How to raise women

— pussy grabbing trigger warning —

OK, let me set the scene for this story:  Late 1980s. I was 13, maybe 14, and my family had recently moved to South Dakota, so I was actively trying to make friends.  A fair amount of B-rate hair bands blew through the local arena, and it was generally considered that the luckiest kids lived in our city, because we were big enough to host the likes of Skid Row, Bullet Boys, and Winger*.

Does it seem weird to let a group of 13-year-olds go to a concert unattended from  8  to 11ish on a Saturday night?  Frankly, between the current helicopter parenting and my somewhat feral childhood, I sometimes feel I have no good perspective.

Anyway, at my last concert**, I got separated from my friends.  I know exactly how this went down:  We were in general admission floor, and one of my friends spotted another 13-14 year old we knew from school, who’d climbed up on something and lifted her shirt up to her neck, to show her whole torso, bra exposed.  The security guy pointed at her, and she got down, shrieking laughter.  I thought they were going to throw her out.  “No, they’re going to let her go backstage!” my friend shouted in my ear and pushed her way through the crowd to get to our classmate.

Which is how I ended up alone, mostly because I was still in shockland of Wait, what?  What just happened?  And some super naïve Why does taking your shirt off in front of a thousand people get you backstage?

Anyway, a few minutes later, an adult man who stood in front of me reached back and grabbed me between the legs.  The pussy, as it were.

I jumped back, thinking he must have me confused with his girlfriend – he wasn’t even looking at me for cripes sake, certainly it had to be a mistake.  That’s when he shoved his hand down the front of my jeans,  into my underpants.  I hit his arm many times. He never turned his head so I could see his face, but walked backwards to follow me as I tried to get away from him.  After maybe 45 seconds, he withdrew, and I ran out of the concert, and used a pay phone to call my mom.

She picked me up, worried for my friends, who wouldn’t know what had happened to me.  I told her I didn’t care, because some guy had stuck his hand down my pants.  After a moment, my mom said in a sad voice, “Well, that’s what happens at concerts.”

That was totally my last concert for a really long time.  Still won’t go to an arena concert, and fuck hairbands.

That was nearly 30 years ago.  As mother to girls, I am still struggling with this same issue.  See, there is what should happen, and what does happen.   And then there’s how you raise someone to negotiate both truths.  I think my mother was trying to protect me from future assaults, to show me the way the world works.

But also, her response sucked.  I mean, the pathos, the fact she somehow knew bad things were going to happen but didn’t warn me about it prior, my residual fear following that night: what other events had secret rules?  When was I safe and when should I know I wouldn’t be?  The sense conveyed by my mom’s body language that there was really no way to protect from pussy grabbing (although I had halfway learned that from the experience already) — it was like bad weather, all you could do was huddle up and endure if you got caught up in it.

Women have to do incredible mental gymnastics to hold both truths about themselves in their mind – Your body is your own business.  You will get assaulted as part and parcel of life events.  Men and women are equal.  You are valued based on a scale of 1-10 assessing physical attributes.  What happened to you is wrong, and also you asked for it, maybe in some way you didn’t even realize you were asking.  It’s not your fault, but take these precautions to prevent it from happening.  It is your fault.

I guess one way to go is like my classmate from yesterdecade – don’t deny a fucked up system, just learn to work it to get what you want. But god, that sucks.  And I think, always ends up with the woman losing anyway.

Mostly, I’m concerned with the balance of how to teach my kids they should not put up with shitty behavior because they are women, without setting them up to be so far outside the social norms that they become targets.

Even now, my older kids’ classmates are saying stuff like, “I don’t care if I fail P.E., I’m not going to sweat and ruin my make-up.” When one of my kids joined an extracurricular STEM Club, “Ew… that’s for boys.”  At 10-12 there is definitely the groundwork that men are allowed to do stuff that women shouldn’t.  Women should become objects.

Last year, one of my local friends, who is big into volleyball, told me that within the amateur-competitive circuit in our area, there are courts that do not allow women to play (they are called ‘pristine’).  When this friend told me this, she said it with an annoyed eye-roll, “Hmmph, boys will be boys!”  She has served dinner to a man who owns a pristine court.  She believes showing him what a great player she is on other courts will prove to him she has the right to play his.

Brock Turner got 3 months.  The President Elect of the United States bragged about pussy grabbing, and got elected anyway.

