Personal Stories

What I Learned About Rape Culture From My Swimming Lessons




By Tiffany Isesele

I don’t believe in horoscopes or astrology but I’ve always found it ironic how my horoscope sign is an Aquarius, which is called a water bearer. I originally thought Aquarius was a water sign because of that, and I found it interesting because in my mind it made me sure that I was linked to water.

I love water, always have, always will. My parents told me that as a toddler I would take shoes, clothes, dolls, any and everything I could lay my hand on and put them in buckets of water.

Even now, I’m intrigued by water, I’m intrigued by stories of people who are linked to water, stories of mermaids or mami water. I loved reading about the water babies, I love reading about Osun and Poseidon. My favourite sport to watch during Olympics are the water sports.

It was no surprise to my parents when I mentioned my interest in swimming lessons. There was only one proper pool where I lived at the time so my parents inspected it, and my brother and I were enrolled in swimming classes.

I remember this one time I was walking from the dressing room to the pool. I was a kid, I’m sure I wasn’t a teenager at the time and I remember the pool was filled with some young guys who catcalled for about 5 minutes. I felt so scared, and all the adults around me laughed. In one breath, I was told not to have worn something so provocative, and in the next I was told to take it as a compliment.

None of the guys were reprimanded, though they left the pool. I learned two things during those swimming classes; I was taught that I should hide my prepubescent body and that when men made me uncomfortable I should take it as a compliment.

When the coach that everyone knew touched women in the pool groped me underwater, at first, I was told to change my swimming suit, and then after told to change the coach. I did both, and the other coach did a little more than grope me underwater. But at that point I had learned to keep quiet.

I had internalized the idea that I was either very attractive, or I had dressed too provocatively. The most sensible choice to me at the time, just about to hit puberty was that I was really attractive. And so I kept quiet, but I
stopped swimming, I stopped talking to the coaches. I just played with kids who visited at the shallow end of the pool.

After a while I stopped going to that pool; they were renovating it, and since there were no other pools, I stopped swimming. But though the pool stopped existing and the coaches had no contact with me, they still followed me.

The men changed faces and names, I would encounter them on the road, and they would try and corner me when no one was looking in my house. The pool became the road when men cat-called, the offices of those men that I would have to enter because I was running errands for my parents.

And even when I stopped running errands that would bring me in contact with one man, the next guy would try and do the same thing. It was like the swimming pool and the male coaches all over again.

These were all hidden cases, they all happened when no one was watching. But even in public, I was reprimanded for a guy approaching me, or if a boy developed a crush on me I was told that I ‘led him on’ as if I had control over the emotions of people.

After a while, I blocked out memories of the pool and the coaches and the men in their offices. While I blocked them out I learned and internalized certain values; that in some way I am responsible for the actions these men had made. If only I wasn’t as friendly, if I dressed in a different way, or if I avoided men altogether.

I assumed, and many other girls like me have been told that if we did all that, then men wouldn’t force themselves upon us. When these men are not told off for the catcalls or for following us from our bus stop, society is telling these men that it’s their right to go after whoever they want, however they want without consequences.

When I slap a guy for making lewd comments to me and I’m told to calm down, and the guy is sympathized with, he learns that he can get away with lewd comments. But the thing about enabling men like this is that it doesn’t just stop with the lewd comments or the whistles on the street. It’s a lot more that, it gives birth to the culture of rape.

The rape culture that we’ve all internalized to mean that women are helpless and want to give it up and that men want sex all time. This is the very culture that says instead of listening to the story of the person that was raped, let’s ask questions. What did you do? What were you wearing? How did he get that close to you?

This culture also creates an atmosphere where we think the only people that can want sex are men and the only people that give it up are women. That in turn erases the men who are raped by men and women.

This culture is toxic, and it is self-perpetuating. It is the reason why girls are told to dress decently in a house where only their family members exist, because we assume that men automatically want sex. And from as young as 6 we teach girls to protect themselves from men but we don’t call the men out for doing what they do.

And maybe one day, we will get rid of this culture, and we’ll take the imbalance of power and restructure society in such a way that it doesn’t tell people that their lives can and should be destroyed. Because it exists in every crevice of society, and it’s more harmful than we can ever imagine.

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Writer – Tiffany Isesele is a writer, a dreamer and a doer. Trying to navigate this massive world with my words. Website: camminarecontiffany.com

 

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