When I was growing up in the 1960s, I was taught by the adult world that good girls never had sex and bad girls did. This rule had clarity going for it but little else; as it was presented to me, it allowed no room for what I actually might feel. Within the confines of this rule, I didn’t count for much, and I quite vigorously rejected it. Then came the less clear “rules” of cultural trend and peer example that said that if you were cool you wanted to have sex as much as possible with as many people as possible. This message was never stated as a rule, but, considering how absolutely it was woven into the social etiquette of the day (at least in the circles I cared about), it may as well have been. It suited me better than the adults’ rule — it allowed me my sexuality, at least — but again it didn’t take into account what I might actually want or not want.
Many middle-class people — both men and women — were brought up, like I was, to equate responsibility with obeying external rules. And when the rules no longer work, they don’t know what to do. If I had been brought up to reach my own conclusions about which rules were congruent with my internal experience of the world, those rules would have had more meaning for me. Instead, I was usually given a series of static pronouncements. For example, when I was thirteen, I was told by my mother that I couldn’t wear a short skirt because “nice girls don’t wear skirts above the knee.” I countered, of course, by saying that my friend Patty wore skirts above the knee. “Patty is not a nice girl,” returned my mother. But Patty was nice. My mother is a very intelligent and sensitive person, but it didn’t occur to her to define for me what she meant by “nice,” what “nice” had to do with skirt length, and how the two definitions might relate to what I had observed to be nice or not nice — and then let me decide for myself. It’s true that most thirteen-year-olds aren’t interested in, or much capable of, philosophical discourse, but that doesn’t mean that adults can’t explain themselves more completely to children. Part of becoming responsible is learning how to make a choice about where you stand in respect to the social code and then holding yourself accountable for your choice.
I was a strong-willed child with a lot of aggressive impulses, which, for various reasons, I was actively discouraged from developing. My early attraction to aggressive boys and men was in part a need to see somebody act out the distorted feelings I didn’t know what to do with, whether it was destructive or not. I suspect that boys who treat girls with disrespectful aggression have failed to develop their more tender, sensitive side and futilely try to regain it by “possessing” a woman. Lists of instructions about what’s nice and what isn’t will not help people in such a muddled state.
I think men and women will always have to struggle to behave responsibly. But I think we could make the struggle less difficult by changing the way we teach responsibility and social conduct. To teach a boy that rape is “bad” is not as effective as making him see that rape is a violation of his own masculine dignity as well as a violation of the raped woman. It’s true that children don’t know big words and that teenage boys aren’t all that interested in their own dignity. But these are things that children learn more easily by example than by words, and learning by example runs deep.
A few years ago I invited to dinner at my home a man I’d known casually for two years. I didn’t have any intention of becoming sexual with him, but after dinner we slowly got drunk and were soon floundering on the couch. I was ambivalent not only because I was drunk but because I realized that although part of me was up for it, the rest of me was not. So I began to say no. He parried each “no” with charming banter and became more aggressive. I went along with it for a time because I was amused and even somewhat seduced by the sweet, junior-high spirit of his manner. But at some point I began to be alarmed, and then he did and said some things that turned my alarm into fright. I don’t remember the exact sequence of words or events, but I do remember taking one of his hands in both of mine, looking him in the eyes, and saying, “If this comes to a fight you would win, but it would be very ugly for both of us. Is that really what you want?”
His expression changed and he dropped his eyes; shortly afterward he left.
It is not hard for me to make such decisions now, but it took me a long time to get to this point. I only regret that it took so long, both for my young self and for the boys I was with, under circumstances that I now consider disrespectful to all concerned.
From “On Not Being a Victim,” which appeared in the March 1994 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 166-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.