Our home lot borders the green belt. One of the five park benches that lines the walking path is just a little way from our fence. People hang out at the bench from time to time. I recognize most of the faces–my neighbor and her grandkids, a regular walker who stops to rest after laps, another nearby neighbor and their Rottweiler-mix dog who likes to mark the grass by the bench again for good measure. Sometimes students from the high school across the way come during lunch hour to vape or smoke this or that. Open spaces are public places, and you see things in them.
When I came into the kitchen to start dinner last Monday afternoon, I noticed a couple on the bench. She sat on the end closest to our house. He stood at the other end, though he moved a few paces in any direction from time to time. I wasn’t trying to spy or pry. I just saw them.
Her head was down, and she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. I paid closer attention on purpose, as this was not the first time the public space outside our yard exposed a male/female drama unfolding. On the first occasion, all of our windows opened wide for an afternoon breeze, we (my kids through their upstairs windows and me through the back windows) heard every word as the pair carried their troubles up and down the pathway. “You just want to f*** someone else! What about me-ee-eee?” the girl wailed through tears and unchecked volume. He kept trying to shush her and walk away. She threw herself at his feet and grabbed onto him, begging him to please, please, please not do this. He managed to walk a few feet with her clinging to his legs. Very dramatic, and very sad. It went on for 30 minutes or more, people passing them on the sidewalk; she never wavered in her lament, not once. As these two new folks talked a Monday ago, I kept an ear and an eye out, waiting with a caution in case something turned sour or violent.
After a little bit, the young man scooched his way to make enough room to sit beside her. He put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulders. Maybe we are on the way to a mending, I thought, and I kept working on the vegetables at hand. They both stood up. I put my knife down and turned my sight again toward them.
He leaned down to kiss her. Intense kiss for an public walkway. He put his hand on her breast, and she backed away a little bit, looking around. He moved where she moved, and he kissed her again and put his hand between her legs. She backed away again. I found myself becoming angry and protective of her. She seemed a bit anxious as she turned her head in this direction or that several times to see if anyone was approaching. He pressed into her again and put his hands on her, in several places. He put his hand down his own pants to adjust himself. She backed away again. As one of the regular walkers came closer, he sat down. They played casual until the coast cleared, and she bent from the waist and leaned her face in to kiss him, her body far from him. After a few more minutes, they gathered their things and left.
I thought of an article I read earlier that day. The title alone hurt my heart before I read one word: “Sex Before Kissing: 15-year old girls dealing with porn addicted boys.” Another article I had read a few weeks ago, “What It’s Like to be a 13-year old on Social Media Today,” directed me to more information I wish I didn’t have to learn. These represent numerous links to material that I have read over the course of the last 8 years or so as we’ve tried to navigate well the process of raising kids in an internet world.
A friend on said internet shared a story about a restaurant owner who booted a customer for being a pig, and I took it in with heightened awareness now that one of my girls flies solo and the other one works in the service industry. I applaud this guy–“Brewery owner boots sexist customer, unleashes must-read rant for women in the service industry“–but the overall content gives me a shudder to think my girls will have to learn to traipse through this kind of manure for years to come.
Flashbacks from high school and college stirred within me after the scene out my window.
A male co-worker walking into me and pressing against me without warning or permission while we were in the cold room by ourselves.
An upperclassman who told me if I dressed differently (the right way) I would be able to show off my body.
An older regular at the restaurant where I waitressed who talked to me often; I politely refused a gift he gave me, and turned cool and stopped talking to me.
The time I stood there, and before I realized what he was doing and why, I let a young man pull on the hem of my shirt so that he could see the outline of my breasts.
A first date who, after one or two kisses (not long and elaborate ones), unbuckled his belt and began unbuttoning his jeans, because sex was the obvious expectation. I said no. The date ended. I never heard from him again.
An employer who accidentally brushed my chest with the back of his hand as he handed some papers to me.
A male who found out where I worked and learned the phone number there, who showed up unannounced, who did nothing “illegal” but robbed me of freedom to come and go without looking over my shoulder every two seconds.
The reality that my anatomy puts me at a disadvantage in many settings. What a shitty feeling.
I know countless other stories of women with whom I have shared some life–accounts of subtle abuses and objectification and overt abuses and violations and misogyny. My stomach wrenches, because I didn’t have words to call those things what they, in actuality, were. I possessed no defensive tactics to stop or report it, nor education to avoid any shame that came as a result. I know I am not alone.
“Maybe they don’t know that at the tender age of 13 we had to brush off adult men staring at our breasts. Maybe they don’t know that men our dad’s age actually came on to us while we were working the cash register. They probably don’t know that the guy in English class who asked us out sent angry messages just because we turned him down. They may not be aware that our supervisor regularly pats us on the ass. And they surely don’t know that most of the time we smile, with gritted teeth. That we look away or pretend not to notice. They likely have no idea how often these things happen. That these things have become routine. So expected that we hardly notice it anymore.
So routine that we go through the motions of ignoring it and minimizing.”
–From the article “The Thing That All Women Do That You Don’t Know About.”
Most of the above memories hail from 30 years ago. I’ve written before about my own complicity in this scene. My relationship skill set lacked a few good and important pieces. I knew enough to imagine what boys really wanted, and I knew the desire of wanting to be seen and valued. My deepest longings mirrored long-term love stories and marriage, and a regular dose of Girl Porn* fed that fantasy for me. Typical, regular ol’ pornography was hardcopy then, magazine form and bootlegged videos on VHS. I had access to that, too, which doesn’t help any person become a better human. Walking through adolescence way back when was challenging enough. What of now?
I have been afraid of raising a son, because his anatomy puts him at a particular disadvantage also. My context for boys his age rest primarily in my memories, and the rest I gather from what I observe around me. I don’t want him to be that guy. His context is different; it is not my own, nor is it the contexts of those boys I knew or the boys I see out there. No one can parent the kid that they were or the kids not in their care; they must parent the kids that they have.
The couple sharing some kind of exchange outside my house last Monday didn’t ask for my commentary. They may be an example of a perfectly healthy high school dating relationship where everything is consensual. Or maybe they (either one of them) don’t really know about consent, because a lot of people don’t. (This helpful illustration will help you if you are confused yourself.) I don’t think that small slice of relationship glory represents every single young person here or abroad. I know that it doesn’t mean my son will be casually placing his hands on a girl’s body right out in public, or that my girls will be prey to males with one appendage directing their mobility. But it gave me pause. It gave me sadness. It drove me to prayer.
Lord, have mercy. We live in this world you made, a world full of possibility and promise and hope and beauty that breaks us in the best of ways. And we don’t always live here well. Fractures and splinters cut us. We make larger the chasm between ourselves and the glory for which we were created. Have mercy.
*Melanie Dale addresses this first from the point of view of a married woman, since she is married. But Girl Porn is a real thing for females of any age, and I’ve known a high school boy or two to utilize it to round the bases. It could go in the flashback section above.