When I was in Year 8 a rumour went round that I masturbated. I was first awakened to this great joke when I walked past a classroom full of kids in the year-level below.
“Hey!” one of the boys called out. “Did you remember your sticky tape?”
I was a little confused, but had a sickening feeling that something dreadful was unfolding. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
One of the other boys held up two fingers, bound together with clear plastic tape. “What are you going to do tonight?” The boy wagged his attached fingers in the air. “Are you going to masturbate?”
The rest of the classroom jeered while I fled the room, utterly mortified.
I wasn’t entirely surprised at the public humiliation. In some ways I’d brought it on myself. I remember sitting on the concrete one sunny lunchtime, in a circle with three others – two girls and a guy. Spring had arrived, and we were emerging like cramped reptiles from the tops of lockers in windy corridors. We were playing some kind of game – something along the lines of Truth or Dare. The other kids in the circle were higher on the social hierarchy than I, but I had a momentary sensation of acceptance and belonging. I remember enjoying the closeness of the circle.
I wanted to know whether the others masturbated. I guess I just wanted to make sure I was normal. One of the girls looked down, lips curved in a nervous smile. “No,” she answered, before looking me in the eye again. “Why – do you?”
“Well actually, yes,” I answered, confidently, pleased to be divulging a secret.
“Really? Do you really?”
“Yep. Sometimes. But don’t tell anyone!” I quickly added, suddenly aware of the power I had granted my three companions. “You can’t tell anyone.”
“It’s ok, we won’t.”
Their words were reassuring and I believed them. I had to believe them. I wanted to trust them.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! One little slip – one overly-confident assessment of friendship – and it had come to this. The outer corners of my eyes stung as I raced from the classroom of shame to my next class. I had been ruined.
I remember the whole ordeal as extremely lonely. Any semblance I had of friendship prior to the affair was now in tatters. And how do you talk about such things? Apart from the taunts, the only other noise was a deafening silence. Female sexuality, in our culture, has often been met by silence, and this sexual shaming was, in some ways, no different.
Something had to give. One evening, a week or so into my social descent, Mum and I went to school for some kind of information evening. As we got out of the car, a mob of large boys from my year level walked by, laughing and joking. I wanted so badly to be seen. Not ridiculed – just seen. I imagined yelling out and waving, and some of them coming over to greet me. I knew that that would never happen. The bank of tears broke and before I knew it I was crying my little Year 8 eyes out.
Mum pulled me into the foyer of the VCE centre. Mrs Maher, who was walking by, entered our little female huddle.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” they wanted to know.
Tentatively, through sobs and hiccups, I told them that there was an awful rumour going round.
“What is it?”
“That I masturbate!” I wailed, before descending into a fit of more sobs.
“Why that’s ridiculous!” exclaimed my mother. “As if they would even know!”
I didn’t tell her that it was I who had told them. “Everybody hates me! Nobody likes me!” I said instead.
“That is not true!” said Mrs Maher, who is always overly optimistic. “People respect you! They think you’re great!”
I didn’t believe her, and looking back, I’m still not sure that I fully agree with her. I was pretty low in the social pecking order, and had somehow even managed to fall out of favour with the less-cool female friendship group. I spent my lunchtimes at music rehearsals, partly as a survival tactic. I took home wheelbarrow loads of prizes at the school awards ceremonies, which didn’t make my life any easier. And now, the label of sexual deviant. A true Year 8 nightmare.
Some time later, a rumour went around that another person in the year level masturbated – this time a boy. I was not sympathetic – mainly I was just glad to have the attention off me. Rather than the two-week ordeal that I suffered, his lasted a day, if that. The message was clear: masturbation is dirty, but so much more dirty if you’re a girl. Girls are so disgusting that they apparently require the use of sticky tape to cover their fingers. I’m saddened by this message and its inherent double standard, and I’m saddened that in Year 8 I believed it and didn’t see how manifestly unfair it was.
I wonder also whether I was chosen as a scapegoat to cover the discomfort and shame others felt about their own emerging sexuality. I was an easy target – social reject, unpractised at fighting back. I wish that rather than denying the rumours, I’d stood up and said, “Yes! It’s true! I do have a rigorous, healthy female sexuality!” But you’re not thinking that in Year 8. You’re wondering how you will survive the next day of school.