was okay, and I hope you can find someone, too.
Moving on and making peace
Remember this: You know your truth. Share it. Based on the show’s premise alone, “13 Reasons Why” ignores how suicide doesn’t give you a voice. Despite her tapes, after death, Hannah lost the power to control her story.
Because a rumor may never die.
Long after I had moved away and become a journalist, I went back to my hometown to visit family. I happened to stop in a gas station where a former classmate, whom I barely remembered, was working the cashier. I paid for my purchase, but as I walked out the door, he held his fist up in the air and said, “Hey, Jenny, can I have my watch back?”
I’d love to tell you that I had a snarky remark like, “You’ll have to find a way to buy another with your meager gas-station paycheck.” But he wasn’t worth my voice. In response, I held my own fist up with a finger in the air, strolled back to my car, and drove out of town.
In that town, I might always be “the girl who got fisted.” That rumor is part of my identity now. But I embrace it, not as some source of pride about such an absurd action, but rather as a fact that I’ve moved past this nonsense situation. I’ve grown and taken back my story, because a rumor is just that: a rumor. And you don’t have to give it any piece of you.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.