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Teaching Propositions

When I was about fourteen, when I’d walk home from school, there was a kid on the way to the bus stop that would proposition all the girls who passed him, in very explicit terms, under his breath. The bus stop lay about halfway down the route I took home, and it was on one of those streets that only had a sidewalk on one side. It was too busy a street to make walking in the road a viable proposition, so you had to walk by him, and as he walked very slowly, sooner or later you’d step around him and pass him, and immediately from behind you, in a tone slightly louder than a whisper, you’d hear “hey baby wanna suck my dick hey baby I wanna lick your pussy hey hey wanna suck your tits” in a sort of monotone until you got out of earshot. You learned not to stop to tie your shoes.

It wasn’t just me, of course—he did it to everybody female, except on Wednesdays, when he didn’t show up at all. (You got to appreciate Wednesdays.) Once he got to the bus-stop, he would stand a little way away, leaning against the sign, and maintain this running monolog until the bus arrived. (A friend of mine took the bus, and sometimes I’d wait with her. I never asked if he did it on the bus, too. I assume he probably did.)

This lasted through my freshman and sophomore years. As a junior, I got an internship at a vet in the other direction, but presumably it continued until he was eighteen and no longer the school system’s problem.

More about that in a minute. I was reminded about this the other day when I was reading “Lies My Teacher Told Me” which is actually about American history, and perhaps I’ll talk about that at some point. From mild shock over the state of history teaching, however, I went on to thinking about the failure of schools to teach some extraordinarily vital skills—like, say, “What do I do when somebody creepy/pushy/unwelcome propositions me?”

Case in point—9th grade sex ed. I had a very good, very progressive sex ed program that told us how things worked, how you got pregnant, and showed us all the birth control options at our fingertips. Because of this class, I felt comfortable asking my doctor for the pill some years later. But even in a very good class, we spent a whole lot of time doing (I kid you not) word searches for terms like “epididymus” and “Cowper’s gland” and absolutely no time on things like “signs you are in an abusive relationship” and “how to tell when you are being sexually propositioned and what to do about it.”

To this day, I still generally don’t know if somebody is trying to pick me up until some weeks after the fact, but if you present me with a xeroxed word search, I can circle “Cowper’s gland” with the best of them. And if somebody makes an unwelcome pass that is sufficiently crude to register as “No, seriously, you’re not reading into this, dude really DID just say that,” my first instinct is still to pretend to ignore it and leave the area immediately, because I haven’t a clue what to say or do next, and  I really want it not to be happening.

D.A.R.E., generally laughable though it was*, at least did role-playing and showed us videos of kids being Pressured To Take Drugs. In thirty-five years, with extensive exposure to stoners, my entire experience of being pressured to take drugs consisted of the following:

STONER: *passes joint*

ME: “Nah, I’m driving.”

STONER: “Oh, okay.”

*repeat entire sequence some minutes later, owing to short term memory loss on the part of one participant*

I am more than willing to allow that this is not a universal experience, mind you, and some people probably do have terrifyingly aggressive drug pushers pouncing on them–but I would be very surprised if, pound for pound, the number of “people-offering-me-drugs-that-have-made-me-uncomfortable” experiences tips the scale anywhere near “guys-propositioning-me-for-sex-that-have-made-me-uncomfortable.” I had more unwelcome sexual propositions before I was old enough get a learner’s permit than I have had unwelcome drug offers in my entire life.

A class in that would have been nice. I can see all the reasons why it would never, ever make it past the Arbiters of Morality, but I wish it would. A class in “This is how you find who’s in charge at this event/place/whatever and get help.” “This is how you file a police report.” “This is how you ask for help.” Instead we flounder around on our own, and each one of us has to reinvent the wheel.

Case in point–the kid at the bus stop.

There was something wrong with this kid. (Obviously, you say, but no, I mean something wrong in the clinical sense.) I am an artist, not a clinical psychiatrist, and I couldn’t tell you what’s wrong with somebody standing in front of me today, let alone twenty years ago. He had no obvious physical issues, but he wore his skin entirely wrong. Teenage girls have the finely tune senses of a low-status baboon for primate body language, and this kid was off.