So I think that despite the fact its 2016, and a huge part of me can’t believe I have to say and think these things, it seems a realistic concern that teaching my kids to be ‘too’ feminist/requiring equal treatment/refusing to play sexual-social games will probably result with social punishments ranging from isolation to potentially being ostracized or even targeted.  How do you prepare kids for what should be true while also preparing them for what is?

Input appreciated.

PS:  This is a terrific (and to me, radical) talk by Jill Soloway on the female gaze.  Some of her points I’m not totally on-board with (I’d have to do more research on whether I think language is male oriented, and I think she’s sometimes pretty harsh on cis males, etc.,), but I’ve watched it a couple of times, and it has made me think about my internalized sexism, art as propaganda, and what tools are available to me in affecting change in the world.  Maybe you will enjoy it too!

*Winger’s big hit was “Seventeen.”  When Jill Soloway talks about Rod Stewart songs, I think of being a kid singing along to Seventeen, and now wonder what the fuck I thought society was prepping me for.

**Not indicating this concert was for any of the bands named in the first paragraph.

10 Replies to “How to raise women”

  1. Harsh experience. My reaction to your concluding question is similar to my reaction to the results of the election, which was “Why is anyone surprised that sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc., remain deeply rooted in our society and cultures?” I think your concern about the possible effects on your kids of what you want to teach them is a valid one. But I also think it’s not too early — your youngest is at least 7, right? — to also teach them that people hold very different beliefs and ideas and that they may have to learn how to express and act on what they themselves think right sometimes without endangering themselves. Sometimes they will be able to consult you first, but how do you teach them in advance how to handle situations that may require an immediate response? Do they compromise themselves by remaining silent or not doing something? I guess you yourself need to think through a lot of possible scenarios and then talk about them or act them out in ways that are not frightening.
    I am also remembering your post about girls’ T-shirts and your daughters’ reactions to them.
    Curious to read what others post.
    Randomly, I was reflecting yesterday how annoyed I get when men of a certain race/ethnicity push past me when we’re all trying to get on the train. I know I believe it’s a prejudice of that particular culture, but why do I think that men should let women go ahead of them? (I do myself always hold doors open for people of any gender or age.) And if white men of a certain socioeconomic status do let women go first, does that really reflect more general respect for women or is it just a token gesture (the latter, I will have to conclude).
    Even more randomly, I was reading this about an hour ago. It may seem a little off topic, but you’ll see the point.

  2. Hi Jan,

    Posting made me anxious for the following reasons:

    Putting my kids personal lives on the internet
    Putting an assault experience on the internet
    Rehashing a bad experience
    I don’t tend to make good arguments about emotional stuff, and so I feared I would not make sense, or that the point I was trying to make would not be clear, or easily countered.
    Taking my mom to task when she was probably doing the best she could with the information she had
    I haven’t posted for a while, and it’s always crap o’clock in Anne town these days. What does it say about me that everything always sucks in post form?
    Fears nobody will comment/tell me I’m wrong/think I’m making a big deal about nothing or that I’m making light of a big deal
    That I’m inadvertently being a shithead from another point of view. That I’m making someone else feel small with my opinion.

    LOL, you know, just the basics. Thank you for your other comment. I’m still processing it.

  3. I responded to Anne privately, but I think reporting what happened to her and discussing the possibility of and how to handle repercussions for parenting direction was the right thing to do and good and helpful. Making light of a big deal or making a big deal about nothing? Being a shithead? I don’t think so. Who would feel small? That guy, I hope.

  4. I have a 17 yo daughter, but I think some of the best ways to teach children are based in a safe environment.
    Hey, it’s not always safe being a human, have you noticed anything lately that scares you?
    Listen to that feeling in your insides that says run, especially if you don’t have any friends around.
    Back to the basics with, people don’t have permission to touch you, no matter what position of power they have.
    You can always tell me anything, even if you’re sworn to secrecy, I won’t tell unless someone may get hurt.
    Mom is a safety zone, for you and any of your friends.
    It’s not a bad idea to teach them how to correctly throw a punch so that they don’t hurt themselves in the process.
    My dad always made sure I could throw a punch, and that I had an appropriately sized pocket knife if I was going somewhere besides school.
    Most of the time, I just taught/teach my daughter that there are dangerous people out there, and that she needs to be prepared to look out for herself and any others that she is with; in case they haven’t been taught.
    Sometimes things will happen that she hasn’t been specifically prepared for, but I think she has a decent grounding in both, prepare for the shitty, but enjoy the safety.
    It sucks so much that we have to teach girls any of this. Also, I’m sorry that that happened to you at any age.

