This story is probably not going where you think it’s going.
I have my “me too” moments, as does pretty much every woman I know, and some of the men I know, as well. I don’t often share them, not out of shame, for I am not ashamed, but because one glance at most friends tells me they already know the feeling, if not the details. Specifics aren’t really necessary; most of us already know because we’ve been there.
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Today I’ll tell you about 15-year-old-me in the early 80’s on a short vacation with a high school friend and her parents. A few days in Wildwood, New Jersey, back when Wildwood was a little bit wilder than I think it is now. We didn’t know until we got there that it was the week of college Spring Break, and of course we thought that was awesome. We were pretty innocent, and had decided if we met any hot college guys we would say confidently that we were “in our 16th year” because neither of us wanted to admit to being 15. It didn’t occur to us that saying that would have made us sound even more naive.
The details are hazy after all this time but I remember my friend and I were walking down the street when two guys called out to us from their hotel balcony. We flirted a bit, and then accepted their invitation to come up to their room. Just like that.
They gave us each a beer – our age wasn’t a factor, they didn’t ask. I remember what I was wearing – a very cute crop-top-and-shorts set in sort of watercolor-y pastels. The tiny strip of skin showing beneath the crop top was a little more revealing than normal, for me; at age 15 I already had a pretty unhealthy sense of self-esteem (as in, I had none). But I felt cute that day, and I felt daring.
My friend went out onto the balcony and talked with one of the guys, and I stayed in the room with the other one. I remember his full name to this day, though he only told me his first name at the time. He was a Penn State football player (in recent years there’s been quite a lot written about the Penn State football culture, but I didn’t know about any of that all those years ago). He was huge, and he had dark curly hair and smiley brown eyes. We talked a little bit, and then we started to make out (do they still call it making out?).
Once again, memory fails a bit. I thought about this a lot the other night, trying to remember. He turned the lights off but the room wasn’t dark; it must have been early evening. I recall that I touched him through his clothes, and in fact I may even have touched him under his clothes. “There.” You know. Where I’d never touched anyone else before. I remember his sharp intake of breath, and the strange sort of power I felt in that moment. It was exciting and fun and – this is important – it was consensual. He never pressured me. He was eager but he was careful and he was kind.
At one point the balcony door rattled and he called out his friend’s name. I asked, “What?” and he said, “Nothing,” and it wasn’t until later that I realized that perhaps that was a signal between them: don’t come back in here, things are getting good.
There was lots more kissing. We were laying on the bed (where else is there, in a hotel room?), in our own bubble of young arousal. But I remember that right about then I started to realize I was getting out of my depth, and began to think that maybe I wasn’t as in control of things as I thought. I was starting to get just the faintest “should-I-be-scared-right-now?
He stopped. I don’t remember exactly what I said before he stopped. I know I didn’t have to push him away or even say the word, “stop”. A glimmer of memory says I made a, “Hey now, I’m a good girl,” sort of comment, but that was all. He smoothed my shirt down (aha, another memory resurfaced – my shirt was a little bit tight, and I remember being a tiny bit relieved that he could not roam freely under there even though I was enjoying his touch). He looked at me with real regret and gave me another kiss, then called to his friend, who came back in with my friend. We had a second beer, I think, and then they said they were heading out. My friend and I went back to our hotel room, comparing notes. We were giddy and giggly. I was exhilarated and relieved in equal measure.
So coming forward in time to the present day, in the recent swirl of #metoo stories, the heartfelt justified outpouring of anger and shame and sadness and rage right now, why am I telling this story?
Because boys and men CAN control themselves. Teenagers and college boys CAN behave well, rather than badly. If a college football star (and he was a star; I saw his picture and name in a post-game write-up in the newspaper that autumn) can back off when he realizes all on his own that a young girl is out of her depth and doesn’t want to go any farther, then every other gee-dee man on the planet ought to be able to realize it, too.
[I feel the need to add something here, for the benefit of any who might try to hand-pick part of my story for their own agenda, that being the fact that my memory is hazy in places. The argument could be, “See? You don’t even remember everything! How can anyone possibly accurately recount something thirty-plus years later when they don’t even remember?!” To you, I say this: I don’t remember specifics because I have the luxury of not needing to, about that event. It is a fond memory of a thrilling time in my innocent young teenage life; it has a happy sort of misty glow around it. Go back to an earlier summertime memory of nine-year-old me and I can by-God tell you exactly what I was wearing, where I was being forced to sit, where I was touched, how I was handled, the nausea rising in my stomach, the helpless shock because not only was this bad thing happening but almost worse, there was an adult witness literally three feet away who was doing nothing about it, and how my panic rose as I tried to work out a “polite” escape. You can bet I remember. Because those memories are seared into my heart and mind and guts.]
When I think back on that night in Wildwood when I was fifteen years old, it is with fondness but also with a sort of rueful sadness. Because looking at the situation later, I realized just how lucky I was. We didn’t do anything that I did not absolutely want to do and agree to do. I wasn’t held down, trapped, forced, raped… I was so damn lucky. And it’s sad, really sad, that a coming-of-age memory is tinged with that post-event sense of almost sick-to-the-stomach relief because of how horribly so many other boys and men behave with the belief that it’s perfectly acceptable. I mean, come on! I was wearing a cute outfit! I flirted! We went to their hotel room! There was beer! We Did Things! All “reasons” that so many men seem to think meant that I would have been “asking for it” had the worst actually happened. And that is so damn wrong.
Yes, I’ve had my me-too experiences. But this experience is one that is on my mind right now, because it highlights to me that there is no reason that they can’t all be like that boy was, one warm summer night in the early 80’s. All these people that say they “couldn’t help themselves” or that “boys will be boys” or “that’s just how teenagers are,” are so full of bullshit they make my eyes water. Because they CAN help themselves – they just don’t WANT to.
That big guy who probably outweighed me by a hundred pounds, HE could contain himself. He stopped at the first hint of my discomfiture. He didn’t assume that some kissing and touching meant going however far he wanted to, without thought to what I wanted. He saw that I’d gone as far as I was ready to go, and he respected my boundaries. There was no anger, no petulance, no violence; he just stopped, called his friend back in to the room, and we went our separate ways.
If a buzzed-on-beer, testosterone-filled, ‘big man on campus’ football player can control himself with a cute young girl in a hotel room during Spring Break, then THEY ALL CAN.
And dammit, they all should.