I assume he was developmentally disabled in some fashion—nobody knew him from class, and our school had a large special ed department. Therein lay part of the problem, because while it was incredibly obnoxious and very creepy–well–did he know that? Did he think this was something girls liked? Was he even responsible for his actions? Did he even know he was talking out loud?

My fourteen year old self had a thousand and one problems, 99% of which could have been solved by simply not being a dumbass, but this time, I think, her problem was genuine, and I cannot fault her for not coming to any useful conclusion. Because what could she do?

Tell an adult is the usual mantra in this case. I believe I considered it for all of ten seconds, maybe less.

My mother’s solution would have been that it was much too dangerous to walk home from school, and I should wait in the school library for three and a half hours, until five thirty when she could come pick me up. There was no world where this was a viable option for someone with a computer at home. Besides, my mother had some bad stuff going on, and she really didn’t need more crap from me on top of it.

It would never had occurred to me to call the police. This kid had problems. You didn’t call the cops on special ed kids acting out. That was like evil or something. Besides, he had to be harmless, or he wouldn’t be taking the bus by himself, right? (Yes, I weep for my younger self’s faith in the system.)

As for telling the school…no. We were off school property, so they couldn’t possibly have any say in the matter. (My younger self lived in an era when school were rather less interventionist in non-school-related stuff.) And even if I did go to the school, what was I going to say? Nobody knew his name, he wasn’t in any of our classes. Was I going to ask them to do a line-up of the special ed department? Sweet Jesus, no! And even if they did figure out who it was, I was almost certainly going to get a horribly condescending talk about how we have to be understanding of the problems some people face and maybe a talk about how if I’d engage him in conversation, I might make a new friend. (This was, after all, the talk that schools give you about everything else, from bullying to why you have to share your toys, and the only one that younger me had any context for.**) Plus they’d tell my mother.

Thirty-five-year-old me thinks the school might have been able to come up with something a little better than that. She even suspects that, given a description, they most likely would have said “Oh lord, not again!” and the caregiver responsible for the kid in question would have doubled down on acceptable public behavior. But thirty-five-year-old me has greater faith in adults knowing what’s going on than fourteen-year-old me, and I cannot hold her responsible for not believing that adults are capable of understanding what the world is really like.

Telling the kid to knock it off was also discarded as an option. All that primate body-language stuff was against it. This kid obviously did not comprehend the usual rules, and if you confronted him, there was a good chance things would go very bad, very fast. Yes, he might have been shocked and apologized, but he also might have screamed and attacked you, and there was no way that 95lb fourteen-year-old Ursula was going to come out of that in good shape. (This would also have the exciting side-effect of killing my mother dead the minute she got a phone call from the hospital.)

Even if he didn’t completely freak out, he would have noticed you. At the moment, he was an equal-opportunity offender, providing his monolog to any female back that came into his field of vision. But what if he actually singled you out? What if he tried to touch you? What if he followed you, actively, instead of just whispering at you until you were out of range?

What if he burst into tears, and then you’d made a kid with serious mental problems cry, and jesus christ, who does that?

Fourteen-year-old me wanted this not to be happening. She didn’t want to be a teachable moment. She did not want to be part of somebody’s therapy or anybody’s new friend. She just wanted to finally beat Quest for Glory I and to walk home without somebody offering to lick her tits, which, on the scale of human desires, ought to be modest enough ambitions.

I would say about twenty high-school girls, self included, all settled on the same compromise. We ignored him. We walked faster to get by him, we went several feet into the street to avoid him, and then we hurried away (but not running, because everybody knows that if you run, monsters can get you, it’s one of the immutable childhood laws) and we never ever acknowledged that we heard any of the horrible things he said and when we stood at the bus stop, we talked loudly to drown in out.

God help me, there should have been a class. This was such a weirdly specific situation that I don’t know if it would have helped, but maybe one of the lot of us would have thought “Maybe there’s another way.”

Maybe the school would have assigned somebody to walk him to the bus stop. Maybe a kid with a lot of problems would have gotten help. Maybe a lot of things. All I know is that none of us knew what we were supposed to do, so we did the only thing we could think of–and given that the school’s idea of giving us the tools for adult life was word searches for “Cowper’s gland” I can’t find it in my heart to blame any of us for not coming up with a better solution.

