From the Archive — From the April 2017 issue

Nice Girls

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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.

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