Pluck, pluck, pluck.

There was a poem, or song that I wanted to write months ago.

Girls are like flowers

Beautiful, blooming, vibrant, teaming with life

Human nature is to be greedy

To take what is beautiful for themselves

So, men pluck petals, crushing petals between their fingers

They take pleasure in the sweet aroma

They pluck and they pluck

Until one day, there’s nothing left but a stem

And then the flower is discarded

The girl is discarded because there’s nothing left.

TW: Sexual Assault

When I was sixteen, I had just started working my first job at a clothing store in Utah. I was the only female working there at the time and a couple months in, several of my co-workers had hit on me. Including my manager who was in his thirties.

I remember getting in the car after one shift, frazzled because it had happened again. I would ask myself what I had done to make them think that I was flirting. I would analyze my outfit, the amount of skin visible, how tight my pants were, then move to the conversation itself. Was my kindness an invitation?

At the time, I was just about to go on a trip for fall break. The sun was setting behind the outlet mall, visible to me through the windshield, golden rays blanketing everything in sight. It wasn’t cold yet but in an hour it likely would be. We sat there, myself and a female family member for a moment as I expressed my guilt for turning down someone’s advances.

I remember her words still, “You will probably feel like you have a target on your back for many years” and I thought, this is what it means to be a girl. To always be visible, to always be targeted in some form, that no matter my actions, there would be someone who always saw it as an opening no matter my intentions.

And I dismissed it then, but unfortunately she was right.

When I was 12, I started really playing around with makeup before school. At the time, my father would tease me, asking who I was getting dolled up for at school. There wasn’t anyone, but I would feel insecure at the remarks, as playful as they were meant, and eventually stop putting on make-up.

At 17, I remember walking down Broadway in Nashville. It was dark, hot, humid. I was in a black tank top and jeans following behind my older female family member who I had been traveling with. I was mesmerized by the twinkling billboards, swarms of young people crowding bars and sidewalks, and the live music being played in each place.

It quickly became overwhelming. I could feel the eyes of older men on me, pressing on my skin, unraveling the clothes I wore, if I glanced in their direction, sure enough their eyes were on me. Before I would have the chance to look away, they’d smile, a form of appreciation, that would leave knots in my stomach as we passed. A younger guy came up to me at one point asking for a photo, I found it strange, not being anyone of any note, but agreed, nonetheless. I was too young to go in anywhere past nine, so after a late dinner I went back to our Air BnB alone and cried due to the overwhelming gulf of emotions. I felt like prey, something people wanted to take for themselves, my innocence, my age, seemingly making me more enticing somehow. Knowing that made me sicker.

I still looked at my clothes in a pile on the floor that night before getting in the shower. Was it something I was wearing? Nothing about the outfit was that revealing, the raciest things were the skinny jeans, but I knew that was socially expectable. It wasn’t me this time.

I did debate in high school, I liked argumentation, forming logical arguments, leaving people guessing. I liked the knowledge that I was intelligent. Yet, I knew in discussions with my team, my opinion was undervalued. I asked one of my friends at the time, why was it that people on the team never seemed to respect me as much as others. I remember her response that it was because I was attractive and sweet, and people make assumptions based on those things.

It made me upset then as it does now, the underestimation. How if I’m one thing I can’t be another. I looked at them all and knew that I’d seen more of life’s dark side than most of them ever have or probably ever will. I knew more about how the world operated than they knew. Yet the perception stung.

When I was 15, we had male family members staying with us who were a few years older than I was. I was grateful to have company around my age and naturally gravitated to hanging out with them late night watching TV. I wore the same pajamas as I normally would, not seeing a reason to change my behavior. On a day when everyone was out skiing, I curled my hair, simply because I enjoyed playing with my hair.

The morning before they left, my step-grandmother took me aside. There was a lot said in that exchange that has stayed with me over the years. In short, she made a point that I had gotten dolled up one day (curled hair) and wore pajamas one night when I was hanging out with them. Stating that it was obvious what I was attempting to do.

I was mortified, ashamed, amongst other things. Hyperaware of how I was perceived and vowed to do better the next time. Yet, there was never any intentionality in the actions.

I’ve heard various perspectives on the dynamic between men and women over the years. The argument, “men can’t control their thoughts” so in response girls and women alike need to be modest in how they dress.

I would listen as family members argued about what constituted rape. Hearing some male family members say, “if she was drunk and went up to his room then she should have known, the guy shouldn’t be held accountable”.

When I came to college, those various perspectives ruminated in my head. If something happened, would anyone be sympathetic? Or would they say, “of course, what did you expect? You were drinking, you were in a skimpy outfit”

Then when guys uninvited put their hands around my waist, got frustrated when they realized I wasn’t going to have sex with them, I blamed myself. The guilt gnawing at my soul.