But dear lord, it seems like we should be able to do better.



*As I signed the little pledge, in sixth grade, I remember thinking clearly “If I want to do drugs, the fact that I have signed this sheet of paper will have absolutely no effect on me whatsover.”

**If someone’s about to say “But why didn’t you do that?” I will say “If you think fourteen-year-old me was going to turn to a kid whispering explicit sexual things to her and say “Let’s talk!” you are out of your mind.” I would be hard-pressed to do that now, when sex holds all the terror of my sock drawer. Fourteen-year-old me never had a chance.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

Only vague related, but I have ALWAYS wished that there was a home economics class that taught home economics. Ie. how credit cards work, how mortgages work, basic budgeting, and so on. Things that every single solitary human being in a developed nation needs to know, but most don't. That one will probably never happen either.

Actually, I had one of those! Consumer economics, it was called, and it explained credit cards and checks and why payday lenders are bad and the difference and budgeting and so forth. I actually can't fault that one at all.

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trigger warning here


You freeze, you hope it goes away, you never speak of it again. In my case, a classmate pinning me against the wall as we waiting in line for art and whispering sexily, "I wanna be gay with you." This is the first time I've told of it. Sixth grade was a weird time.

Re: trigger warning here

It was a VERY weird time. I am sometimes aware, even as I am writing books for kids in this age range, that I no longer hold the key to that headspace and anything I come up with is, at best, escapism.

I'm sorry you went through that, too. I expect you're not alone.

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I could have used this class in my early twenties; hopefully then I would have had a better response to the middle-aged guy (again, clearly off in some indefinable but non-physical way) who came up to me at the bus stop, asked if we could be friends, and then groped my ass than freezing up and sidling away. :P (I have a better response in my arsenal now, thankfully!)

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If the rumors were true... well, I never told him why I was throwing rocks at him. I'm pretty sure the lesson he got was not "don't corner and grope girls, because a completely different girl might hear about it and throw rocks at you" but "some people are crazy and mean and like to throw things."

Yeah, but a) "some people are mean and like to throw things" might keep him away from other girls in the future, because...throwing things, and b) you and your sister didn't get groped or propositioned.

So, given the choice of options there, I think you picked the right one. Would've been nice if some authority figure had been available/approachable to tell, but that's not the world we live in.

When I was in highschool, we did do a bit of the 'what to do if someone is trying to coerce you into sex/sexually harassing you/whatever', but that might be because it was an all-girls school. It's wasn't very good, anyway - I particularly recall getting into an argument with a teacher who insisted that once men got aroused enough, they just couldn't control themselves, and I was thinking "Funny, my father never mentioned that, and you'd think he'd know!"
I just wished that we were taught more about how to have sex, rather than just reproduction, contraception, and DISEASE. Oh, sorry - INFECTION. A classmate asked me "How do lesbians have sex?", and went on to explain that she could work out sex between men, but not between women. I was so torn between 'Dicks are not prerequisite for sex', 'You have no imagination and will lead a very dull sex life', and 'Have you never masturbated, then?' that I didn't say anything.

Yech. Sorry you had to go through that.

Also, re: second footnote: sorry, but a guy--whatever his problems--who sexually propositions strange women is not a guy who I want as a new friend, or anywhere around me ever.

Fourteen-year-old you was way nicer than fourteen-year-old me would've been, or indeed than twenty-nine-year old me would be now. Dude has problems? Well, dude's folks can sort it out. With the police. Because: no. Consideration for one guy's mental issues does not trump consideration for every girl around him.*

Which is, I think, one of the things an ideal sex-ed class would teach: no, you are not obligated to be nice. No, not even if he has issues.

*Oh my God, do I have to explain this re: adult guys at cons a lot. Don't care what problems you have, buddy. Not your therapist. Go away.

Edited at 2012-06-12 11:25 pm (UTC)

Ha! It wasn't "nicer" certainly--it was sheer "I have no idea how to deal with this and I don't want grown-ups to yell at me for being wrong."

If he'd been eaten by bears, I wouldn't have cried.

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We also got "ignore them and they'll leave you alone". Which, obviously, they don't.

I have learned that there are times when we men should, in general, just shut up and listen. This post is one of those times.

