What Happened When a Teenager Grabbed My Butt

I wish I could say that my parenting always perfectly syncs up with my progressive values. Alas, I cannot say that with 100 percent accuracy. The political spirit is willing but the maternal flesh is weak. The instances of disconnect between my uncompromising feminist ideals and, say, my stance on my teenaged daughters wearing revealing clothes to school, are sadly too numerous to mention.

“You’re wearing that to school? Isn’t there a dress code? Your butt is hanging out of those shorts,” are all sentences that have passed through these allegedly high-minded lips.

But I was recently on the receiving end of a particularly apt piece of karmic payback which may curtail my commentary on the subject of appropriate attire. That will no doubt cause great jubilation in our house.

A year or so ago, my daughter had an experience on New York’s streets which both shook her up and angered her. She was already accustomed to building up the invisible barrier between herself and leering men and boys on the street, though verbal harassment maintains its power to upset her. She was walking to her weekend job one Saturday morning, when a barely teenaged boy she figured to be around 13 deliberately groped her butt as he strode past, then smiled triumphantly back at her. She felt violated by the touch, creeped out by the smile and that much more unsafe in the world. If someone can just do that, what can’t they do, she wondered.

It was one of those sad, inevitable coming-of-age moments: realizing there are people who will get off on disturbing and upsetting you, just because they can. This is a thing in the world. You’ve been inducted, hazed. The male version of this coming-of-age ordeal occurred for my son in middle school, when he first started getting to school on his own. A group of boys chased and threatened him and his friend, seeming to feed on their terror. It was shocking. They were crying. Why didn’t the bullies stop when they saw how scared he was?

Male friends who grew up in Manhattan all had similar stories. At least girls don’t have to go through that, I comforted myself.


The family rallied around my daughter, expressing outrage at her mini-violation. But even as we sympathized, a thought crossed my mind which I am sooooo glad I did not blurt out. “Maaaaaybe you shouldn’t wear those leggings.” Yeupp, it was undeniably there in my brain. “Not that it should matter, but those things outline everything.

My daughter and I have had these discussions before. In her teenaged brain, all commentary about revealing clothes amounts to 'slut-shaming,' an infuritating thing to be accused of. "I should be able to walk around naked and be safe," she'll say.

Sure honey, in an ideal world . . .  or the nudist colony where you take up residence.

Street harassment, or rather your reaction to it, changes a bit when you get older. You contextualize it more, weeding out what is threatening, and what is merely an obnoxious reminder of gender power dynamics. You realize you are powerless to prevent it, and try to recalibrate your response so you can just get on with your day. Sometimes you laugh it off, though no, I don’t experience it as flattering if that is what you are thinking.  And no, I don’t lament that it is less frequent now. Walking to the subway from a dinner party with an attractive fellow mother named Carmen not too long ago, a group of boys catcalled us as they crossed our path. Carmen and I, both a bit tipsy from the wine, burst out laughing at the absurdity. We are amply old enough to be their mothers. These guys need night vision goggles. Had I been alone, it would have been less funny, and been followed by furtive glances over my shoulder the whole way home, and an extra-alert selection of subway cars. All of these are actions that New York women instinctively take, collectively known as street smarts, though they don’t always protect us, of course.

I was alone the other night when I approached my new apartment, after a day of painting, unpacking, cleaning and multiple runs for supplies. The street was largely deserted in an area nearly tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge. A group of four or five rowdy teenagers—girls and guys—came around the corner in the opposite direction, so that they were between me and my front door. When I passed them, the boy on the end reached out and quietly grabbed my ass, the little shit.  Because he could, I suppose. I reeled around and said in a scoldy tone, “Hey.” Then I went inside, grateful that my door was right there.

“What were you wearing?” my ex joked when I told him the story a few days later and confessed my previous mini-thought crime regarding our daughter.

Jeans, loose dirty jeans, if you must know.

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