Pluck, pluck, pluck.

There was always a conflict internally when I went out with my friends. After the first few fraternity parties my mind analyzed the scene.

At UNC, many fraternities require attendees to get bands to get in. This often was a means of keeping out undercover cops and other boys. I would watch huge swarms of girls in lines in front of fraternities and then once inside crowded rooms where the girls always greatly outnumbered the guys in attendance. One of the girls in the group had a boyfriend at the time, and it was always a challenge to get him into a frat party.

It felt like a hunting ground. The guys of the fraternity keeping out other competitors (other guys) from their territory, they sought to keep the girls in the house for their members. The less guys there were, the more likely their boys would be successful, they could have their pick. Sometimes the guys would stick to the sides of the room until they saw someone they wanted to approach.

I remember thinking, they were the foxes and us the hens they were seeking to devour.

There was one time my friends and I were invited to a fraternity as a part of sorority golf with little to no explanation as to what it meant. I knew that when guys are pledging there’s a tradition of going to different locations and doing shots. A short time after we arrived, all the girls were instructed to go to the shed. There it was explained that we (the girls) were the holes at each location, the bottle service for the boys, as a means of enticing them to join their fraternity.

We were to give the guy’s haircut shots: peppermint schnaps, followed by chocolate syrup, and whip cream, while they knelt on their knees. Admittedly, part of me gloried in it, the idea of having guys on their knees in front of me, and me being the one in control, but there was more to the night than that. After we had run out of chocolate syrup or whip cream, it was time to move to the next hole. The guys encouraging us to drink as much as we wanted from there out.

I remember following behind, huddling into myself as it was January at the time. I was dressed improperly for the weather, expecting to be in an overcrowded room indoors the entire night, and January the coldest month in North Carolina. I shivered as we walked, slightly tipsy at the time, trying to keep track of where we were walking to, no one explaining where we were going. I moved to the front to talk to a guy who was leading the group, asking where we were heading.

I drank more, my friends drank more, and eventually we all returned to the fraternity house for everyone to dance. I wasn’t interested at the time and jumped on the opportunity to bartend. It created a distance between me and everyone else, the “bar” had a table that would lift to let people in and keep them out.

It took a couple days for me to fully reflect our purpose that night. The role we were intended to play and the entire college culture about it all. After freshman year I went to one fraternity party my sophomore year. Then the pandemic stuck and that was it.

When I started working the service industry, I was more open than what I feel I am now. I think I was willing to dismiss a lot more due to the environments in which things occurred. The innocence, the fragility, was something that I valued in myself but overtime I began to understand that was taken advantage of.

I knew when I was working, advances made were not on my shoulders. I learned to not make eye contact, because that was its own form of invitation. If I talked to warmly, they seized the opportunity. I knew it wasn’t my clothes, I knew not enough of my body was visible for them to see it as a comment on my sexuality.

Late one night as we were closing, my boss, male thirty-six, remarked on how I was the most innocent girl he had ever met. I felt my jaw clench and looked away as my female manager audibly reacted, he reframed, but the words had hit.

The men who would often hit on me while I was working were often wealthy, older, established, and knew their power. I knew how I was seen, easy, sweet, young, innocent, and as they made attempts it made me sick to know that it was also those things they craved.

My boss and a few others would ask, “Why is it always you?”.

I always wanted to shrink and apologize. I didn’t understand why it was me, there were other girls there who were equally if not more attractive, but the reoccurrence was higher for me. Some suggested that I should feel flattered that as I grocery shop someone had approached me to ask for my number. I should see that unwanted advances are an unfortunate reality for someone who is female.

Yet, I knew I never consumed someone with my gaze. I knew what people wanted, knew their desires. I thought of Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, how her weight gain in the first season was a means of prevention, to make herself unpalatable. I thought of Britney Spears shaving her head in protest, “now do you want to look at me?”. I understood those realities better now. The desire to be unnoticed, to destroy the thing that made men want them.

The men it the back of house had become my ally. When VIP guests had made several girls uncomfortable, including myself, other girls looked to me for permission to report it. They knew I had things like this happen before. When the owner’s response was that we all needed to learn to speak up because if he did, the customers wouldn’t come back. Unlike in a previous instance where it had been a close friend of his.

One of the girls looked dumbstruck, eyes large, staring at me as I came from the back. “You were right” she said, her voice hollow. I didn’t want to be. I thought to myself, but I knew all too well how things would be handled. The speech my boss had given to everyone, he had also given to me alone.

