Eleven-Year-Old Boys, Touching Women on the Subway
CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault.
I’ll bet many cisgendered heterosexual men have a story like this. After telling it, I’ll describe how I understand its origins, and the ways in which I’ve felt guilt and shame shut down its lessons.
1982. My friend showed me how to do it on the way to school. When the subway car was packed, boys our size could easily maneuver into position behind women, with our palms facing out.
The women were going to work. Form-fitting skirts were the uniform. The general mood was claustrophobic. It was easy to pretend you had no choice but to be stuck with your hand wedged in there, just like so, cupping.
If a woman felt something suspicious, we could plead innocence, break out the baby face. It was like we knew how to find that first entitled space between “boys are not men” and “boys will be boys”. How did we know?
If my friend and I were in eyeshot of each other while standing behind our marks, he would grin and I would grin back. He was teaching me how to steal pleasure. It was like the next level up from shoplifting at the convenience store. Bodies were candy. We stood eighteen inches shorter than the average adult height: no one could see our eyes.
I did it. Again and again. Every time, my heart raced and my ears burned. Every tiny sensation was sharpened by taboo.
The taboo wasn’t against touching persons with rights and feelings. It wasn’t about violating consent. We would have had no idea what consent was.
The taboo was about punishment. It was about our status among men who hit us at school, and would hit us for this for sure if they caught us, even if they themselves broke these same laws — set up not out of a sense of equality, but to establish women as daughters, wives, property.
Every taboo is about conflict. On one hand, we didn’t want to be punished. On the other, we knew that being punished was a form of receiving attention. Every desire was framed through a haze of sadomasochism.
Acting upon the bodies of others as if they were objects was at the heart of our training. Seeing ourselves as objects to be inflated, to gobble up space defensively, was the natural result.
I don’t know how long I did it for. Two weeks, maybe. It felt both addictive and powerful and within the natural order of things.
I remember the moment it stopped. A black woman felt my hand on her backside, and unlike the others before, turned around in that tight space and looked me straight in the eye. She made a teeth-sucking sound. I was paralyzed.
Her eyes said a thousand things. At the time I understood one:
How dare you?
Remembering her, I hear her say more. She was saying she knew exactly what I was up to. That she was used to it. That my white skin elided with a history of humiliations, personal and shared.
She was also saying she wasn’t afraid of me. She’d dealt with far worse. I was small. I had nothing but my crew cut and my narcissism, and she knew it. She could crush me, physically and emotionally. Instead, she froze me with her gaze: boundaried, yet somehow parental. She absorbed my entitlement. She performed a kind of work in that moment that I imagine has exhausted her, because it likely never ended.
Perhaps the stress of misogyny made her sick later in life. I wonder if it would have been better for her to discharge in that moment. She could have twisted my ear hard, and, like our own groping hands, no one would have seen. A physical punishment would have made me hesitant to try it again. But it also would have kept the exchange locked in danger and retribution. It may have doubled the dare. I was lucky.
I’m writing in response to the #metoo challenges to men to describe their involvement in and complicity with sexual assault. I’ve seen a lot of brave confessions out there. What I’d like to communicate with this boyhood story is how seamlessly many of us can be naturalized into these behaviours. We arrive in the land of men, and have to learn the language.
My friend was an otherwise kind, silly, playful boy. He was good at piano, and had a clown-ass run that made us all laugh when we played British bulldog. He didn’t invent casual subway assault. He learned it from an older boy, and so on, back through a brotherhood of entitlement apportioned through male violence and its scorekeeping.
Our behaviour was possible because girls and women were not real to us. We were in a Catholic, all-boys school, after all. Our talent for dehumanization was high, and rewarded. But I don’t believe it was substantially different from any other heteronormative scene, in which genders are symbols in a primal war.
I stopped my behaviour because of that woman’s gaze. But I never spoke to my friend about it. In the days after, when I saw he was going in for the grope, the most I could do was to avoid eye contact. For all I know, he might have thought I was still right in there with him.
Because none of us ever talked about things like this, or anything related to it — and of course we had no guidance — we had no way of pulling ourselves up out of the cycle with any clarity or resolve.
Part of patriarchy’s great efficiency is that it makes you believe you are atomic and individualistic, endowed with a single-handed capacity for vice or virtue. It teaches you to march along the thin line of self-interest, minding the sound of your own steps so closely you never notice the rhythm of the machine.
I never did anything like the subway touching again. But when it came time for the high school dance, I felt that same giddy entitlement rise up, sharpened by confusion. While Madonna sang Like a Virgin, my nervous system was plotting out how much touching during the slow dance would be too much. Again – not from the perspective of consent, but from exploring of the threshold of tolerance, or the fear of getting caught.
If she didn’t move your hand, she was agreeing, and hell, maybe she even liked it. But even if she did like it, your calculations took place without eye contact, without questions, without the communication that would have established, “We’re humans here, we’re the same.”
The law hadn’t changed from the time I was eleven: the female body was an object. We hadn’t the faintest idea that female desire could be actively expressed. Surrender was the limit of female sexual possibility. It wouldn’t have occurred to us that surrender might in some or many cases be a trauma response. I’d never even heard the word “trauma”.
