Know the word ‘no’

For 11 years, I believed my “no” was meaningless.

Today, I know differently.

I spent my childhood free time roaming the streets around my apartment complex with a boy I thought was cool. I trusted him and wanted him to like me.

He was older, more outspoken and physically stronger than I. On occasion, I’d race around the block with him and his friends, jokingly, of course, because everyone knew I’d never win.

His mother would make me peanut butter sandwiches without jelly, because I hated it. She had an accent I thought was pretty, and she welcomed me into her home like one of her own.

“Go have fun,” she’d say as we left the kitchen.

Sometimes we’d go into his room, and he’d tell me to undress for him so he could do with me whatever he pleased.

One day, when I was seven, I said “no.”

He frowned, “Why do we always do what you want to do?”

Again, I said “no,” but quieter this time.

“But we’ve done this before,” he said.

“No,” I whispered.

He told me we’d compromise. He’d race me around the block, and whoever won could pick what we’d do.

His words deceived me–the blame was flipped, and I felt selfish as I hopped on my bike. Pedaling as fast as I could, I was at least five feet behind him all the way around the street. I fell behind even further as I swerved to avoid crashing into a mailbox.

I said “no,” but I couldn’t win.

It’s taken me 11 years to realize it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t beat him at a bike race. It wasn’t my fault I didn’t run away or advocate for myself relentlessly.

I wasn’t asking for it. I wasn’t dressed provocatively.

I said “no,” but he didn’t listen.

Scrolling through Facebook, I see a number of posts about how women should take self-defense classes or even wear protective underwear to prevent sexual assault.

Should we have to?

Perhaps I, at seven years old and younger, should have been taught to yell and run away if someone ever tried to touch me. Perhaps I should have been taught to be assertive or shown ways to physically defend myself.

Or maybe people like the boy from my neighborhood should be taught the meaning of “no” and how to not become sexually abusive.

To parents, educators and influencers: let’s be proactive, not reactive.

To anyone who has been or could be taken advantage of: do what you can to feel empowered, whether that’s taking self-defense classes or wearing rip-proof underwear. For me, it’s writing pieces like this and helping others in need.

But if something happens or has happened to you, it’s not your fault.

It took me over a decade to realize my “no,” however much the boy ignored it, had power. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.