I had one of my first major lessons about gender and power dynamics in third grade playing Catch a Girl, Freak a Girl during recess at Henry C. Lea School in West Philadelphia. In our version of the game, which is known in other regions as Hide and Go Get It and—alarmingly—Rape, the boys would chase girls around tag-style. If a girl got caught, her captor would dry-hump her on the spot or march her off to a less visible crevice of the schoolyard for dramatic effect.
Now, as a precocious child hopped up on the late ’70s sex positivity of “Where Did I Come From?: The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and Illustrations,” I found Catch a Girl, Freak a Girl irritating. If a boy wanted to freak, wouldn’t it be more efficient and pleasurable for both parties if he simply asked?
I tested out this theory one day when a kid known as Bad-Ass Edward targeted me for Catch a Girl, Freak a Girl. While I routinely met his hellos with the requisite eye-rolling and called him all kinds of ashy, ugly and stupid when he teased me about my African name, I had a thing for this towering butterball of hyperactivity. So that recess when Edward chased me, I slowed down to a trot, pivoted to face him—and stood still. Horrified by my breach of protocol, poor Edward darted away. Sadly, I spent the last few minutes of that recess chasing him up and down the schoolyard, hoping to express my consent and submit to the much ballyhooed act of freaking. I never did catch him.
I’ve been wondering if and how Catch a Girl, Freak a Girl, a game that I remember fondly, fits into what activists call rape culture. I had never pondered it—until XXLmag.com posted a disastrous video of 45-year-old Too $hort schooling middle school boys on how to “turn out” girls by pushing them against walls and inserting spit-covered fingers into their underwear. In a widely celebrated interview with Detroit-based writer, filmmaker and mother dream hampton, the rapper later placed it within the context of his own childhood experiences with sexually charged games:
“I was in the sixth or seventh grade when I started doing some of the things I was talking about doing in (the video). … [It] is actually reminiscent of when we as little boys were being bad and (what) we were doing something or learning or practicing. But know I’m understanding that it’s actually it’s a form of sexual assault. And it’s crazy that I’m just now understanding this.”
Hampton shares her own painful recollections of these rituals:
There is a lot of sh*t that passes for playing (around) amongst us, and…it’s sexual assault. I remember being in the pool and boys pulling my bikini top off. I remember eighth/ninth graders smooching my booty when I was in the second grade. I remember boys trying to hump me. And I’m not the only one, it’s not like I’m out here traumatized and mad about that stuff. Of course I am traumatized and I am mad. But I don’t know a girl who didn’t have that type of thing happen to them. Where boys just thought that they would practice on us. And that is what we were there for. … It makes young girls not want to leave the house. Or we take the long route home or we go the other way and we are like, “Oh, this is how boys like me, boys like me if they put their hands up my (skirt) It doesn’t matter that I’m not in the eighth grade yet…this is what boys like and if I want boys to like me than this is what I have to let them do…”
So what do we do with such a disconnect? How can adults help children navigate sexual exploration, particularly within a media environment that inundates children with exploitative portraits of girls and women, equates manhood with promiscuity and sexual aggression, and criminalizes boys when they exhibit normal sexual behavior?
In search of a foolproof set of principles, I talked to three New York City educators who work with adults and children of color on issues of domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment and healthy masculinity.
These fine folks couldn’t provide a magic formula for an issue so complex, nuanced and dependent on individual experience. But what I got from my discussions with CONNECT’s Quentin Walcott and Girls for Gender Equity’s Joanne Smith and Nefertiti Martin were four key ideas:
Discuss sex and sexuality early and often:
“We have to create a culture of conversation and exploration,” says Smith. “Children need to have a space to talk about what they see in video games, online and what they hear.”
Boys and men often perform for one another:
Males are taught to “live in gender boxes,” says Walcott. “When they step outside of that box, someone is liable to question their manhood.” And that sense of manhood is often built on “how hypermasculine we are, at the cost of a young girl. Boys and men are often thinking, ‘Aww man, this is foul.’ But they’re not going to say it because they don’t want to be questioned, bullied or kicked out of their gender group.”
Rape is embedded in people’s ideas of power:
“I remember doing a workshop with a boy who mentioned that a girl had been [sexually] harassing him [regularly]. Fed up, he told her, ‘If you come up to me again I’m going to rape you.’ He felt like he was being disrespected, like his power had been taken away. So the way he responded was to assert his power and to him, rape looked like power,” says Martin. “[In a case like that one], you have to ask if he understands what rape is and explain how that language isn’t an acceptable way to let someone know that you mean business.”
Talk about choice.
“Ultimately [girls and boys] have to understand that their bodies are their own,” says Walcott. They should know that “they should have control over their bodies and who they want to be with, that they are [entitled] to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and for that to mean something.”
Clearly this is a huge topic. Expect to hear lots more about it.
In the short term, click here for tips for protecting kids from sexual assault from RAINN (Rape, Abuse National Network) and check out “Hey Shorty: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets,” Smith’s book of best practices.