If you ever want to cringe so hard that you feel like your face and body might physically reject your own thoughts, please (if you have one) read your teenage diary. Journeying through the tattered and tea-stained pages, I revel in reading about 12-year-old me desperately trying to navigate her way through the age of ‘RAWR means I Love You in Dinosaur’ and pushing the family computer to its absolute limits trying to download I Need You by N-Dubz on YouTube Converter. It’s cathartic as much as it is wince-worthy, a literal greek tragedy of emotions.
Yet my most recent nostalgic nose-dive didn’t leave me with the usual bitter-sweetness that comes with reminiscing. Last week, a loose-end memory was tormenting me in light of the thousands of women all over the country recalling where they have been made to feel uncomfortable at the hands of a stranger. I was desperate to know if I had ever written about the defining moment where 3 grown men made it their sole mission to prod, poke and actively terrify my 14-year-old self on a journey home. My diary was usually filled with the mundane, day-to-day happenings of being a pre-teen, the usual he said/she said type nothingness. I was convinced that I must have documented something so disturbingly poignant, but it was nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, this day aligned itself with a momentary diary hiatus. Still, I couldn’t resist dwelling on the mystery of adolescent life and consequently stumbled headfirst into a teenage museum of 2010.
My first thought was that I made my feelings towards my male peers abundantly clear, and reading pages and pages of the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ style mentality I adopted made me cackle. It was incredibly rare that if a boy did manage to get a mention in my diary that I would write anything kind. Aside from the time a lad in my year vomited green sludge on an enemy of mine, which seemed to be the highlight of my year.
Here are just a few examples from the teenage ramblings in question.
In reference to finding out I had to attend a Valentine’s Day Dance:
05/02/2021 - ' I found out that the Y8’s (that’s us) have to attend a Valentines Day dance “BARF” but I’ll dance, not love.’
In reference to the same dance (clearly rattled by the prospect):
24/01/2010 - ' The Y8’s have to have a Valentines Day dance, of course I’m going, it's a disco but I’m going with *friend* not a silly little Y8 boy who thinks he’s all that.’
A personal favourite of mine - in reference to a friend’s 13th birthday party at the local pub:
24/01/2010 - 'I danced with all my friends and with some over excited boys that I would say goodbye to in a heartbeat. I mean P...lease. Trust me if any one of them even tries to get near me on Monday I will be slapping them silly!!!’
I assumed that this default hatred was just part of the teenage experience. Naturally, thinking all boys were smelly, gross and grim, was just something you eventually grow out of, I assumed. Yet the more I read, the more I unearthed possible motives. Wedged between rants as to why no-one had given me ‘love’ on Bebo and the perils of running out of free texts, were these random and jarring comments about my male peers. They fall into the background and get lost within the melodrama of it all, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.
In reference to sitting in the yard at break:
04/05/2010 -*blank* and *blank* went on the field and they were trying to take off our bras...lovely.’
This was a daily occurrence where boys would run over to you, feverishly sniggering as you tried to tear yourself away from them. Approaching you and asking for a hug so that they could slowly slide their hand from your shoulder to your back in search of a clasp. Now, in my case, because I was in no state to be wearing a bra, this sought after clasp was non-existent. I couldn’t tell them that though. Because even at 12 I knew my body was there to be commented on and gawked at. And what was the consequence for this behaviour? Obviously, nothing. Telling a teacher and having to actually say the word ‘bra’ felt more like a punishment for me.
It’s the sarcastic tone suggesting that I accepted it that bothers me the most. Even in my diary, a personal collection of my own thoughts and feelings purely for my own eyes, I don’t criticise their actions. I already had a clear understanding of the passive role I had to play in male/female interaction. Don’t react and they’ll *hopefully* leave you alone.
In reference to a boy on my bus:
03/01/2010 - ‘Art was quite fun until I found out one of my friends, who is a boy, showed me pictures of a topless, nude girl. I grabbed the phone and deleted the pictures. Served him right for being so sick.’
I clearly felt a moral obligation to the older girl on the estate who had sent her boyfriend nude pictures in confidence, only to have him pass them round to the younger lads as a ‘big-brother-type’ favour. I don’t know if I understood that what was on his phone was effectively illegal - as all parties involved were underage - but it still made me wildly uncomfortable to the point where I turned into a feminist vigilante.
Snippets and clips of harassment, sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour all documented by my poor handwriting. Yet, all of it went unchallenged because I think somewhere in my young brain, I would justify these experiences through a ‘boys will be boys’ facade. Boys think about sex more, boys need to exercise their urges more, boys can’t control themselves, it’s not their fault. They aren’t to blame when they slap a hand on your thigh, edge it higher and higher in a game of ‘Red Light, Green Light.’ And if that’s the case, then they clearly aren’t to blame when they grab a handful of your arse and condemn you as ‘skitsy’ if you don’t let them.
Suddenly my aversion to spending any more time with these boys than I had to, became sufficiently clear. The child-like ‘I hate boys’ attitude was undoubtedly justified. I didn’t want to be near the very people who made me more aware of my increasingly changing body, the very people who guessed my bra size as a game and jeered when I finally started to ‘grow’.
Sexual violence starts in school. And it is allowed to continue by incessantly sympathising with the perpetrator. Somewhere, the boys in my class were taught that what they were doing was okay, or at the very least, they were never taught that it wasn’t. I was just told to ignore it. I love that 12-year-old-me documented her perspective of the world, but I hate that it was dominated and shaped by those she feared.
Ruth McGivern / @ruth.mcgivern
'The Virtual Vigil' is a series of perspectives, emotions and poems written in response to the current political climate. As a feminist art collective we want to use our space to empower the voices of those affected by gender based violence. In doing so, we hope to challenge existing narratives and teach men that they have a collective responsibility to speak up and call out inappropriate and violent behaviours. If you would like to take part in our virtual vigil, please feel welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images by Emily Mort.