As I walk through a grocery store, trying to find extra-pulp orange juice and the specific type of flatbread my wife requested I buy, I see all kinds of people.
Young mothers with children riding in baskets. Couples, trying to figure out the most economical ways to do things. Individuals, some dressed up, some dressed down. Young men, older men, women of all ages. People of all ethnic and national backgrounds.
It’s a pretty big store.
People where I live tend to engage in any number of politeness rituals: “excuse me”-“no, you’re fine” and “sorry about that”-“oh, it’s no problem” type of exchanges are going on all over the store. People occasionally make eye contact and try to appear friendly, or, at least, not hostile.
Going around a corner, I nearly collide with a woman who was steering her cart through a very tight space. I apologize and back up, leaving her room to pass. I make myself look at her when I’m speaking. She smiles fleetingly, in a distracted sort of way.
I have to force myself to make eye contact, when I do. Becoming aware of this, walking by frozen foods, I try to think of why that is.
I realize it is because I was raised to believe that men should be ashamed of being men.
Since I was pretty young, I have more-or-less tacitly assumed that every girl or woman I meet is innately hostile. I knew this was a psychological oddity (to say the least) but I never pinpointed exactly why I felt this way. But I just realized — just now — it’s because I have been told, over and over, that to be a man is to be something inherently bad.
So I’m standing here, looking at frozen Snickers bars (which look really good, by the way) trying to figure out if this is fair or not. I’m not sure.
That people are capable of great evil is beyond dispute.
That people have usually abused power when they have it is also beyond question.
I am capable of evil. And I have some power, such as it is. Do I abuse it?
Sometimes. I don’t sexually harass women, though. Most of the time, I don’t even make eye contact.
I notice them, of course, and I tend to think of all women as beautiful.
I have known any number of men in my life who were what one might call sexually amoral. Their view was that any woman who wanted to have sex with them was okay with them.
I’ve also known some (fewer) who were immoral (criminal): abusing their power, pushing themselves on women who didn’t want them. I’ve learned of three of these men at my current place of employment, and every one of them was fired over it, with one going to jail.
I never actually witnessed it, though. Not since I was eighteen, when I intervened (badly) in a situation where a waitress at a restaurant I was cooking for got cornered after hours by the assistant manager.
I helped her get away. I got fired.
I wasn’t proud of helping her. In fact, I felt ashamed.
Anyone with the patience to read my poetry blog knows: I think about all kinds of things, and sex is one of them.
For any female readers who want to know how men really think, or have wanted to know since they were girls how boys really think, I’ll let you in on a couple of secrets.
The first is this: when it comes to sex, boys don’t have thoughts, thoughts have them. It’s like having your body and mind and emotions taken over by an alien lifeforce. Since most boys aren’t that popular with girls in early adolescence (there’s usually around six boys in a school who get all the girls’ attention) it is a world of energy with no place to go.
It’s torture, basically. It wakes you when you’re sleeping, sometimes leaving embarrassing stains. It causes easily evident physical changes when you are around girls that they (and everyone else) notice.
And laugh at.
Meanwhile, all the female classmates who are the constant subject of your newfound erotic obsessions are mooning over pop stars and the six guys at school I mentioned earlier. Many boys grow up thinking that girls would all belong to harems, if they could.
Much that is unexplainable in male behavior goes with the view — and you can see it all too evidently in the news these days, although it shouldn’t be news to anybody — that if a man is a “star” every woman will really want to be his “groupie”.
Which is ridiculous, of course.
A second secret about how men look at sex is that many boys (men) give up even trying to understand how girls (women) view relationships (sex). Guys just know: sometimes gals like them, sometimes they don’t, and it all seems mysterious and unexplainable, so why try. Particularly if you often observe at a young age that girls seem to very often like guys who don’t treat them that well.
I went through a phase of my teen years where I consciously attempted to treat girls worse than my natural inclinations. Sure enough: suddenly, I had girls interested in me. The lesson I thought I learned, interestingly enough, wasn’t that girls liked “bad boys”, it was that girls liking me or not liking me really didn’t seem to have anything to do with me at all.
Essentially, I concluded at age seventeen that relationships, like weddings in this country, are completely about what the female wants, and the male is just along for the ride. Or so I thought.
I’m all the way over in the pharmaceutical section of the grocery store now, and I’m still thinking about the original question: should I be ashamed of being a guy?
No, I think. Ethical generalizations about groups of people are inherently wrong. There’s no difference in saying “All men are bad” and saying “All members of ethnic group X are bad”. It’s just wrong.
What should I be ashamed of, then, if anything?
Being a bad guy, not being a guy. And being a “bad” guy is what it has always been: abusing power and hurting people.
And what about these strongly rooted adolescent ideas you formed about relationships and sex?
They’re messed up. In every type of relationship, men and women have to be respectful of each other’s wishes and desires: to listen, and to respect the voluntary nature of all interactions — not to attempt to coerce or manipulate. Men have to understand and embrace the idea of… well, propriety, for lack of a better term. They also have to accept their own sexuality for what it is, and what it is not. Strong desire is not license.
Is that extra pulp orange juice?
It’s not even orange juice. I picked up some kind of mixed fruit concoction.
And did you ever actually get the flatbread?
Dang it. Now I have to go back.
You should be ashamed.