Dear 15-Year-Old Chris, It’s Time to Knock Your Hustle
A letter to my younger self.
Sex ed needs a refresh. If you could write a letter to your teenage self telling them what you wish you had known about sex back then, what would you say?
You’re 15 years old, the same age Audrie Potts will be when she commits suicide after pictures of her sexual assault by three teenage boys are posted online.
You’re 15 years old with braces and a voice that cracks every five minutes. Your only concern right now is getting through the next few years of high school with good grades so you can get into a good school and get a good job and live a good, successful life as everybody where you live is supposed to do.
You’ve had crushes, a lot of them in fact. Like most teenage romantic interests, these exist largely in fantasy and nothing will come of them. But you’ll hold out hope because you’re a nice guy. It’s something you’ve been told both explicitly and implicitly. You deserve a great girl because you’re virtuous and respectful and uniquely positioned to always put her first. And I’m here to tell you that this is one of the most dangerous lessons you’ve been taught.
As you mature, you’ll steadily become more aware of the entitlement you possess to a woman’s
and emotional labor.
Right now, you don’t see it as entitlement but rather the totality of your sexual education in a society built around your needs. This isn’t an education you got while sitting in health class during those family life units where the boys are separated from the girls. This is just what happens when you grow up as a young man in the world.
This won’t make sense to you now but the sex education that you’ll truly need will not come from that classroom. In fact, it’s more about unlearning than learning anything at all.
You’re 15, sitting in the cafeteria at lunch, listening to one of your friends wax poetic about his latest Tucker Max-ian story (you know those stories in which women are reduced to conquered bodies, don’t you?) and you’ll feel no shame. Nobody expects shame out of you, after all. That’s a Real Man’s story told to the approving hoots and hollers of other Real Men. I know adherence to this code mandates you give the storyteller props and congratulate him on his trophy, his belt notch, his non-living, breathing, seeing, loving accomplishment. You’ll laugh at the way intimacy is construed as a game and winning (or rather, losing — virginity, or childhood, or innocence) is all that matters. I know you’re immersed in it and I know this letter is nine years too late.
This is your sexual education at 15. You’ve been taught where to label the Fallopian tubes on a diagram but that won’t stick with you. You’ve been taught to value the commodification of a woman’s sexuality, in a society in which being fuckable, to you a man, is the standard by which they are judged. That will stick with you.
You’ve been taught the ways you shape a girl’s self-image. The ways we simultaneously build up a society that tells young women their worth is based upon their physical features and then get mad when they take it to heart. You’ll learn the ways you make girls feel guilty about how they choose to present or maintain their bodies and their sexuality.
You’ve been taught not to believe women, to respond to their violation with skepticism and a shrug. You’ve been taught to vilify those who grow comfortable in the sanctity of their truth. You haven’t been taught much about consent, but what you do know is that it is a matter for negotiation. You haven’t learned that acceptance of this fact means that predatory behavior by men becomes the norm. You haven’t been taught the ways that power imbalances still exist even in consensual sex, the ways sex can easily become something that happens to women and not with them, that it’s not about you (singular) but you (plural). You haven’t been taught that you know survivors of sexual violence, that you’ll be intimate with those who are survivors of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse at the hands of men.
You’ve been taught the parlance of gendered oppression and dabble in it frequently. You separate “good girls” from “sluts” or “whores” or “cunts” because those groups needn’t be mourned or loved. You crack jokes in which trans women being themselves are the punchline, you fetishize lesbian women in your conversation (and internet search history). You excuse all this stuff because funny! laughing! humor! we didn’t really mean it!…but I know even you know that’s not true.
You’ve been taught why the “friend zone” is to be lamented, that the friendship of a human woman is far secondary to your desire for her romantic or sexual attention. Because hey, you’re a nice guy, right? Those girls are wrong for rejecting you! But you’re just 15 and insecure. You’re 15 and your first thought upon seeing a girl walk into a room is “Would I fuck her”? You’re 15 and you’re laughing and making rape jokes because you find them edgy and you lack the awareness to know that a survivor is at the table next to you. You’re 15 and being failed by a society that doesn’t recognize how pervasive male entitlement envelopes that letter you got sent home with informing your parents about the upcoming sex ed unit. You’re 15 and a casualty of a society building young boys into young men without grappling with all that entails.
I know what that classroom will not be teaching you.
It won’t be teaching you how to earnestly love women. How to be loved by a woman and how to honestly express what that means. How to be gentle and nurturing in that love. It won’t teach you how to reckon with the ways you can be violent, the everyday actions that harm those you love. You need to find that out on your own. It’ll take a while. Right now, you’re only 15.
You’ve learned a lot of myths in that classroom and I don’t just mean Icarus and “the Civil War was about states’ rights”. I mean the myth of purity and the body count and most importantly, the myth of masculinity itself. The myth of a direct yin to the feminine yang, a myth socially constructed as averse to vulnerability and suppressive of the emotional, a performance that is power and dominance and aggression. It claims as cultural imperatives the need to be hard and cold and possessive. And when the expression of that masculinity becomes a socially acceptable behavior for men, the consequences for women are exploitative and often harmful. But I know you’re 15 years old and you’ll buy into the cultural capital of the idea because of the pressure in all directions to live up to that ideal manhood.
