The Female Normal: A Million “Harmless” Messages

“Remember in grade school when the boys would snap your bra strap against your back?” Several of the other ladies looked at me with a knowing glance. Yes, they remembered.

Recently, a friend was talking about how excited her niece was to get her first training bra. My mind immediately transported me back to that awkward time of adolescence when I was half fired up to begin wearing the badge of womanhood and half totally embarrassed. The latter feeling mostly stemmed from the fact that the boys in my class were also noticing this milestone. And their way of letting us girls know they were clued in was to come up from behind, grab and pull back our bra straps, then swiftly let them go so they smacked against our backs as they ran away laughing.

Another friend smirked, “If they had done that to me, I would have turned around and punched them.”

“I kind of wish I would have,” I replied. “Then again, if I had punched a boy for doing that, the twisted thing is I probably would have been the one to get in trouble.”

We continued talking about whether bra-snapping happens anymore, and the lone male in this conversation said, half-jokingly and half with a note of seriousness, “Nowadays the poor boy would probably get arrested or be put on a sexual predator list.”

The statement created an unexpected visceral reaction in me, and gave me pause. On one hand, I have a son the same age as those boys were when they snapped my bra, and I would find such retribution pretty damn excessive had he done the same thing. Still, the comment made me mad. But at that moment, I did exactly what I usually did whenever those boys in my class were running away laughing: I didn’t say anything. And after all was said and done, I regretted my silence.

Now let me interject here and say that this friend of mine is someone for whom I have much admiration, respect, and trust. He is a good, decent guy who does life with a huge heap of integrity and compassion, and he has never behaved inappropriately nor excused inappropriate behavior.

And on some level, I completely understand what he was saying. It was more a statement about the propensity of making the punishment too harsh for the crime, not necessarily a dismissal that a crime ever happened, or shouldn’t be dealt with. I will admit that in our current climate we are often overly eager to go straight for crucifixion over the mere scent of sexual harassment. And in what is unequivocally a noble effort to give voice to women, educate men, and get justice for victims, we sometimes disregard that this isn’t always a black and white issue. There are degrees. A young boy snapping a girl’s bra strap isn’t the same as a high school boy spreading rumors about an ex-girlfriend being promiscuous, which isn’t the same as a grown man forcing himself on a woman. They are all WRONG. But they shouldn’t be addressed in the same way.  

Still, I wish I had said something, because even good, decent guys are sometimes a little clueless to the ingrained attitudes that exist in most of us, thanks to a culture that is still trying to play catch-up to what “equality” actually means.

Most men don’t truly understand that something like a “harmless” bra strap snap on the playground is just one of a million “harmless” messages sent to girls that end up coming together as a manifesto of the “female normal.” It has one pervading theme: YOU ARE NEVER ACTUALLY SAFE, BUT YOU JUST NEED TO LEARN TO ACCEPT IT.

 

Don’t believe me? Take a look here at what women said when someone posed the question, “What would you do if men had a 9:00 pm curfew?” (Me? I’d walk to my car without my keys between my fingers and sleep with the windows open on Spring nights even if my husband was out of town.)

And while the boys who snapped my bra certainly did not deserve to be arrested or put on a sexual predator list, they DID deserve to be told it wasn’t and never will be acceptable. They should have been told that real men keep their hands to themselves. They should have been told that girls are not here for their amusement. They should have been made to apologize to me and all the other girls. And their fathers should have been disappointed in their sons and vowed to better teach them, and not just to keep them from suffering consequences later on, but because females deserve to simply be people treated with respect. Full stop.

When we dismiss these small things, these things that little boys don’t even fully understand they are doing…or why they are doing them…or the implications of doing them, we are also sending a million “harmless” messages to boys that become another kind of manifesto. Thankfully, some of these manifestos get rewritten or edited or are given twists to the story that make for good, decent men. But other manifestos become those of apathy, or entitlement, or of much, much more sinister things.

These little boys grow into men who have taken those million “harmless” messages to heart in varying degrees. They become the coworker who makes misogynistic jokes. The father who parents his son and his daughter with a double-standard. The stranger who grabs a girl’s behind in a crowded bar. The teenager who asks a girl to send nude photos via Snapchat. The predator who rapes women walking alone to their cars. The man who comments on which women at a party have a “thigh gap” and which don’t. The guy who assumes that just because you have a little crush on him, it’s okay to block the door when you say you want to go home, and when you finally make him move, he’s so mad at your rejection that he leaves you to walk back to your house by yourself at 2 am, shaking both from the thought of what almost happened as well as the thought of what could be lurking in any bush along the six blocks. And they even become decent, well-intentioned friends who would never dream of harassing a woman, but who make one little sarcastic comment about jailing boys who snap bra straps. Some of these men are despicable and criminal and deserve whatever full retribution the law allows. Some of them are good people with a few misguided attitudes. But all these men deserve varying degrees of consequence, the last one’s apparently being becoming the subject of a blog post.

I’m pretty sure those boys from my class didn’t grow up to be sexual predators either. I haven’t really kept in touch with any of them – more because they relentlessly made fun of my inclination to tell long stories in class and for being a Monkees fan than for the whole bra-snapping thing. But a quick Facebook stalking session revealed what appeared to be well-adjusted members of society. Many were married with children. And I’d like to think none of them would ever dream of harming a woman. But I also bet that the ones who have daughters worry about their safety. They fear some boy will take advantage of their little girls. They will give their daughters curfews and mace to help keep them safe. They will advise them to stay aware whenever a male service technician is in their home to fix the heater. They will tell them to never leave their drink unattended or be alone pretty much ever. They will caution, “lock your doors, look over your shoulder, make sure your outgoing voicemail message says WE can’t come to the phone right now.” Even when their daughters are capable adults, they will be concerned when they travel to another city alone. And they will do all these things because they know other men might want to harm their daughters. Because they know “boys will be boys.” Because they know they once snapped a girl’s bra strap without consequence. It’s been written in their manifestos.

And I know that next time, I need to speak up. Letting a comment go, even from someone who didn’t mean harm, isn’t that much different than letting the bra-snapping slide. I didn’t have to indict him, or quarrel with him, or insult him. Because his crime didn’t demand that kind of punishment. But I could have simply said, “If my son ever did that, I’d be damn sure to do everything in my power to make him understand that should be the worst – and last – thing he ever does to a woman.”

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3 Responses

  1. Well said Kelly!!!

  2. I endured the bra popping. Did anyone have trouble with boys asking about your period at that 5 and 6th grade time. That was big in our classroom….

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