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Not So Dear Abby: sometimes, shutting up is the best advice

*If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, please contact the authorities, your school counselor, a hospital, or an association like RAINN. If you think that you may have been a victim, chances are you are. 

Every now and then someone famous baffles me with some sort of unexpected and foolish action. Today, that dishonor went to Dear Abby.

I remember when Dear Abby was syndicated in the Chicago Tribune, and I used to read her. That was a few years ago, but it was still in a column by Heidi Stevens on the Tribune where I first read about Abby’s gaffe today.

The only problem is that it was not a gaffe. It was an inexplicable, unacceptable, intolerable mistake. WTF, Abby?

A teenage girl wrote asking whether a sexual encounter with an older guy to whom she had said no was rape. If Dear Abby had had half of the wisdom she should be expected to have, she would have run this particular column through a lawyer, a psychologist, a police officer… through someone with some common sense. Apparently she didn’t. And she proceeded to tell the girl that there was a “breakdown in communication” with the guy. Ha. Sure there was. She said no, and he didn’t care. He didn’t listen. He didn’t respect her. He assaulted her. And along with the communication, he broke this poor girls integrity, self-esteem and independence. She will never get back what he took from her.

I work at two different universities, and both of them are doing a great job of trying to prevent their students from being either victims or assailants. There are posters and events to advertise that no means no. That you need to ask permission at every step of the way. That you need to have clear consent before proceeding to have sex with someone.

This is a shot of the last Victoria's Secret catalogue. The girl is holding her hands up, behind her neck, as in surrender. I see the beauty of the image, but I don't like the message it sends: that submission is sexy.
This is a shot of the last Victoria’s Secret catalogue. The girl is holding her hands up, behind her neck, as in surrender. I see the beauty of the image, but I don’t like the message it sends: that submission is sexy.

But institutions can do all they want, to no avail. While society, and music, and literature and movies keep giving the opposite message, it will be very hard for their message to kick in, and stay in people’s minds. From some photos of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue that bring to mind scenes of domination, to songs like “Blurred Lines”, whose lyrics (and video, for that matter) turn women into despicable sex objects even when trying to compliment them (“she was the hottest bitch in this place”), the disturbing rhetoric that puts boys in charge, so they “domesticate” and “liberate” women is everywhere. And it is very hard to go against it.

As a mom of three boys, I feel a responsibility to my fellow women. I feel in charge of educating at least my three sons so they respect girls (and every one else, of course). So they stand up if they see someone berating, mistreating or assaulting a girl. So they report abuse if they witness it and they can’t stop it. So they think before saying things that can be offensive and that perpetuate this sick dynamic, the same that Not So Dear Abby replicates in her answer to this girl, the one that blames the girl for the abuse she suffered at the hands of a boy.

My oldest is almost 9, and still too interested in soccer and comics as to be aware of any of this. But as a start I will keep blasting Meghan Trainor’s song “No” in my car. We need more songs like that one, with lyrics that empower girls, that give them back their voices, that encourage them to say “No”, clear and loud. So high schoolers and college students can get the right message from the same sources they have been getting the wrong one for far too long: from music, from magazines, from TV.

For now, we can just hope for an apology to that girl from the person she trusted with her nightmare. And for mistakes like this one never to be made again, not only for the sake of young girls, but also for the thousands of survivors who feel victimized every time someone blames the victim. We need, for once and forever, to make sure that everyone understand that “no” means “no”, starting with our own kids. And so should so called “advisors”.

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