By on July 19, 2017

An insidious sexual culture festers among Jackson Hole’s young people and the time to talk about it is now.

So I could go home
To not feel guilty
So he would like me
Because I’m supposed to
Why not?
I should be wanting this
Because he bought me dinner
Because it was easier than saying no

– The reasons three 20-something women from Jackson hooked up with boys during high school

(Photo: Cole Buckhart)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I was 14 when I started dating my first boyfriend. I had no idea how to be a girlfriend, as most of my ideas about romance came from Roger and Hammerstein musicals. I pictured holding hands and maybe kissing—going any further was inconceivable. As a novice to relationships, I sought advice from older friends. They made it clear that I had to go further than I wanted to. “Do you want him to break up with you?” they asked. I didn’t.

That was when I learned the lesson that the attention and affection of men is something precious and tenuous. If you don’t give them what they want, you might lose it. If you lose it, there’s something wrong with you.

That is how I ended up at my first Jackson Hole High School party, drinking shots of cheap vodka handed to me by older classmates. I remember being herded into an empty bedroom with my boyfriend. I remember the giggling outside the door. I had no idea what to do, so I asked if he thought I was fat.

Afterward, I pretended to be entirely nonplussed by the whole terrifying situation.

When you become used to something, you can’t tell if it’s good or bad, right or wrong. This is what I became used to.

Over the next four years, I excelled academically. I was in all AP classes, was the president of the Honor’s Society. But there was a part of my life my teachers and parents didn’t know about. The only people who knew were classmates, and we were in the business of acting like nothing was wrong, like everything made sense, like there was nothing scary or new happening.

With handles of hard alcohol, we followed one another into empty homes, rural canyons, and campers outside our parents’ houses, and tried to keep up with unspoken and spoken conventions. I held onto one nebulous statistic propagated by a classmate: if a girl didn’t have sex by the time she was 15, she was a loser.

Though parties and boys made me anxious, I wanted to be a part of things. So a few times a semester I would go to these parties. I drank bitter shots, and would often end up in rooms with boys. Sometimes these boys were sons of my parent’s friends. Some of them I’d known my whole life.

Compared to some of my classmates, I had it easy. At one party, for example, someone I’ve known since kindergarten raped another classmate when she was barely awake. There were hushed conversations about it, but from what I remember, they carried a tenor of admiration and bemusement.

No one ever physically forced me to do anything. But I felt constant, nagging pressure. There was the guy who put his sleeping bag in my car at a camping party and told me he had nowhere else to sleep, and kept trying to go further even when I said no. There was the family friend who begged me to give him oral sex after I offered him a ride home and it was easier to just say yes. There was a guy who took a compromising photo of me at a party and threatened to send it to every college I applied to.

My experiences were not unique. In Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls & Sex, she documents conversations with young women between the ages of 15 and 20. In a 2016 NPR interview, she says that young people are not having intercourse at a younger age, but they are engaging in other sexual behavior younger and more often. “I would talk to girls about oral sex,” she said, “which was something they were doing from a pretty young age, and it tended to not be reciprocal … it’s considered less intimate than sex … [girls] would say it’s no big deal, it was something they felt that boys expected.” They would do it, Orenstein said, to avoid having to have sex.

For me, and for some of Orenstein’s interviewees, it wasn’t the concrete moments of pressure or coercion that had the biggest impact. More powerful was the force beneath all of them, the assumption that if a guy wanted to “hook up” (whatever that meant to him) you would do it. It didn’t matter how it felt, as long as you gave him what you thought he wanted.

This force I felt is one that Orenstein has identified. According to her research, “women are more likely to use their partner’s pleasure as a yardstick of their own satisfaction. So they’ll say he was satisfied, so I’m satisfied, whereas men are more likely to use their own satisfaction of a measure of their satisfaction.”

As young women navigate these unspoken expectations, they face conflicting messages. In high school, I was alternately called a prude and a whore. Someone I’d known since daycare once wrote a Facebook status calling me the school slut.

Girls who had sex were alternately revered and disdained. The boys were never talked about.

Over those formative years, I didn’t say no. Though I wish I’d had more confidence to avoid or stop these difficult situations, I had little understanding of how to change them. Because at first, I didn’t know I could say no. Then, I didn’t know how to. By the end of high school, I didn’t care enough to try.

Words like “assault” or “survivor” have never felt relevant. It’s hard to put words to what was, more than a singular action, a constant, unchallenged force that eroded my understanding of myself. I didn’t understand my body or my voice. I had no idea what I wanted, so I didn’t know how to demand it. The boys I was with never asked. They pushed my hands and head where they wanted me to go, and after I had done what they wanted, the night was over.

I don’t believe these boys were trying to hurt the young women in their lives, many of whom had been their friends since childhood. I believe they received the message that their desires were paramount, and it wasn’t wrong to seek the ends to these desires, even if it meant involving an unwilling participant.

I still see these boys, now men. I hug them in the grocery store and make small talk. I wonder what they think about growing up in Jackson. I wonder if they felt pressure, or if they felt bad when they responded to “no” with “please. Just a little further.”

It was in college that I learned about active consent: yes means yes, everything else means no. It’s not OK to ask the same question over and over until someone finally says yes. It’s not OK to sleep with people who are too drunk, or passed out. It’s not OK to threaten to ruin someone’s reputation if they don’t do what you want them to do.

Even with this information, I don’t know how to understand my experiences as a high school student in Jackson, and I continue to have a hard time articulating my desires and establishing boundaries. In high school, no one talked about what was going on, and in the dearth of conversation, I responded typically. I fixated on my body, its size, shape, and flaws. I wrote down everything I ate, and never said how I felt.

I became so accustomed to the unspoken expectations that I lost my voice, lost my feeling of internal validity. I don’t believe myself even as I write this. It wasn’t so bad, right? So many people have had it far worse. Even so, my experiences as a young person in Jackson continue to impact me.

Six years after graduating from high school, I am learning to name the patterns and feelings that went unacknowledged for so long. In high school, it felt impossible to talk about any of this, but pain, shame, and confusion all thrive on the unspoken, the hidden. It’s time to break the silence.  PJH

About Sarah Ross

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