This story may not seem that bad, but I’ve felt terrible about it for years, although the reasons have evolved.
I was a junior in high school at the back-to-school dance. I was shy, awkward. I was in band and worked on the literary journal and was in drama club. You’ve seen the character in teen movies.
I’ll add, unsurprisingly, that I was a virgin at 16, which I don’t think was uncommon. I was perhaps more virginal than some: never had a girlfriend, never really kissed or been kissed, outside of a couple quick pecks during a game at band camp (yes, band camp).
A friend and I were hanging at the edge of the dancefloor, evaluating our peers, evaluating ourselves. There was a senior girl we both knew, though not well, who had, to use an outdated term, “blossomed” the year before. I don’t remember the specifics of this girl’s transformation. Maybe she’d had her braces removed. Maybe she’d gotten rid of her bangs, which were not as popular in 2000 as now. Maybe she went to a different store and bought different clothes and wore them in a different way. Whatever it was, this girl had emerged from our own clique undeniably hot. Now she was dancing, and we were watching.
Of course none of this—how the girl chose to dress or do her hair or her makeup, how she chose to present herself to the world, how she chose to dance—had anything to do with me and my friend. But it felt like it did. Because why put effort into your appearance if not to invite attention? Why be attractive if not to attract?
My friend and I were having this discussion in not quite these words. It struck us as bullshit that one must “play games” to “win” sex. Wouldn’t it be better for all involved if an interested man could approach an interesting woman and say, “I’m interested in having sex with you”? If you admire someone else’s appearance, their body, their face, their look, their vibe, then why not just say so and do away with pretense? If one is drawn to a piece of art or music or literature, one doesn’t mince words or become timid with the language. No, one declares boldly, “This moves me. This is pleasing to me.”
Yes, we were comparing a person to a work of art, which is a way of comparing a person to an object, which is a way of objectifying a person. We were upset that we had to appreciate another human as a person rather than as a thing put on this earth to be of use to us or, if not, ignored. We were that self-involved, that dumb. That unable to fathom that other people are very familiar mysteries, like us in ways we don’t notice, unlike us in ways we can’t be bothered to imagine.
Confident in our rationalizations, we decided now was the time to shift the paradigm. We would usher in an age of more direct and easy discourse and hopefully, thereby, intercourse.
We approached the girl. We leaned in so we could be heard over the music. She paused in her dancing to listen.
“I just want you to know,” I said, “how much I admire your body.”
I was deliberate with my language. I didn’t want to tell the girl I admired her, or that she was attractive. I wanted to leave her out of the whole thing as much as possible. This wasn’t about her; this was about her body. Because if this was about her, then it was also about me. But I was too shy to even ask a girl out, so this couldn’t be about me and her; it had to be about her body, and my body, and a desire I hoped we could share in as uncomplicated a manner as possible.
My friend put things a bit more bluntly, but it was only different in tone, not substance. The girl stared at us. I could see she was shocked. And why wouldn’t she be? What had been for us the result of an evolving discussion, a thoughtfully (though stupidly) laid out strategy, had been for her an unexpected, uninvited intrusion on her evening, her space, herself. She gave a wordless gasp, then turned and walked away, retreating to the cafeteria downstairs.
My friend and I regrouped, reevaluated. Clearly there had been an unforeseen flaw in our plan, and now some unintended consequences. The intended consequence had been, I suppose, this girl deciding that she would have sex with one or both of us, if not immediately then in the near future. The unforeseen flaw had been our failure to consider the possibility that our desire had no place in this girl’s life; that she had absolutely no interest in us or in what we thought of her; that she especially did not want to be told by two young men barely involved in her life that they considered her body desirable, completely divorced from the person who there indwelled.
I went downstairs to the cafeteria to find her. She was at a table talking with some mutual friends. I sat diagonally across from her and stayed sheepish and silent, exchanging eye contact with her in an attempt to convey my regret until I felt like she had, through some knowing smile or nod or other gesture, bestowed a degree of forgiveness on me.
(But I never actually apologized. I never actually said any words to her about what I’d done. So, if by chance she reads this: I’m sorry. I’ve been sorry, although I didn’t know for a long time what I should be sorry for.)
I think back to that night regularly, when we collectively discuss how terrible men can be to women. When rape is in the news, or when women are harassed on the street or online, or when a presidential candidate brags about sexually assaulting women. Men feel entitled to women’s attention and their bodies. I don’t know how or where it starts, but it gets to each of us. I was raised by a mother who was the breadwinner, by a father who was a stay-at-home dad who never treated my mother with anything less than loving respect, but I was still influenced strongly enough by the culture, by the little vibrating wavelengths of misogyny, that I saw no issue with approaching a girl and telling her that I appreciated her body like a beautiful object, separate from anything she had to contribute as a person to the world.
What I’m trying to say is: I think I’m a good guy, and I still felt I deserved that girl’s attention and time, was unable to think of her in terms outside of my own selfish desire, and who knows how many other little ways I have made women’s lives worse over the years? We want to believe that there are good guys and there are bad guys, but we’re all just men, and men are empowered by the brute substance of our bodies and enabled by society to do terrible things.
That night, I felt shame: the childish shame of being caught, the dread of embarrassment. I did not feel remorse, because I didn’t understand how I had wronged that girl. I didn’t touch her, but I hurt her. It’s taken me years to understand where my words fit on a spectrum of demanding, dangerous, self-entitled masculinity. I made her life worse that night, and while I would like to hope my comments were the only and worst way a man ever made her feel like less than a full and complex human, knowing men, I have to doubt that.
This article originally appeared on Mandercamp
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