I was at a bat mitzvah. There were something like seventy-five young girls and boys. The boys were unremarkable, small, squeaky, awkward. The girls, much less so. Teetering on three- and four-inch heels, wearing revealing dresses, made up (some garishly, some tastefully), and porting breasts and hips to which they hadn’t yet grown accustomed, these girls were, um, eye-catching.
Now – I’m not a pervert. (Well, ok, maybe I am. But I’m not that kind of pervert.) But I was struck.
At one point, a 14-year-old, wearing a white dress that I could swear I’d seen on a stripper once or fifteen times, leaned against a glass wall (behind which I happened to be standing, talking on my phone). She had an itch on her ass, which she scratched. In an un-self-conscious, but unskilled way, as befitting her age.
Her dress rode up her ass, up to her hip, as she scratched herself, revealing her bright red thong (which, honestly, I had noticed when her dress was in its rightful position), and one-and-a-half full, round buttocks. I felt a bit like a voyeur at a wreck: I couldn’t look away, and yet, I knew I should. My eyes weren’t supposed to be drawn to this… this… kid. I wasn’t supposed to have the thoughts I had. At least, not the immediate, reflexive thoughts.
Because the truth is, I saw those thoughts instantly, and traveled into meta-land: why are these girls dressed this way? How are we supposed to interact with this? What is the impact of our collective simultaneous silence in the moment and tsk-tsk-ing at a distance? A few parents did discuss it, but not in a way that I would describe as intellectually, or emotionally, honest. Instead, the party line is something like, “Can you believe the kids today? But, whatchagonnado? They’re all doing it, so you can’t stop one of them? But it’s awful. Yes, really awful.”
This is a confusing, and I fear, ultimately dishonest way of (not) engaging with a reality that’s disturbing, and confusing. And, to be clear, what I think is disturbing, what I find disturbing, is not the hyper-sexualization of kids today, the ways in which girls dress, want to dress, are expected to dress in sexually provocative ways at earlier and earlier ages. I mean, it’s not so much that I like that, that I think it’s good. But it is what it is.
What I find disturbing is our comprehensive, deeply unhealthy unwillingness to engage honestly with the ramifications of what is, indisputably, happening.
I dare say that there isn’t a straight man at a bat mitzvah who doesn’t have, um, impure thoughts relating to one or more of the girls present.
Not that he (we, I) would, for a minute, entertain actually doing anything sexual with a young girl.
But I don’t believe it’s possible to be a straight man, surrounded by scantily clad, provocatively attired, nubile young (yes, very young) women and not think about sex. There. I’ve said it. I’m sorry. I confess: when surrounded by dozens of early and mid-teen girls, wearing short dresses and high heels, my thoughts turn to sex.
So then, there we are. Standing next to our wives, our friends, our relatives, harboring not just impure thoughts, but truly, genuinely, shameful thoughts. And what we do in that moment is just about the worst thing a person can do in such a situation (trust me – I speak as an addict): we suppress the thought. We deny it, repress it, and internally flagellate ourselves for having had it.
This is a disaster. A true train wreck. There is nothing worse a person can do with shameful thoughts than tell himself they’re shameful and (try to) shut them down. This is tantamount to ingesting poison.
So I’m doing the opposite, here. I’m shining light on it. To be clear, I’m not saying I wanted to fuck those little girls. I’m saying that I found myself feeling confusing feelings, thinking confusing thoughts, in their presence. And my experience has taught me that when I think confusing thoughts, when I feel confusing feelings, the best thing for me to do is to talk about them, to write about them.
I’m not sure where I think this ought to go, what I think ought to happen, what should have been said. As between me and T, for example, I think that what I’m doing with this entry actually is healthy, good, appropriate: I’m acknowledging my feelings and thoughts in her sight, and I’m having (behind the scenes – she read a draft of this and commented thoughtfully, helpfully) a discussion with her about it.
But as between me and my other friends? I’m less sure. I have one friend, my best friend from childhood. For various reasons, we don’t talk all that much any more, and when we do, we’re far less candid than we once were. AND, his daughters are prime examples of this phenomenon. Twenty years ago (ok, maybe even ten) we would have been able to have a candid, and funny, conversation, beginning with an acknowledgement of the inappropriateness of what we were about to do, followed by a safe objectification of the girls present, and probably ending with a genuinely intellectual and emotional exploration of what had just happened (and what hadn’t). But now, because of the state of our relationship, because of the stage of development of his daughters, this series of conversations is out of reach.
I hunger for it, though.
T reacted to a draft of this entry by asking what it would mean to “engage honestly with the ramifications of what is, indisputably, happening.” She asks me what I’m talking about here, what would have been “helpful”. She added, “the conversation about the meaning and function of child (girl) hypersexualization is the one I would have been most interested in having in that context. Not a condemnatory, fire-breathing ‘men are brutes’ conversation but a conversation about how the fact that it is a cultural norm to dress and present in this way interacts with girls’ self-conceptions as both sexual and non-sexual beings.”
I have two (very different) answers, both somewhat utopian:
The first, perhaps less utopian answer, is that what would, I think, be “helpful” is precisely what I’m doing here. If all the men who felt confusing, shameful things found a venue that worked for them to talk about those thoughts and feelings, a venue in which they would not be shamed, but rather, heard, understood. Certainly, writing this has been helpful for me. It would be great if all men could know, could feel in their bones, what I’m striving to know and feel here: that it’s not shameful to have these feelings or think these thoughts. What would be shameful would be acting on them. And that the mere having of these feelings and thoughts is, if anything, probably pretty normal.
The second, perhaps more utopian answer, is that I would love to imagine a world in which adult friends and acquaintances could have such discussions in the moment, to avoid the public transmission of the message that such conversations are or should be taboo. But many of us have discovered something remarkable as a result of the internet, blogs, Twitter, and therapy: it’s often true that the people with whom are lives are most (seemingly) intimately bound in “real life” are not those with whom we necessarily feel most comfortable discussing the more complex corners of our interiors. At least partially because, to the extent that we have secrets, it is often precisely from these people that we keep these secrets. So while I might like to imagine a world in which such conversations could be had between real-life friends and acquaintances, this may just be a bit too much to hope for.
I haven’t written about, or even considered, what it is to be an adult woman in this setting. Surely, it has its own complexities and challenges. I’d be really curious to hear a woman’s take on all this. Not so much a reaction to what I’ve written as a report of her own feelings and thoughts in the moment and afterward.