“Boys will be boys.” This primitive rationalization is reactivating long stored, sometimes barely remembered wounds in women and men.
When I was a teenager, my family didn’t have much money. Mom was a single parent to three expensive kids. As a teenager, I wasn’t very forgiving nor understanding of my mother’s struggles to keep me in clothes, clothes that my friends were wearing, and clothes for special events. So when I had an opportunity to go to a winter formal fraternity, I wanted a new dress. I had applied to this university; in my mind, it was important to make a good impression. So I pestered Mom.
She bought a dress for me. It was soft gray with a slight Japanese-flavored print of a bird on a limb floating across the long skirt. The top was gathered into a modest vee-neck. Why do I feel the need to defend the neckline? I have a vague memory of standing before Mom, twirling around with my hands spread. Both of us were smiling. I felt beautiful in the dress. The dress was carefully packed and I tootled off with friends to the university. The car ride moved along highways flanked with bare trees but nothing dampened my excitement.
Saturday night, I put on the dress and went with my assigned escort to the winter formal. My long hair was pulled up to show off another gift from my mother, a pair of dangling pearl earrings from my namesake aunt Trudi. The night was cool and I draped a swirl of ruffled material around my shoulders.
This is where the memories become strobe-like. I remember drinking with my escort. He seemed nice and quite gentlemanly. We danced – I loved to dance and he was willing to have fun. We laughed at nothing in particular. When the formal party was finishing, he said he would take me back to the dorm where I was staying with my friends but did I want to stop by an after-party? Sure. We walked into the frat house. The room was silent but filled with a group of boys, men from eighteen to their early twenties. I watched my date look at a man a few years older than him sitting in a chair. I had an urge to throw up. I remember feeling so small in my long party dress. My escort turned to me, reached to touch me, and I punched him. He went down and stayed down.
(The summer before, an older friend taught me how to lift weights and how to throw a punch. I will always thank him for those lessons. I wonder if he knew.)
Trying not to wretch, I looked at each boy, young man in turn. “Anyone else want to try this?” I asked. The boy, young man in the chair got up and left. The others followed him. To this day, I have no idea how I had the strength to do this.
Somewhat drunk on alcohol and high on adrenaline, I ran back to my dorm. My beautiful dress and my aunt’s earrings stuck to my body with sweat, I banged on the doors to have someone let me in. I don’t remember who let me in.
Before getting in the backseat for the drive home on that Sunday, I told a friend what had happened. He asked, “Are you sure? He seems like such a nice guy.” Continuing to stare at him, he said, “Boys will be boys.”
I didn’t say another word for the six-hour drive home. Grabbing my bag, I burst into my home, dropped my bag by the stairs, and looked for my Mom. I was proud of myself, terrified of what I had escaped, and confused by my friend’s response. I have a distinct memory of saying, “Mom, I punched a guy. Knocked him out.” Mom looked at me with her mouth open as I demonstrated my fighting stance.
“What are you doing?”
With that question, I picked up my bag and stumbled up the stairs to my room. Unpacking, I threw the dress in the corner.
At school on Monday, I kept my mouth shut afraid if I opened it that I would start screaming or throw up. After school but before anyone else got home, I took a pair of scissors to the dress. I sliced it into pieces so small that no one could have told what it had been. I ripped apart every seam. I shredded every bird. It took hours. The room was dark when I finished. The earrings were locked in my jewelry box.
A couple of years later, the disbelieving friend asked me out. The memory of that dress flooded in and I stood him up. I’m not proud of my behavior. I wish I had told him why I couldn’t go out with him.
“Boys will be boys.” No. This statement infantilizes males. This statement scares women into evasion and collusion. For thirty years, I have been a therapist helping people heal horrific experiences. Then things, people, events occur reactivating the traumas. The 2016 political campaigns have opened old wounds, wounds that we thought had healed. Wounds like mine.