It was something like this:

Jen, you are obviously a pretty girl, these things are going to happen. You should let them know they are making you uncomfortable. You say that they’ll back off. He laughed. If it were me, I’d slap them. If I were to say anything, it would ruin my relationship with them. The previous time, we were good friends, so I knew he’d come back.

Standing there, I felt hollow too. It felt like I was somehow responsible for their actions.

When I began to cry, articulating to the girl why I had expected the response, the men from the back engulfed me. Shortly after I was sent home.

It was only a few weeks later that a few of us were working a private event hosted in our restaurant. It had snowed the night before, but it was mostly melted then and ice patches blanketed areas that the sun hadn’t reached. There was originally supposed to be more staff working that night, and I had let someone else stay home so she didn’t have to drive in the poor conditions. I lived only a couple miles away, a car ride usually lasted less than five minutes to get me there.

The party consisted of mostly men; it was a private celebratory event for employees of a gym chain that the owner of the restaurant was a stakeholder of. I’d seen many of them several times before but maintained a certain level of distance between myself and them. As time trudged on, people continued drinking, becoming rowdier as the night continued.

My job done as the host, welcoming them in, I decided it best to stay in the back with another female worker and one of the guys from back of house. He had always been extremely kind to me, when he brought food for everyone to eat and knew I wouldn’t normally eat it, he’d sneak me food to take home. When customers made me uncomfortable, he’d offer to go out and give them a withering stare. Overtime, there was a sense that I had someone in the restaurant looking out for me. Over the holidays and while I was traveling, I saw a baseball keychain and gave it to him.

On one of the times that I went out to the front to collect dirty dishes and reassemble the restaurant, one of the guys came over. I knew instantly what the intention was, but as a server, you are supposed to be always courteous. He offered to help, which I said was unnecessary, but he insisted.

We were in a corner of the restaurant within eyesight of everyone else but not in earshot. I could feel my anxiety getting worse as he asked personal questions and introduced himself. When he suggested we grab coffee together, I politely said no but I’d see him the next time he came in. After, I quickly darted back into the kitchen to hide from the drunk guys assuming it safer.

The back of house guy, P, had been drinking and it was clear that he wasn’t in the best frame of mind. I began to talk about what had happened and my thoughts about guys in general. I no longer had any trust when it came to men. To me, they were all the same, there was no such thing as a “good guy” because they were all plagued with the same problem. The difference was that some were better at controlling themselves than others, but all men couldn’t control themselves or their thoughts. That was what I had been taught.

He offered insight saying that men did have the ability to control themselves, that the narrative was not completely true. I took relief in the perspective.

It was only a short time later that a hug from P went longer than expected. Two of my coworkers were back there at the time, immersed in their own discussion, one of them a long-time friend from the start of college that was a guy. The other was the same girl as before.

The hug lasted long and when he pulled back, his hand brushed my face before placing his arms to either side of me. His face was close to mine as he continued talking. I kept my face turned, scared to continue looking at him for fear that he would try to kiss me. Eventually my guy friend noticed and asked him to back up, but he still stood there, his face inches from my own until our manager walked in.

I darted to stand behind my guy friend once given an opportunity to. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh it off as weird or be frozen as I felt. After the manager went back out, P hugged me again, too long, where my guy friend told him to back up. When P detached his hand went of my front, brushing between my breasts.

I went out front, trying to maintain my composure. The owner gone. P couldn’t drive and would have to uber. The loud party goers echoed in my mind, I wondered if I was supposed to be okay. The week before another staff member had hugged me, nuzzled into my neck before remarking how good I smelt and I smiled, though uncomfortable, and thanked him. That was just that guy. Everyone knew he was like that.

I only knew I was allowed to be “not okay” when my guy friend asked me how I was doing and remarked how uncool it was P had done that.

Before P left that night, he had gone on to my friend about how perfect I was and how I would never love him because I was in my twenties and he in his forties. Once gone, he texted me multiple times, one of them about how much he loved me.

The party continued until one, at which time I could no longer keep the seams of myself securely fastened. The emotions I was trying to keep tucked away spilled out in tears. The four of us stood there and decided I could go home; it was a couple hours later and the indefinity of the event prolonged the experience.

After, the following day, I was given off. My boss, the owner called me as I was on an hour-long drive to Winston-Salem to clear my head. He was appalled at what he’d heard had happened. Blaming the alcohol, saying how P was very apologetic. I didn’t want the man’s entire life to be defined by one night and said that I didn’t want him fired.

The owner along with a few others who had heard what had happened asked the same question, “Why is it always you?” and I always responded with, “I don’t know”.

Days after, I looked back on his and my kindness prior to the event. Wondering if I had given some signal that the attempt would be well received, wondering if my kindness was responsible for what had happened.

