— 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?
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.