My message to you is this — the myth of masculinity constantly resists positive changes geared towards radical love because it means the breakdown of structural power, a structural power that is largely invisible to those who possess it. You have to stop policing yourself to make sure others know that you are a Real Man. You have to stop berating or laughing at other men for showing affection, intimacy, or excitement for the people they care about and choose to love. You have to understand that life is not about fairness, that you’re not owed a woman’s body or her company or her emotional labor just because you paid for dinner or complimented her or just didn’t fuck up. A woman is not a vending machine, she’s a compilation of all the complexities, desires, nuances, and flaws that you have. I know you will fuck up. It’s too difficult not to.
Part of this curtain comes down by calling others out on their bullshit, checking yourself when you expect too much, caring enough about your sisters to confront your brothers. It comes down when you stop drinking the Kool-Aid in which ritualizing the work of loving others (and yourself) isn’t at the forefront. When you treat women as partners in the love and compassion you share, not as accessorized pussy or a vessel for your own sexual gratification or a piece of public property to voice your sexual assessments towards on the street. I know you won’t partake in some of these things. I also know you won’t stop them. You’ve been taught not to knock another man’s hustle.
But here I am knocking your hustle. And I’m asking you to let your friends knock your hustle. Part of your sex education requires you to accept that knocking your hustle is not a callous departure from our shared male identity but as an act grounded in love, fervently wanting you to be better. Real friends will knock your hustle. Love them enough to knock theirs too.
In a few years, you’ll be 22, two years younger than your future student Tamarah* will be when she is sexually assaulted in jail by two correctional officers. You’ll be 22 and in love for the first time. I know, I can’t believe it either. But you will cherish somebody and it will be completely reciprocated. And then one day, while you are trying (and failing) to make a long-distance relationship work, you’ll wake up to a text from her that she sent on her way home from an apartment party. Sandwiched in the middle of her good night message are the words:
“…I had to have a fake bf tonight. He’s gay. Don’t worry…”
The way you are now, 15 and insecure, I know you just breathed a sigh of relief that no straight dude messed with your temple. But the way you’ll feel when you read that…you’ll wake up and feel helpless because you couldn’t do anything about that preface.
“I had to…”
I know you feel helpless but you will gradually begin coming to terms with the ways in which the space you inhabit, space you take for granted daily, is not fully conducive to a woman’s autonomy as it is for yours. The ways in which the male gaze, your gaze, hones in and focuses and critiques and suffocates and indirectly molds others. The ways in which everyday language, your everyday language, can be weaponized as a reflection of a system that accepts misogyny as par for the course. And even worse, you have been taught to shrug off these sad realities as “oh well, that’s the way it is” instead of seeing them as regressive aspects of a patriarchal status quo. A status quo in which real effort is required to bring about the safety measures which “I had to” elicits.
You’ll call her the next evening when you leave work. She’ll tell you that a drunk friend had been getting handsy with her all night and she finally had to get another guy to step in and act as her boyfriend. It worked — the drunk friend would at least respect his wishes — he’s a fellow dude, after all — as if human decency can only come when faced with the reality of a cockblock. She’ll pass a bar as she recounts this story to you and out of nowhere, you’ll hear the shrillness of her scream. A man outside with his friends will grab her on the arm. You’ll hear his gruff voice and her rapid footsteps scurrying away and then you’ll hear his laugh fall off into the distance.
That laugh…the sound of “I can fuck with you and what are you gonna do about it?”, more domineering than it is salacious. It’s a laugh that you’ve heard from a lot of guys and a lot of you. Your laugh. You.
In time, you’ll open your eyes more, your laugh may quell, but your lips will remain sealed. You’ll hear about your friend walking to yoga class last week only to turn around and find a guy taking a picture of her ass. You’ll see your friend at a bar get groped multiple times in one night by guys just passing by. You’ll speak to women for hours every week about their own experiences dealing with sexual abuse. You’ll think of your own friends who have been victimized by male sexual violence. The ones you know about and the others you don’t. But mostly, you’ll think of the ways you continue to fail, the ways you fail to knock the hustle of others, the ways you can work to change.
I told you before that most of your sex education requires unlearning rather than learning. You cannot be an effective part of the fight against oppression if you can’t own the ways in which you exercise entitlement to women in your own life and unlearn that behavior. If you disregard the ways you enable the abuse of women then your sexual education is nothing more than an endorsement of benign neglect. You need to know that you can’t just be a man who dates women and sleeps with women — you have to be a man who genuinely loves them. Women deserve better. Not because they are delicate or vulnerable or emotional or weak but because they simply are.
But even more important is the realization that actively working towards the process of unlearning and then relearning healthier modes of masculinity does not further entitle you to some type of gender canonization. You’ll grow up and you’ll be 24 and you’ll be writing a letter to the person you are now, trying your hardest to be honest. And sorry but trying to be honest doesn’t mean you get to order bottle service in the Good Dude Club — this shit is a constant process of self-reflection and radical work that crumbles in the face of complacency. When the bar is so low, it’s very easy to jump over it and feel like you’re flying. Raising that bar shouldn’t be one more thing she “had to” do. That’s on you, Chris. I’m knocking your hustle.
*Name changed to protect survivor’s privacy