Fifteen in Summer Eighteen
Nisa Quarles '21
When I was fifteen, I was excited to receive my first paycheck as a counselor at an arts summer camp. I became the youngest counselor after convincing my boss to pay me a year earlier than I was technically eligible. I soon recognized one of the older male counselors from when we were campers together. Although our friendship began innocently, after I publicly denied his false claim that we were dating, his advances became more aggressive. He made vulgar sexual comments to and about me in front of my other male coworkers, body shamed me in front of campers, and repeatedly touched me non-consensually.
While I felt humiliated and powerless, I did not deem his behavior as legitimately inappropriate at the time. The older counselors laughed at his advances, so I never officially reported him to my boss. However, I was ashamed of my response to his behavior, or lack thereof. Since middle school, I have attended an all-girls school where women’s empowerment has been the cornerstone of my education, and I am a passionate debater at the lunch table and in the classroom. Why was I completely silent when it was most important to defend myself?
There has not been a day since that summer that I have not wrestled with this question. I have spent my time during quarantine reflecting on this painful experience and learning about other women’s stories of sexual harassment. I have concluded that expecting and accepting mistreatment and sexualization from men was a foundational aspect of my childhood. Early on, my parents routinely instructed me on self-defense strategies against men who could potentially violate me. I was forbidden from wearing clothes that might attract unwanted male attention. In elementary school, whenever boys would make annoying and even offensive comments towards me, the adults’ dismissive response was always “Oh, that just means that he likes you.” This gender socialization led me to accept this workplace harassment years later. Even though my coworker was significantly bigger, older, and stronger than I, I had subconsciously internalized from a young age that it was my responsibility as the girl to have the emotional maturity to excuse his inappropriate behavior as a sign of affection rather than call it abuse.
After this realization, I was finally able to acknowledge his misconduct and relieve myself of the blame that I carried for years. Now, I am striving to direct my energy towards defending myself and others against mistreatment. For example, this past summer I participated in Zoom meetings with students from St. Albans to address the sexism and colorism with which they have targeted black girls at NCS. Even when some of the boys attempted to invalidate my statements, I kept speaking because I no longer yearn for others to validate my feelings as I did three years ago. Instead, I value myself enough to know that my feelings and experiences are worth sharing.
I have also learned that I cannot just share my experiences with sexism when I am prompted, but I must also use those experiences to inform my leadership decisions. For instance, as a Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Exchanged, an online publication between NCS and St. Albans, I have worked with my fellow Editors-in-Chief to ensure that there’s more gender equality in both editing and writing positions. I want to seize every opportunity I have to empower women to share their voices, stories, and ideas.
I am pleased that I am now confident enough in my voice to continue advocating for myself and other women in my future schools and workplaces. I hope that my efforts will inspire other community members and leaders, regardless of gender, to do the same.
*Portions of this essay have been slightly modified for the purposes of this article.