Debra Marshall: A confession, and a whole bunch of observations

For the Monitor
Sunday, December 10, 2017

I want to tell you about the time I grabbed a total stranger’s penis and held it tight.

I’m a woman of a certain age, and I’ve worked in many professions. One of the first jobs I had, about a thousand years ago back in the dark ages, was in a bustling law office in the city. I was the test paralegal – it was a relatively new profession, they’d never had one before. I’d just graduated from college with a legal studies degree, and the partner who did the criminal work thought he could use a paralegal. Perfect! Exactly the job I’d longed for.

It was an interesting and busy office. There were a big handful of young women legal secretaries, all city girls who were tough as nails and awed me with their fashion sense, elaborate hairdos, and brash approach to the office and the lawyers, who I still held a little in awe.

There were a couple of young lawyers who concentrated mostly on real estate law, and the two partners who were conservative-looking older men, and another lawyer, the office’s prosecutor, whose office was in the basement. He was also an older man, and to get to the copy machine one had to walk through his office to the supply closet on the far side.

“He used to be a monk,” one of the city gals told me on my first day. “He likes to meditate before he has a court appearance. When you walk through his office, don’t look at him. He likes to meditate naked.”

It wasn’t an office secret – everyone in earshot heard these instructions, and it seemed to be an accepted part of weird office culture. One of the young lawyers rolled his eyes, and when I asked, another of the city gals said: “No, he never shuts his door. Just go through whenever you need to make copies.”

Okay! I never got an eyeful, but it certainly made trips to the supply closet an adventure, and whenever the light in his office was more candle than incandescent, I kept my eyes straight ahead and hustled along.

The other partner, I was told, had a box of “candy panties” in his desk.

“Don’t worry about it,” my informer told me. “He’ll probably never ask, because he’s interested in one of the secretaries. But if he does, just say ‘No.’ He won’t give you any trouble.”

I was innocent. She had to explain to me what candy panties were. I was surprised no one else was disgusted – it was just the way things were, back then. When I reported back to my Dad about my new job, I watched a deep red color rise slowly up his neck to his ears, and I expected an explosion. He sputtered a bit, then said, “Don’t go into that partner’s office if there’s no one else in the office. You should just quit.”

I didn’t stay long at that office, not because of the sexual tenor, but because they couldn’t figure out the best way to put me to work, and I was too inexperienced to train them. But let it be noted that whenever I had a discussion with that particular partner, half my mind was on his desk drawer and its contents, wondering what, exactly, I’d say and do if he opened it. And I stayed because, at the time, it was a sign of a woman’s character to be tough enough to figure out how to handle it; it being the presumption of men in positions of power who assumed it was fair, and not foul, to see what personal perks they could get from the women around them. I was lucky – none of them ever tested me; but I saw it more than once.

That wasn’t the time I grabbed a stranger’s penis.

Back in the dark ages, the pendulum was weighted heavily on the side of men in the dance of sex. If a woman was assaulted or raped, or even if she was just whistled at or subjected to leers, inappropriate stories or suggestions, “accidental” touching, and all the other things clever boys believe to be attractive to us or their right to take, it was always the woman’s fault. Somehow she’d encouraged it, or she just wasn’t tough enough to keep the man in hand or ignore the strangers in her face, and that was her problem, not the man’s.

If she complained, she wasn’t going to be taken seriously, or if she was, she was going to end up reviled – not a hero.

Flash forward a couple thousand years. The pendulum, as it always does, is swinging in the other direction.

Some men who acted very badly are finally receiving the consequences of their bad acts. Some men, who didn’t actually act very badly, are going to be swept up in a too-big consequence. It always happens when the pendulum swings, because Qi, or Karma, or Justice, or whatever you want to call it, will take too much at the far extremes until it finally settles into a balanced place in the middle.

So while we can and should worry about and feel sorry for the men who maybe shouldn’t be getting picked off, but should maybe only have their hands slapped hard, we should also be remembering the many, many women who were also picked off even if they weren’t actually assaulted – they had to live with the nastiness of the environment, the uncertainty and the fear, that the bad boys engendered and the good boys didn’t step up and stop.

It would help if all men realized that almost all women lock their doors when they’re home alone – and they never, ever can get that out of the back of their minds.

We all need to do some crying together, and then we need to agree that everyone – everyone! – keep their paws off other people and their dirty minds locked inside their own heads and not spewing aloud in public.

We need to decide and believe that when we’re in business or politics or otherwise engaged with each other not in a romantic relationship, that we’re all just neuter – not male, not female, and those projecting things some of the neuters happen to have aren’t there for staring at or touching, nor are they an invitation to act badly.

Nowadays I’m an acupuncturist – basically, a cranky, aging woman with a lot of sharp needles who enjoys stabbing strangers with them. Most of the strangers I stab are grateful because they feel so much better afterward.

I hear a lot about their lives, their fears, their joys, their struggles. There develops a special connection after a few appointments.

All the women patients who want one will ask if they can have a hug at the end of the appointment. I’ll ask them if I can give a hug when I sense they need that affirming touch. Some of my male patients also ask if they can hug, and I’m always glad to comply, and they are always completely respectful when we do.

A hug is a hug, and it can be comforting and close, or close and creepy, and the difference is in the asking and receiving permission, the appropriateness of the circumstances, and the desire of both to hug and not stray into something else. This is the model for closeness outside the realm of the very personal. Touch like you’re touching your mother, boys, even if your little mind wants to believe she’s waving a “free gifts here” flag. No one ever got burned having a calm, informational conversation and thinking through the consequences first. Ladies – same to you, if you’re one of the aggressors.

We can choose to forgive. There are some indiscretions that shouldn’t be forgotten or forgiven or in any way rewarded, but we shouldn’t refuse to consider and decide each individually. Not all need to lose their jobs; not all need to be publicly shamed. Quantity and degree of vileness really do matter. Men, we need you to stand up and say, this won’t be tolerated again. We need you to mean it.

When I was still a young pup back in the dark ages, my boyfriend was from Southie. I’d go with him back to the city, but the subway system flummoxed me and the crowds – yow, for a country girl used to empty spaces, it made me very nervous to be on a crowded subway during rush hour, and I’d stay as close to the boyfriend as possible so I wouldn’t get lost.

One day we were mashed into a train that was literally wall-to-wall bodies. The boyfriend had me stand on the edge facing the door, told me what sign to look for to get off, then stood behind me to try to protect me from bumps and pushes from other passengers. Nervous and slightly off-balance as the train bounced along, I reached back to grab my boyfriend’s hand. Imagine my surprise – and that of the stranger who was standing directly behind me – when I grabbed a handful of pants-with-penis, and then held on tight as the train swayed around a sharp corner.

I realized my mistake when I heard my boyfriend just to the side of me break into a guffaw, and the handful of flesh I’d grabbed seemed to leap about 3 feet into the air. I let go quick, then froze, and fortunately our stop was reached in a minute. We fell off the train, gasping with laughter, and I can only imagine what the guy I’d assaulted thought.

Sometimes, it really is a mistake.

(Debra Marshall lives in Wilmot. She blogs at herondragonwrites.blogspot.com.)