I have been having 90s flashbacks lately. Not pleasant ones. In fact, like many women in America, I have been having an onslaught of Very Unpleasant Memories (VUMs for short) crop up, fueled by the media reports of Important Men Doing Pervy Things (IMDPT). It’s weird, I had honestly forgotten the hell that was being a teenage girl in the 90s but now it’s all coming back in every rotten, sordid detail. And the 90s, sexist as they were, were probably a cake walk compared to the social environments previous generations of women had to grow up in. Reliving this stuff has been hard for everyone.
While my first reaction to the flood of IMDPT going down in flames was to take a seat, eat some popcorn, and delight in the patriarchy collapsing under its own weight, now my reaction is just sadness. All of it, just the flood of news which reminds you that suffering is everywhere and it’s been everywhere and we’ve ignored it for far too long.
While I (and every woman I know that was alive at the time) could write volumes of Pervy Things Boys Did To Me In The Nineties, I have one particular story that’s disturbing me lately, but it is a bee sting story. Up until last month, it would have been meaningless, and perhaps it still is, but it is my story. One summer in the misogynist 90s I was chosen to attend a leadership training camp. The camp was great. At the end, it had a dance. Cute boy asks me to dance, then wastes no time in groping me. I was just taken aback, not at all in the mindset of deflecting perverts that fine summer day. Once I had my wits about me I politely (as I knew no other way) removed his hands from my ass, as if it had all been an innocent misunderstanding. Nevertheless, he persisted.
We continued to dance, he would not let up. Every time I redirected his hands to my waist he’d grab my butt again, like it was his *right* to do it. His right, this not-even-a-man who’d just met me moments earlier, who had been hand-picked as a good citizen from his hometown American Legion Auxiliary, had just decided that he was my ruler and my body his rightful territory. I honestly was so shocked and confused it took me far too long to realize I could just walk away, which I eventually did. But in those panicked moments when I was trying to figure out what was going on and how to respond to it (is this actually happening?), I looked around the room for a lifeline. One of those moments when you witness or are involved in something so sudden and bizarre you look around for a reaction, like did you see that man falling from the sky? That’s not normal, is it?
The thing that stings like a bee was that on that night there were no lifelines, just self-involved bystanders. A male friend I’d known since toddlerhood was there, we’d gone to basically Jesus camp together so he of all people would probably know I didn’t much enjoy getting felt up by random dude. But what did I feel? Embarassment that he saw me like that. And he would not be one to intervene, on anything, ever, so absolutely no lifeline there. Then I look to my right and I see the older, college-age guy that was there as an alum and counselor. He was no help as he was grinning smugly, both of his hands firmly gripping the ass of a cute camper, who was also smugly grinning and gripping his ass in return, locked in what appeared to be consensual groping bliss. The good looking gropers never made eye contact with each other – not even a fleeting sweet gaze upon each others chiseled features – instead, their eyes were wide and looking around the room in what I interpreted was to see how many people were seeing them. Needless to say, no lifeline there either, just a gross self-absorbed authority figure enjoying young flesh.
In rethinking this story as it popped into my brain as a VUM, I considered the possibility that the guy groping me at the dance was doing it not just because he was an impossibly horny teenager with no self control or respect for women whatsoever, but because he saw the cool man counselor setting the tone, distorting the reality as to what is acceptable for a man to do to a woman on the dance floor at a government and leadership camp, took note, and followed suit. Cool man counselor was not just oblivious to the blatant misdeeds around him, which I thought was a little bit his job to pay attention to, but he actually encouraged it with his own self-absorbed behavior. And that really worries me.
But, like I said, this is a bee sting story. One of those that should not be shared out of respect for the person down the street who didn’t get stung by a bee, she got mauled by a bear. There is not enough ink in the world for the papers to print every bee sting story from every woman who ever was on the receiving end of IMDPT. I just can’t tell you how common this stuff is. It only makes the papers if it’s way worse, which led every girl and every woman to shrug it off and say “at least it’s not rape” and know that very, very little can be done. The common consensus was that ONLY rape was intolerable, the rest was part of being female and being alive. Now the tides have turned to where we actually think grabbing a woman’s ass against her consent is a bad thing. And it is! It was! It always has been! We have never had the right to complain before or had ears that would listen!
But back to my point, that behavior of simple self-absorbed complacency really worried me, because a few short months later, a woman did get the equivalent of mauled by a bear, witnessed by the exact same cool counselor man, at his apartment, and it made national headlines, and I can’t say how awful it was. I’m beyond speculating what he was doing and how he did or failed to act. I understand being shocked and delaying action because your brain can’t process something so terrifying and so bizarre fast enough, I’ll give him a very very generous pass for that. The fallout from the event was far-reaching. Football player breaks into other football player’s (the cool guy counselor) third-floor apartment by scaling up balconies where he finds his ex-girlfriend, drags her down 3 flight of stairs by her hair, and bashes her head into a metal mailbox. Coach, who was regarded as a mix of Jesus and Santa Claus, suspends him for 6 games, then puts him in to play for the Fiesta Bowl in a move that made me and other girls and women alike feel less about ourselves and our genders and our bodies than we had ever felt before. The words “low point” can’t even come close to describing it. I’m not sure if I knew the word “patriarchy” back then, but I knew it had won, and my life and my health and my body as a woman didn’t mean very much to the white Christian men who had all the power and got to decide these things. When Kate McEwan was beaten down, we all were beaten down.
Which brings us to the present. Cool guy counselor, whose real name is Scott Frost, just signed a 7-year contract to be the head coach of the Nebraska Cornhusker football team at a price of $35,000,000. Good for him. Now, if you’re reading this, let me ask you – as a person who has witnessed a horrifying act of violence against women, and as the new leader of the Cornhuskers, will you strive to make a team and an environment where people around town aren’t hearing reports of the football players beating their girlfriends and raping women at parties while the head coach (all of them) look the other way? Because that would be really great. You could champion a cause of standing up for the rights of women and have a rapist-free college football team. And if someone does do something bad, can you do the opposite of what Tom Osborne did and have the criminal justice system sort it out instead of you handling it your own way? Heck, you could even use some of that 35 mill and have Brenda Tracy come back and educate your new team on how to not be rapists. Or donate some to RAINN.
You could do so many good things, you could start fresh, and unlike that terrible dance, you could set the tone for what a man does and does not do. And unlike that terrible event a few months later, you could just stop all of the hurt before it happened. You could have a zero tolerance against male sexist bullshit policy, you could kick a player off the team for grabbing someone’s ass. It’s possible! It’s a new day, it’s 2017! You have so much power and privelege and authority now, you can change the social dynamics of the entire state. If Coach Osborne made teenage girls like me feel terrible about themselves, maybe you could, with your wise actions, make all teen girls and women feel good about themselves, like their bodies and minds and health and lives DO matter. Because they do. I hope you know that now, and I hope you’ll use your platform for the good of both young men and women, because the patriarchy hurts them both.