  5. Urrgh…this post immediately brought up a memory. I was sitting on the front porch of our farm. And Mr. Pike came and sat beside me, put his arm around me, grabbed my boob, and jiggled it. I don’t remember what happened after that. My dad had died. It was just me and my mom, and the Pikes helped us out a lot. I never told anyone. I have never told anyone before this. I am 70 years old and I have never forgotten it. And I have never felt safe.

    My two daughters are strong, independent, confident women. I think (hope) they have been luckey. I worry about my granddaughter.

  6. There is something that has stuck in my craw, and I heard it again last night in an episode of “The Fallen” on Netflix. The main character, Gillian Anderson tells a man who has just suggested that he thinks she is drawn to the serial killer (they are both cops) she is working toward bringing to justice. The words he uses are “fascinating” and “strange allure.” She says:

    “A woman, I forget who, once asked a friend who was a man, why men felt threatened by women. He replied that they were afraid that women might laugh at them. When she asked a group of women why women felt threatened by men, they said, we’re afraid that men might kill us.

    He might fascinate YOU…. I despise him with every fiber of my being.”

    I once read a marriage self-help book, that was supposed to help women understand men, and men understand women. According to the book…. shockingly, authored by a man, the above is true, and that the cortisol responses of each sex to their own “kryptonite fear” were the same level of painful to the gender that experiences it. That it felt as horrible to men to be in anticipation of failure/being laughed at, as it felt for women to feel threatened with violence and/or deprivation.

    The book never really got into any differences there may be in men being actually laughed at, as opposed to women being actually beaten or actually murdered. Most men cannot see the difference, where any woman can explain the basic difference between humiliated and dead. Go figure.

    As far as the stories that have come out of the woodwork via the newly President Elect…. Well. I haven’t met many women without at least one tale to tell, and now they are being told. I know some women with whole Harry Potter series length stories, I am only somewhat unfortunate in my three part miniseries of story to tell.

    How am I to raise my babies, knowing what I know? I think you said it all…

    “Women have to do incredible mental gymnastics to hold both truths about themselves in their mind – Your body is your own business. You will get assaulted as part and parcel of life events. Men and women are equal. You are valued based on a scale of 1-10 assessing physical attributes. What happened to you is wrong, and also you asked for it, maybe in some way you didn’t even realize you were asking. It’s not your fault, but take these precautions to prevent it from happening. It is your fault.My heart breaks that here we are, and here are my daughters 15, 13 and 11.”

    Just recently re-read “Reviving Ophelia” and while I don’t subscribe to all of the author’s take on the best way to raise adolescent girls, I highly recommend it as an informative read.

  7. Whoops… I ran some of my thoughts into quoting your post! BTW, I’d really love to have a conversation with you about The Fallen, if you do watch it. I am SOOOOOOOO bugged by certain aspects of the show, but I don’t know if me feeling bugged is because of what is going on in ,y mind, or what is going on in the story. UGH! And the whole program is a trigger warning, THE END. Still, want to think out loud about some of it… and have your take. Like an online book club for Netflix. Kinda.

  8. No input, but YES! HOW? Why?…..
    My kids are at that age that too much information frightens them, too little brings up too many questions. So I spend a lot of time trying to age appropriately explain things to them and cussing myself for even bringing it up.
    During election season, my husband and I had several terse discussions about the female experience. He’s never experienced working for someone who made sexually suggestive comments about you, your body, your female coworkers, female customers, on the regular. He’s never worked a job where he had to work harder to prove he can hang with the guys. I have. He’s never had a customer ask for a man instead of you, when what you’re talking about has no bearing on your sex. Hell, he’s never been judged on his parenting, his decision to work outside the home, or why he looks frumpy all the time. For reals. And a frightening thought crept in my mind during this time. This man, whom I love, is decent and supports me, will never understand. And we have a daughter, and a son. Children I expect him to teach to be strong and independent and stand up for themselves…children he will be a good role model too, except that he may pass on inherent bias he doesn’t even realize.
    And here I am. Same as you. Trying to figure out how to arm my daughter to protect herself and play the game, but not make her into too much of a feminazi. And how to make my son aware of how things are, again, without coming across too strong, lest I be labeled his feminazi mom.

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