|Kim Conrey examines sexual violence in the context of the social systems we’re raised in that so often perpetuate it. Conrey bravely shares her story of experiencing assault and also retrospectively acknowledges the beliefs her female peers had been taught that keep women from protecting and respecting one another. While Conrey discusses her bad experience of the past and her worries for the future, she also includes hope in the knowledge of how to be better, teach better – how to be a better example and offer help when others need it most.|
A Drowning at Dog River
by Kim Conrey
I’m lying on the exam table and looking up at the ultrasound screen as I watch that beautiful heartbeat pulsate to the rhythm of life. I’ve just lost two babies, and I’m overjoyed to have made it this far, yet as the technician is looking to determine the gender all I keep thinking is Boy, Boy, Boy. Despite the way this sounds, I’m not anti-girl. I am one and already have one at home and she is the toughest, smartest, most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. So why the gender prejudice? As the technician verifies I’m carrying another girl, I see something else on the screen: a bull’s-eye.
In the summer of 1986 with my fourteenth birthday just around the corner, I and two of my girlfriends, Brenda and Janet, pulled onto a dirt road in an old truck with Van Halen blasting through the open windows. We were headed to Dog River. It was the best kept secret west of Atlanta and teenagers went back there to drink beer, blast music, and make out. Being both beerless and boyless, we were only there for one of the three. We parked and waded into the warm water. It wasn’t long before an open-top Jeep pulled up and four half inebriated teenage boys tumbled out. After sloppy flirting on their part and giggling on Brenda’s part, she took her top off. She adored the attention, but I was mortified. I turned to walk away but not soon enough. A couple of the boys started flipping the band of my bikini top. I yanked away but that only made them more interested.
“I mean it! Stop it!” I said.
“Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”
Baby? Apparently all grown women take their tops off, and it is only my immaturity that makes me not wish to bare my breasts before drunken teenage boys.
I had almost made it back to the truck when I heard one of them say to the others, “We’ll grab her arms. Y’all grab her legs.”
Before I could take another breath I was flat on my back with rocks tearing into my skin as I frantically thrashed to free myself. The driver of the jeep screamed into my face, his breath hot against my skin and reeking of stale beer. “Hold still, damn it!” I struggled to pull my wrist free, but I was a hundred pounds of futility and his grip was a steel vise.
One of the other boys holding me down was also trying to rip my top off with his free hand. From the direction of the truck I hear Brenda screaming, but neither girl came to my aid. Out of pure luck and adrenaline, I managed to free a foot and kick one of them in the face.
“You bitch!” he screams, cupping his bloody face.
“You broke his nose!” another accuses.
I was a bitch for defending myself. To this day I struggle to understand why the word “bitch” was spat at me every other word while the assault took place. I can’t help but wonder if demonizing a target helps the psyche justify its crimes. Or perhaps any woman that dared defend herself was wrong. This was 1980’s Georgia where, despite the progress made in gender equality, the rules of silence and cover up trumped a woman’s right to speak out.
While the boys were occupied with their friend’s bloody nose, I ran for the truck as the two others girls were already climbing in. The boys chased us out of the woods in their Jeep, throwing empty beer bottles that slammed against the back window. My teeth cracked together as the truck tires slammed into one muddy pothole after another and my torn back scraped painfully against the seats while we were thrown against each other in the cab of the truck. Janet screamed in panic each time a bottle hit the back window. We had no idea what would happen if we got stuck in the mud.
The boys continued to yell profanities at us as we fled. I’d had the audacity to shine a light on their behavior. Now their eyes were burning and someone needed to pay.
An hour later we see one of the four washing his Jeep. My girlfriend pulls up and apologizes, yes, apologizes, on my behalf. Having an hour to think about it changed nothing; he was still angry and I was still a bitch. I simply sat there while he and my friend discussed how terrible I was for making “a big deal” out of the whole thing. I had no inkling that I could and should say something to defend myself. As I went over the details in my head, all the logic said I was right, and yet, somewhere inside I felt a sense of shame that I was somehow, against all evidence to the contrary, wrong.
This isn’t just a southern phenomenon either. In college we studied the horror genre, in particular the abundance of movies where the knife wielding maniac at summer camp goes after the teenage girl. When does he typically prey on her? After she’s just had sex. Her name is usually something like Alex, Kris, Sam—names that cross gender and indicate (at least in that genre) a sexually assertive woman. The deeper meaning is that she’s being punished for her sexuality which usurps the role of a man. However, it’s my experience that avoiding it altogether also brings punishment. Either way, the female wears a bull’s-eye and often, a gag that she doesn’t know is there until the day she attempts to speak.
Now I’m raising a teenage daughter who won’t even wear lip balm when her lips are cracking. She tells me she doesn’t want to be perceived as weak. Though my “Dog River” experience is decades past, I can’t help but think my teenager’s response is an indication that our society hasn’t come as far as I thought.
“You realize this is a prejudice against your own gender, right?” I ask her.
“How so? Girls don’t have to be made up to be pretty or tough.”
“What if they want to be? Why can’t they do both? Look at Black Widow, she slaps on the lip-gloss and kicks some serious ass. What about Scarlett Witch?” Wait a minute, Spiders and Witches? Damn it, Marvel! I’m trying to make a point here! Though the argument could be made that the role of the village witch was originally a respected one, only demonized when the scales tilted in favor of the patriarchy and suddenly the wisest woman in the village was a threat.
“Don’t let the lip-gloss fool you. Your mom knows how to kick ass.” I tell my daughter how I spent years in martial arts classes. If I ever find myself flat on back again fighting for both my body, and ultimately, my voice, it won’t be a “lucky shot.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-male. Hold open the door and pull out the chair, if you wish. But I’d love a world where lip-gloss doesn’t equal weakness, modesty doesn’t mean frigid or immature, and our female peers practice solidarity.
The little girl on the ultrasound is now 6 years old. Unlike her older sister, who is so tall I have to get a step stool if I’m to be taken seriously, my youngest is petite, and I worry.
She dances into the room in a princess dress while holding a toy sword and shield. “I’m a princess ninja!” she announces.
“You sure are, sweetie!” I say. But as she leaves the room, I can’t help but feel that there’s a bull’s eye on her back. She may be tough but she’s also female. If she ever finds herself at Dog River she does need a sword and shield, the metaphorical kind, a knowledge that it’s okay for her to defend herself, that she should never feel bad about it, even when her female peers— victims themselves of a society that would demonize and silence a strong woman— are dysfunctional enough that they won’t even be on her side.
But mom always will.
Kim Conrey’s work has been published in the eQuill, The Bitter Southerner, Atlanta Parent, The Secret Place, and others. Being inspired and determined to help children through the trauma and injustice inflicted on them, she has worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in family court and served as a mentor. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and two daughters.