My family would often tell me, “You’re too nice Jennifer” or “You are way too kind to people” and I wondered if they were right. Maybe if I wasn’t as kind to people these things wouldn’t happen. Yet, I knew I always tried to reject the food he’d offer, made it clear that I hadn’t expected it to him and everyone else. And when I mentioned my idea that if I changed somehow maybe this wouldn’t happen, a family member I’m close with, said I shouldn’t change myself for that reason.

P wasn’t fired, I continued working there, and a few months later he left to work another restaurant. In some ways, it felt like my kindness was taken advantage of, no longer were the safeguard of eyes that knew what happen on him and it therefore could happen again. This time, I would be partially responsible because I was the one who didn’t want it to follow him.

I don’t know if that was the right call. In truth, many coworkers said he should have been fired no matter the perspective I had. I don’t know if that’s the answer either. I think as the party harmed; you should have a say in the punishment of the guilty party within reason.

It was after that night I felt like a flower. Here I am in bloom and by human nature, people want to take what is beautiful for themselves. They drain the beauty with each pluck until there’s nothing left and they discard them.

A few weeks passed and the owner was back to encouraging me to be bar trained. I questioned the motivation behind it, after everything that had happened to me since I started working there, I would think it would be a liability. I wondered if it was the fact that people found me attractive, and therefore I would be good eye candy for the bar. He pushed for it every time we talked, more than he did with anyone else to my knowledge.

I didn’t want to work the bar despite enjoying bartending. Didn’t want to subject myself to further harassment than what I had already experienced and expected. I felt myself put distance between myself and customers further than I had already. A regular customer who complimented me often I would no longer engage with.

Recently, when waiting in line to enter a bar for a friend’s 21st a group of fraternity boys skip the line. My group and a group of girls in front of us were irritated. I knew one of the girls in the other group and checked with her about their feelings on the matter. As I talk with her one of the guys from the fraternity group came up and asked for my name. I obliged reflexively and then asked why he wanted it and he responded that I was suspect for a knockout list.

I didn’t understand what it was until we got into the bar, when one of my friend’s boyfriends said he would be watching my drink all night. He explained to me that a “knockout list” is a fraternities hit list of girls that they try to sleep with, each one tries until one is successful. I glanced down at my drink and put my hand over the top. I didn’t drink another for the rest of the night and my desire to have fun quickly vanished, replaced with a need to be alert.

There was a part of me that wanted to remind them how insignificant and small they were. That girls aren’t just targets to be preyed upon, but no amount of retribution would convince them of that.

I write this account also to offer some reflection of all these encounters.

It is not enough to accept, “men can’t control themselves” as the status quo. We tell girls from a very young age that they need to cover themselves to not attract unwanted attention. Unwanted attention should not be placed on a girl’s shoulders. It should not be their responsibility. You also cannot blame drinking for your poor behavior. Drinking is an excuse to act poorly, you still should be able to discern what’s right from wrong even intoxicated.

While P was drunk that night, it was the alcohol that made him do the things he did. Did it increase the prevalence? Yes. It is not fair to not hold someone accountable for their actions because they were drinking. He remembered the next day what had happened.

It wasn’t my actions that caused it to happen either. I know I was wearing a modest outfit, trying to take measures to prevent uncomfortable encounters, and he was someone I trusted to protect me from guys who did exactly what he did to me.

I look at guys in college who feel entitled to treat girls as secondary beings, there only for their amusement or a good lay. Cattle to be corralled and displayed as a benefit of being a part of their group.

What I decide to wear, I wear for myself, not for guys to compliment me or to see me as more desirable. There were times I was so insecure in my own skin and now I’m more confident and therefore I want to show that in what I wear. It is not my responsibility to shrink myself for someone else to feel in control or to feel better. When you use that argument, it takes responsibility away from the perpetrator and places it firmly on the victim.

I write this so my cousins, both female and younger than myself know, they are not responsible for unwanted advances. That they should feel beautiful, bold, and capable of expressing themselves as they want. So that they know, this is not supposed to be tucked away as consequence of being a woman. This is a flaw, an ugly flaw in our culture that continues to dismiss accountability of boys and men when they go too far. That subjects’ girls and women to feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust at themselves when a guy says or does something that makes them uncomfortable.

Further, it is not simple enough to say, “Speak up” when you are made to feel uncomfortable. We all have different responses in conflict situations, I tend to freeze. Especially when there is a clear power imbalance between the two parties, it may feel impossible to find the ability to say anything at all.

This sense of fear that all girls and women must live in, should not be dismissed as normal are okay. It is not okay. And the longer we tell ourselves that the longer things like this will happen and the more girls and women will blame themselves for actions they did not make.