Edited at 2012-06-12 11:39 pm (UTC)

Proving the exception to your rule, perhaps -- I was sexually harassed for several years in high school, by another guy.

My reasoning went much like Ursula's. I actually *knew* the guy, and he was in all the same extra-curriculars as I was, so making any kind of deal out of it was going to cause everyone I cared about (including teachers whose recommendations I needed for college) to draw sides pretty quickly -- mostly, I assumed, against me, because I'd have broken the taboo of Not Talking About It. Those activities included bunking four to a room in hotels in cities far from home, so I went to great lengths to avoid ending up in the same room with him, riding in the same car with him, etc. This was all complicated by the rampant, religiously-justified homophobia I grew up immersed in, and I assumed that calling "sexual harassment" on the guy would cause some fraction of people to assume I was "asking for it" and therefore queer, which I was, but wasn't talking about, because being publicly queer in that place and time was asking to be hated. (I didn't know any people who I knew to be queer until I got to college.)

My school's sex ed, which involved several local clergy, didn't even get to a Tab A-Slot B level of usefulness, but if they had provided something about how to deal with harassment, they would have provided it only to the female half of the class. Which would have been a far sight better than nothing, but it wouldn't have gone far enough.

In the 80s (when I was in high school) the concepts of "abusive relationships" and "unwelcome sexual advances" were on par with lesbianism and incest; known about but never discussed. From the teachers' point of view: If we discuss these things, we might learn things we might have to do something about.

Remember it wasn't all that long ago when what happened behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors and date rape wasn't officially acknowledged as any form of abuse. The whole concept of authority figures taking the attitude of "if we don't talk about it, then it doesn't exist" is one that pisses me off.

You cannot tell me that in Ursula's story above, no adult anywhere knew what that kid was doing? He never ever once did it to an adult woman? Or a teenager that *did* say something to a parent or knew that boy? If he had a condition, then he wouldn't have been only doing it at the bus stop, there would be other places and other victims, ones who did know him and his parents/guardians.

How many times have you heard "well nobody is actively complaining, so it must be alright!".

When I was eleven years old, I and two other girls spent three hours up a tree with what was called then a 'pervert' and now would be called a sexual predator trying to persuade us to come down so he could do various things to us. We were up pretty high, and there was no way we were going anywhere; we waited an hour after he had left before climbing down and running like hell, and then my friend Pam told her mom and... well, long story short we separately identified the guy in a police lineup and he was presumably arrested. I don't know; I was never told, and we never talked about it after that.

Why didn't we? You'd think it would have done us good-- I know that I personally would've slept better if I'd known that the guy was put away somewhere where he couldn't get me. But you know, I think it was because of one of the stupidest crimes that humans commit: social embarrassment. That's what keeps us from walking faster in a public garage when there's somebody behind us, because if we do we'll look stupid. It makes us hiss 'Act normal!' to our friends when some sleazebag follows us down the street in the dark; it makes us ignore warning signs that brainless baby ducklings would pick up on. Because we have it drummed into our heads that looking stupid in public is practically a mortal sin, and it takes either a trauma or growing a little common sense to get past that.

I really hate this, and I wonder how many women would've gotten away from their rapists and men from their muggers (or rapists, it's equal-opportunity) if they'd paid attention to the warnings from their hindbrains and not the social conditioning that said to 'act normal.' I try not to ignore my hindbrain; it's been around evolution-wise a lot longer than the rest of me, so it probably knows what it's doing when it prods me in the nerves.

I don't really have a point to this, I guess, it just wanted to get said.

gavin de becker's books "the gift of fear" and "protecting the gift" are both about how we need to listen to our guts and ignore the social conditioning that says "smile. be nice. don't be rude. don't make waves."

i can't recommend them highly enough.

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I think every human being on this planet could use a class in Communication.
How to tell someone something good.
How to tell them something bad.
How to complain in a useful manner.
How to let someone know that they have hurt you or done something wrong, without attacking them.
How to complement someone.
How to ask a question. (Harder than you think.)
How stand up for yourself.
Who to contact about various things.
When would be a good time to mention things.
What is considered a public subject or a private one.

These are all things one learns by being "social", but it's hit or miss and some folk learn very wrong lessons.

I'd second that motion.

