When I was 19, I had a summer job supervising a playground. It was a pretty lame job. It paid $5 an hour, and it was outside in the sticky summer heat. The hours alternated between utter boredom and the kind of excitement I’d rather avoid – breaking up shouting matches, figuring out whether the kid who had sandbox sand thrown in his face needed first aid, running to make sure the child who I hadn’t seen in while was simply taking a long time in the bathroom and had not gone missing.
One day, the excitement that punctuated my day was not so ordinary. It involved pornography. And some feminist theory. I handled it. Yes, I handled it well, I thought at the time. But looking back during last week’s numbingly endless #MeToo stories, I wish I had had the presence of mind to do better.
The playground was at the pleasant suburban elementary school where I grew up. It was ringed by a strip of woods that lent welcome shade to the play area and a noise bumper to the surrounding residential neighborhood. The kids I watched were supposed to use the sandbox and swings and jungle gym, and stay out of the woods. Poison ivy was endemic to the area, and no one wanted to take responsibility for giving the woods a child-safe seal of approval, I suppose.
But the woods were just so appealing. Cooler, and a little more private, and with so many more interesting possibilities than a fully-vetted, sanitized and adult-inspection-approved play area could provide. The woods had sticks, rocks, dirt, trees with interesting holes, the occasional flower. And, it turned out, a backpack with somebody’s porn stash.
I knew I was supposed to keep the kids out of the woods, and I tried, halfheartedly. I called to them to come out when I noticed they were in there. I made bargains that they could play at the edge of the woods as long as they were also at the edge of the play area. I hated dragging them away from the sweet, absorbing games of pretend that the woods seemed to inspire, into the rough and tumble of jockeying for a swing on the playground. So I mostly tolerated their ventures into the woods, so long as I could see them.
One hot, quiet afternoon, while I was counting the minutes until I could close up the playground and head for the community pool, I heard a sudden burst of hollering and laughing from a bunch of the kids, so I went over to investigate. Five or six kids were holding ripped magazine pages. They were giggling, exclaiming, yelling. They had pages from a porno magazine, and nothing as coy and reserved as Playboy.
Emergency mode! I swooped in, briskly scooping up the pages, turning every direction to make sure I had gotten them all. First priority: confiscation. Second priority: countering the dismaying exclamations of “oh my God, ew, gross!” I was hearing from the older kids, while the little ones stood stunned with their mouths open, baffled. This took some serious thinking on my feet. I knew I did not want to leave any Hustler in the kids’ hands, but I was equally unhappy to hear them say that women’s bodies were disgusting. “There is nothing wrong with women’s naked bodies,” I told them. “But those pictures are not respectful.”
Where had they gotten the pages? I wanted to know. It turned out that two 12-year-old boys, regulars at the playground, had found the backpack, ripped out the pages, and deliberately handed them out to unsuspecting younger children.
While those two kids were technically young enough to be at the playground, in reality, they were by far the oldest and biggest kids there. They were bored, and looking for trouble. They had already vandalized the bathroom a couple weeks earlier. I suspect they were trying to get kicked off the playground so that their parents would have to come up with something else for them to do, or let them stay home watching television. After the vandalism episode, my mild-mannered recreation center boss told me that he would ban the two kids from the playground for three days but he felt he needed to allow them back because we were providing a town service. “Yeah, and also you’re not the one who has to supervise them,” I had thought.
Once I handled the immediate crisis of porn on the playground, I had to decide what to do next. Tell the parents of the younger kids when they arrived at pickup time? I was reluctant. I felt like I would be blamed, like it would be my fault I didn’t catch what was happening before the kids saw the pictures. I also thought about one of the little boys who had started coming to the playground a week earlier. He was only 6, the youngest kid there, and his mother was nervous about dropping him off, fluttering anxiously around as he settled happily into the sandbox, and telling me she wasn’t sure he was old enough to be on his own there. She had just told me the afternoon before that he was having a wonderful time, and I wasn’t sure if she’d let him come back if I revealed that he had gotten a glimpse of Hustler on my watch.
Tell my boss? I cringed at the thought. He was shy and soft-spoken, and I didn’t know him well. I was not exactly comfortable talking about porn myself, never mind with an older man I predicted would blush all the way to burgundy. I also wasn’t sure I wanted to get the two boys into trouble. As annoying as they were, I was hesitant to trigger their punishment. I had the impression the repercussions at home might verge on abusive.
I told my mom what had happened, and she thought I handled it fine. So I didn’t tell anyone else, and as far as I know, that was the end of it.
I was thinking about that incident again, in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment and abuse, and the ensuing social media outpouring in which every woman I know joined in to declare, “me too.” I saw well-meaning parents declare that they are now explicitly educating their sons about the importance of being decent, upstanding men who respect women, truly see them as equals, and do not ever harass them or stand for others harassing them. This is an important effort, of course. But I kept thinking, “I bet most of those kids would grow up to be good, decent men anyhow, since they have good role models in their parents. The real question is, how the heck can we reach the kids who are likely to actually be the harassers?”
What those two boys did on the playground, handing out pages of Hustler, was sexual harassment. It might have been done impulsively, without much thought. But their goal, clearly, was to embarrass and humiliate me. They were only 12, and they had already figured out that degrading sexual images could be a tool to use against a woman they resented.
I am glad that I had a chance to tell them, along with all the other kids, that women’s bodies are not gross, that it’s the way that a magazine like this displays them that’s gross. What I regret is that I did not find a way to sit the two of them down and make it clear that what they did, using sexual images to try to undermine me, was a much graver transgression than making a mess in the bathroom with toilet paper and graffiti. That this was a much more substantial stain on their souls. That they had meant to shame me, but that they had in fact shamed themselves.
Most of the time, those who are harassed can’t confront their harassers because they have reason to fear reprisals. I could have, though. I had much of the power in that relationship, and those boys could do little to hurt me. When we know about harassment and we aren’t personally under threat from it, we need to say to the harasser, in no uncertain terms, that what they’ve done is shameful, and that we and the rest of polite society strongly disapprove. At 12 years old, maybe they could have heard that message. Maybe it would have shifted their attitudes a little bit when I said it to them.
The problem of sexual harassment is still so big, and the habit so ingrained for so many men, it feels intractable. It’s clear that we need better enforcement of laws and rules against harassment. But civil society depends upon social norms and decency at least as much as laws and rules. We’re going to need to chip away at the habit of harassment, incident by incident, child by child. We’re going to need to speak earnestly to those who may not agree with us that it’s a problem, and especially speak to their children, eye to eye, via communication rather than punishment, if we want to really shift the tide.