I moved through those years with a dim understanding of empathy, acting as though violations were impossible to distinguish from the testing of boundaries. We boys assumed that women couldn’t say directly how they felt. Because, God knows, we couldn’t.
Madonna seemed to help, actually. Her sexuality projected a confidence and control, though I now know that’s endlessly complicated. To a fourteen-year-old Catholic boy, she seemed to reverse the mythic passivity of her stage name. She seemed autonomous. She could strike out at God and the natural order. She could own her clothing, actions, movements.
So: some alchemy of the black woman’s gaze, Catholic fear, Madonna, and beginning to actually try to have relationships, socialized me away from nonconsensual touching. But this was a private and random turn in a well-worn road. It was individual, and therefore it bred silence. Yes, I stopped my boyhood touching and slowly learned about consent. But whatever good this brought felt as secret as the problem itself. The secret meant I didn’t challenge harassing behaviour when I saw it. I guess part of me believed that it was a personal development issue. I felt withdrawn and slightly superior: those men will get it some day, or maybe they won’t.
What’s really bad is that the male poets, seemingly so liberal, so forgiving, can work so hard against you. I’ve written about that artful cad Leonard Cohen elsewhere. I also remember watching Amarcord by Fellini when I was 18 and feeling wistful through the scenes in which the schoolboys harassed their older sisters and ogled the women. Ha ha, look at all their bums on the bikes. Never mind the fact that these were textile workers, and bicycles gave them mobility, and fresh air.
The music made it all so nostalgic and sad, as though it were the way of the world, as though what was truly lost in those exchanges was the innocence of boys rather than the dignity of women. Those movie scenes flirt with the juice of empathy, but misdirect it towards the narcissistic wound of men. They offer accordions in the absence of justice.
How to deal with this? Here’s how it plays out for me.
When I think about those women on the subway, the feelings come in several stages. First comes a nauseating vertigo of guilt and shame. It’s like I shrink away from a spotlight in a dark alleyway. The entire world knows what I’ve done, and condemns me.
This feeling can be really useful. But because it’s intensely personal, because it recalls in torturous granularity every unconscious and selfish movement of my younger body, I can feel defensiveness boil up reflexively. It’s similar to what happens with my partner, but in some ways more intense, because it’s alone, driven by memory and its excesses. It isn’t limited by the edges or grace of another person.
It’s really easy to get stalled out there. Defensiveness can get you lost in the dreadful, intimate, personal sin of it all. It’s a short line from there to equivocation, rationalization, dissociation, or venting rage at something else.
To save myself from that feeling, I’ll reach for anything plausible or marginally comforting:
That’s how things were back then. I was just a boy. I stopped. Other boys were worse. One of them went on to become Harvey Weinstein. That type couldn’t control themselves.
As I recite the comfort-phrases, there’s relief. But it also feels like I’ve scuttled sideways, yanked out of line by a straw man. Of course I’m not Weinstein. That’s not the point. And because it’s not the point, I’m suspicious I’m using him to Affleck out of it. What’s missing in those mantras? What have I avoided? The actual women.
I find that most of the relief offered by the patriarchal reflex to avoid responsibility moves from the isolation of accusation to the isolation of dissociation.
The relief of that initial wave of excuses is partial, and lonely, as if the spotlight has switched off, and I’m no longer visible. It’s not the fuller relief that comes from empathy, from getting over the internal hump of looking at those women in your memory, and listening to what they say. Somehow listening lets the feeling shift, and you want to apologize, make amends not just to those women, but to the entire network of relations.
Empathy is a funny thing. It can originate close to the bone, proximal to narcissistic guilt. But if you follow its thread out of the dark tunnel, it can depersonalize things and invite you to participate in the larger project of love, Cornel West style. Not to save your own ass, but because you have a place in the choir.
I believe that most boys who sexually harass grow into it like plants in a garden of thorns. We were doing exactly what we were trained to do, while competing for space. Patriarchy was like the sun and the rain to us. We were fed by a thousand inputs and limited only by hypocritical conventions and arbitrary punishments. If we and the women around us got lucky, we were eventually limited by chance moments of reckoning that stimulated empathy and self-regulation. But that’s not enough to teach, to pass along.
How amazing that those who have been hurt most have been strong enough to persist in bringing it all to light. What a gift that we have books and conversations and the anger and criticism of the partners who love us. How lucky we are to read feminists. They show us that in order to grow in the garden of patriarchy, we mutilated ourselves through dissociation and aggression, disguised by waves of arousal and blessed by a thousand male poets. Most importantly, they show us how they feel.
It’s not enough to change individually. We have to change the garden, down to the very soil.
Maybe this will happen more quickly to the extent that men are able to say two seemingly contradictory things, simultaneously:
“My personal, grandiose, defensive shame isn’t helpful here. I’m the product of a system that stunted all of us.”
“I’m taking personal responsibility for this, because I systematically benefited in ways I can only see just now. It has meant that I have not had to move through the world under a general cloud of bodily threat and emotional humiliation. I’ll stop this injustice where I see it.”
Please consider making a donation to the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape.