I came of age in the 1990s, but what I was taught about dealing with men sounds like it could have been lifted straight out of a So You’ve Become a Fertile Female! After School Special. Without prefacing why I’m discussing this — as I feel, this week, at this point in history, it needs no introduction — I want to discuss some very fucked up, damning, can’t-win “wisdom” that gets bestowed.
I was taught as a young woman — no, not even. As a child; a little girl just old enough to consider that the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, & Jesus might not be real, but who was still young enough to cling to her belief like a ratty old security blanket.
I was taught as a little girl to always smile and be polite to men.
Well, men. You know. Men. Teachers. My friend’s dad. My Dad’s friend. The old men at the grocery store who said shit like, “Growing up fast! You’ll have to beat the boys back with a baseball bat in a few years!”
Or the middle-aged men who stood so close to me I could smell the aftershave their wives bought them for their last birthday (she threw a nice party, made dinner too, and he still guilted her into an exhausted blowjob at the end of the night). The men who called me a “pretty little thing” (A thing! Ah, but what word did I hang on? Pretty? Little?) and thought it a shame I wasn’t old enough to date their sons (which seemed like thinly veiled fantasies of my being in their house).
Okay, well. . .how much should I smile?
Enough — but not too much.
How polite should I be?
Be nice. Friendly — but not too friendly.
What’s too friendly?
You know, just don’t lead him on.
I’m six years old!!!
You’re never too young —
To . . .learn this stuff.
Fine. Why do I have to smile and be polite if he’s bothering me? When my little brother is annoying me, you tell me to tell him (nicely) to stop. And then if he doesn’t, I tell you.
You don’t want to upset them.
Because they’ll get upset. They’ll get mad or embarassed — and then they might hurt you.
You don’t want to risk finding out how.
What if I ask him *nicely* to stop — like my teacher told me to do when that boy at school is bugging me?
Well, he might not.
The boy at school does. Sometimes.
Yes, and do you know why?
Because he knows if he doesn’t he’ll get in trouble.
Right. Well, that’s not how it works with grown-up men.
Why not? Don’t they know they’ll get in trouble?
Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but mostly, they just won’t get in trouble.
That’s not fair.
No, it’s not. But this is how it is, and you have to protect yourself. Do you understand?
*sigh* I guess so. But what if a man does get upset? Or he makes me really uncomfortable?
Well, if he tries to touch you, you tell him your Daddy is a police officer.
Daddy isn’t a police officer.
That’s a lie!
Yes, it is.
I’m not supposed to lie!
Well, if a man is trying to touch you, you can lie about that because maybe if he thinks he’ll get in trouble, he’ll let you go.
You just said that doesn’t work on grown-up boys.
Well, sometimes it does. But if it doesn’t, then you scream really loud and say NO, and then you run.
What if I can’t? What if he’s hurting me too much?
You just keep saying no, no, no, no!
Why couldn’t I have said no in the first place? Why do I have to wait?
Because you don’t want to antagonize him.
So, I’m only supposed to tell him no when he’s already hurting me, but not when he’s just making me uncomfortable—?
Right. Just smile and be polite.
But what if I smile and be polite so he won’t hurt me, but that makes him think that I want him to touch me because I was being friendly and not telling him to go away and no!!
Then you were being too friendly.
Well, how will I know if I’m being too friendly?
If he tries something with you.
What if he tries something with me and I haven’t even said anything yet?!
Well, you have to be careful what you wear. That’s why you have to wear pajamas when you spend the night at your friend’s house instead of your nightie, because their Dad and brother are there and it’s inappropriate.
You’re never too young to . . . learn this stuff.
What about if I’m at school and I’m not wearing my nightie?
You have to be careful that you don’t wear clothes that show too much.
Too much what?
Of your body.
How much is too much?
You don’t have to be totally covered up, but you don’t want to be too revealing either.
Well, how will I know if I’m showing too much?
Men might whistle at you, or try to touch you.
But that man whistled at you downtown the other day and you were wearing jeans and a sweatshirt with a picture of a LEAF on it!!!!
Well, sometimes they do that.
Even if you’re not showing too much? Or even talking to them at all!?!
Well, then why do I have to do all this stuff if they’re just gonna do what they want anyway!! That’s not fair!!
I know, but it’s just how it is.
But why do I have to?!
To protect yourself.
You just do.
. . .
Do I have to be like this with every man?
Just the ones that bother you.
How will I know if he’s bothering me? What if *he’s* just being nice?
Well, you have to protect yourself in case he’s not. Or in case he’s nice at the beginning but then decides to not be nice.
Why do I have to be nice all the time but he doesn’t?
It’s just the way it is.
Well, I’ll know if he’s a bad man, right? I’ll know if he’s a man who is going to hurt me because he’ll look like a bad man.
Not necessarily. He might look like a good man, and act really nice. He might be someone you know. He might be a teacher or your friend’s dad.
But how will I know a man wants to hurt me? How will I know when to stop smiling and be polite and start yelling and saying NO!!!
Well, do that if he hurts you.
What if he’s being really nice right up until the last second and then he’s hurting me?! What if I can’t say no fast enough?!
Well, you should have said no sooner.
But I was smiling and being polite so he wouldn’t hurt me!
Well, you have to say no so he doesn’t hurt you.
This is very confusing and I’m scared.
. . .
Will it be easier when I’m grown up?
It was women who told us: Smile. Be Polite. Say No if He Hurts You.
But they never told us what to do for each other.
Smile. Be Polite.
Make Direct Eye Contact With The Woman in the Bread Aisle.
Plead Silently With Her for Rescue.
I’d always been looking for the logic in a situation that didn’t have any. A damned if you do damned if you don’t situation created to keep a woman perpetually unsure of it — and herself. I never arrived at any logical conclusions, so I began looking for a loophole. I began looking for a way to justify taking action in a situation that demanded my passivity.
I could be The Other Woman, I thought. I could be that woman in the bread aisle, armed with a different kind of constant vigilance. I had been taught to Smile and Be Polite and Only Say No If or When He’s Hurting You — but no one ever said I had to Smile and Be Polite if I saw another woman getting “bothered”— or hurt.
Oh, but I could just hear those warning voices —
It’s not your business! Stay out of it!
Oh, fuck off.
Stop teaching your daughters that they have to wait for a social green light before they can tell a man NO.
Stop giving them fatal false hopes that protecting a man’s feelings before their own will protect them.
Stop telling young women that a smile will keep her from getting raped when you’ll turn around and tell her after that she got raped because she smiled.
Abby Norman is a science writer and editor based in New England. Her first book ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN will be released March 6, 2018.