The most useful part of the art/design degree had nothing to do with art and everything to do with how to offer and receive criticism. Tools for life, that.

I've also been thinking, having encountered the "we call men assertive but we call women bitches" idea and studied behavior in my workplace, that most people of either gender don't know how to be assertive. Assertive, non-aggressive communication is a learned behavior, not a natural one -- and I don't see many examples of it. (note, I'm not arguing with the notion that men can get away with more without being insulted than women can, that's fairly evident -- just the particular assertive vs bitch wording).

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I tend to agree with the lack of faith in the system. Not because it's evil or stupid, but because it's made of people. And those people are largely not evil or stupid, and they probably understand the situation, but they don't know how to handle it either. Actually, an evil person might be useful, or at least somebody rude, in cases where there's something so bad that good people can't even say out loud what the problem is and have to hint around it.

When I was 13, a guy driving through our neighborhood called me over supposedly to ask for directions. He was naked from the waist down and very busy.

My reaction was
1 "OMG Men have hair there too"
2 back up fast and hard, pushing my little sister out of viewing range and then run home.

I never told anyone. My parents would have believed me, I think, but I was EMBARASSED.

I hope that I raised my daughter to be more confiding. She sure as hell isn't embarrassed by much.

PS: have you stopped crossposting your wildflower essays onto LiveJournal? I miss them.

I haven't done quite so many, but everything should be posted! You can find me every other Monday at Beautiful Wildlife Garden, and once a month at Native Plants & Wildlife Gardening, though.

I've always thought that 'what makes a healthy relationship' should be part of sex ed, though I despair of it ever getting on the curriculum when I look at how hard it is to get objective information on birth control into so many sex-ed curriculum. If they can't handle that, I'm not sure how they'd handle FEELINGS.

Also, the role-play scenarios in D.A.R.E. were awesome! They just shouldn't have been applied to drug use, and instead to "Your friends want you to do something generally idiotic" or "sleazeball wants to sleep with you." And they would have better with more convincing antagonist scripts -- I don't remember any D.A.R.E. RPs where they started off with a compliment (triggering the "I have to be nice! response), or any of the other tricks actual 'pushers' try to use.

As to pushers a la D.A.R.E., my most recent experience with these apparently fearsome drug pushers was "Hey, want some of this ganja fudge? Or do you not partake?" "Nah, I don't." "Oh well. Know anyone who wants it? If I eat it I'm gonna be toast. It's HUGE!" A slight hand-wave to indicate the joint should pass you by seems to work, too. :P

It's not that they wouldn't be able to handle FEELINGS, it's that several of the most common American parenting styles are abusive as hell, and the first time some kid gave evidence of having figured out that her parents were pulling unhealthy crap, the shit would hit the fan.

I was sort of an asshole tom boy when I was a teenager, which wasn't great in 95% of situations, but was reeeeeally helpful in these unwanted harassment situations. At the time, I had no qualms about being vocal, and when I was 15 this extremely creepy guy started following me home and at one point got so close that he started touching me and trying to grab me. I turned into this park along the road where there was a kid's baseball game going on and so clearly a shit ton of parents and adults around and said as loudly as I could (which is pretty loud) "I AM BEING FOLLOWED BY A SCARY MAN IN A GREEN JACKET WHO KEEPS TOUCHING MY BUTT." The man fled.

But you know what the crazy part was??? There were a couple adults there that I knew with their kids and one of them actually yelled at me for being inappropriate! She actually asked me how I was supposed to know he wasn't just trying to get my attention to ask directions or something, and she ended up calling my parents to let them know what I'd done and that they were concerned for me. Pfft. Mormons. (Note: my parents did not agree with her. Because they are sensible.)

Anyway, I find that getting to a public place and shouting is very effective. A bit awkward on the bus, though. I'm always getting felt up and propositioned on buses and I just shout at them. Not, like, swearing or anything, but saying "DON'T GRAB AT MY BOOBS THEY ARE NOT YOURS." or "WHY WOULD YOU THINK I WOULD WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU." That sort of thing. You get stared at for the rest of your life, but at least no one grabs at you for awhile.

Fourteen-year-old me would not have had the guts for that, but thirty-five-year-old me is very impressed!

And she YELLED at you? What the HELL, man?!

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