I was born during a time in America when women were fighting against the patriarchy of society. It was an era in which women were still very much second class citizens and were mostly treated merely as grown up little girls. They were expected to be pretty, quiet, obedient, submissive, and generally present for the whims of men. Women were expected to cook, clean, raise children, be lovers and never complain about their lot in life because it was perceived that if you had a man who “took care of you”, you had it made.
I was extremely lucky to have been raised by a strong woman, who never really fell into the role of a typical “1950’s” housewife. She was a product of the turbulent 1960’s and became a mother in the 1970’s; a time when radicalization seemed almost normal. A whole culture was trying to shake off the burdens of Vietnam, political disasters, and a changing American landscape. It was an era of internal exploration for a lot of Americans who were looking for their place as the baby-boom generation.
Their parents had gone through, in some cases, two world wars, epidemics, economic depressions, and had come out on top as one of the most successful generations in our nation’s history. It was a very tall order to buck that system of success in favor of self discovery and re-define a generations place in that structure. The very idea of going against the social morays of The Greatest Generation seemed like an insurmountable task. Yet, through all the riots, police beatings, love-ins, sit-ins, passive resistance, active resistance, and general rebellion a new sort of social order was made.
Yet, within that new system of social order, White Men were still at the top. We still wanted sexy secretaries to get us our coffee on Madison Avenue. We still wanted the prom queen to be our wives, the mother’s of our children and for them to never complain about it. All that social upheaval to break the rigid morality of the WWII generation took a backseat to the lewd and lurid comments and objectification women had to endure. And have to endure still.
My generation of men, and perhaps just the generation before me (by ten years or so) were brought up in a time when the defined roles of women in society were still etched in a figurative stone. It wasn’t out of place in the company of those men to hear conversations that were graphic in their nature regarding women. What they would do to them, how they would do it, what they wanted to do to women, and how they felt like they were owed by women.
When I was young, five or six years old, I accidentally picked up a Penthouse magazine at the barbershop. My father and barber thought my facial expressions were hilarious as I flipped to each pictorial, each more graphic than the next. There was no explanation as to the sexual nature of the pictures, that it was consensual, that it was just for mommies and daddy’s that loved each other. My father and barber thought it was a bit of sport, as it were, for a six year old to be exposed to graphic portrayals of women in compromising sexual positions. They just laughed at my shock and didn’t bother to explain it. They didn’t have to. There were no social pressures then to do so. It was manly not to explain.
It was simply that men were men, women were women and women were supposed to do what men said. That was just it. The rebellions against the social structure had only succeeded insomuch that they managed to end wars and get the voting age lowered, but did little to actually change the way men thought about women; and possibly how women thought about themselves. That was still yet to come.
I grew up in an era of confusion in which the roles of young men and women were being re-drawn on a map of a continent no one had ever seen. A time that seems so primitive in light of the “Trans-this” and “gender-fluid that” time we live in now. Back then, in the not too distant past, Girls were girls, boys were boys and that was it. Girls were sugar and spice and everything nice, boys were snails and puppy dog tails. Were girls really softer? Were boys rougher? As a young man I know I was taught to honor the sensitivity of girls, to be gentle, to be soft, and to treat them like they were something elevated over the status of the boys. And that there was something secret about them that if we didn’t eventually get then it would drive us mad.
Puberty hurls everyone into this pool of hormones and sexual awakenings we’re poorly prepared for. Sure, we got a little sex education in school, learning about what goes where, but we didn’t get any sort of emotional education about it. So as young boys blazing through puberty at a billion miles an hour it wasn’t uncommon for young men to get caught up in the sexualized fantasies of our formative years. We were physically ready to be men but complete emotional children of repressed and stunted grown men. We had no language to express our desires, longings or dreams as they pertained to women. So most young men crafted their own language in their peer groups.
It is a language which would be considered terribly rude by today’s standards for its graphic embellishment of detail. I certainly was in conversations in which we described women in less than flattering terms. I am not a saint. I am a product of a ridiculously small sexual vocabulary however. Even with a strong female role model at home, I still said things and did things I am not proud of. I’ve made mistakes with women. I’ve said the wrong things. I’ve objectified some, ignored others, been greedy with some and been regardless of others. It took a long time, most of my life, to understand the appropriateness of certain behaviors, phrases and attitudes when it comes to women. I learned, through many patient women in my life, what offended them, what hurt them and why. I’m glad to have learned it. It showed me more about myself than I ever thought was there and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity.
It still isn’t always easy and I know plenty of men, older than me, that never learned about the evolving role of women in our society; men that never had the opportunity to be with a woman that elevated their thinking out of the locker rooms and bawdy alleyways; women that gave us a vocabulary to express ourselves beyond the grunting of our fathers. So many men I know have no problems with the high school vernacular regarding women. And I pity them.
I pity them for what they missed out on. I pity them that are still trapped in an old fashioned, old boy, old school mentality. I pity those that haven’t evolved enough or learned enough to understand the common thread of being human; of being human to each other above gender.
It is in that regard I can say that I’m happy to have been born into an era of Women’s Liberation. It has not made me a lesser man, but a better one. One that knows when he puts his foot in his mouth, spits it out, apologizes and learns something about what it really means to be human. It’s something I’m still learning about and I’m glad to have the opportunity. And I put my foot in my mouth a lot so no matter how progressive I am I know I always still have something to learn. (And is being gender agreeable really a progressive issue?)