My phone rang at 9:30 pm last Sunday night, which is quite unusual (just the act of calling someone is unusual these days). When I answered, I heard a lot of giggling coming from the other end of the line. [Can you say “line” with wireless technology?] It was a good friend who, once she was finished laughing, managed to squeak out, “Hey, Jo! I have a friend over, and… I’m cooking.” (At this point I’m sure she’s going to ask me a cooking question.) “Okay,” I say, distracted by Game of Thrones. She continues: “… and I’m naked. Well, sort of. I’m wearing one article of clothing.” “Great!” I exclaim, as an enthusiast of both cooking and being naked. And sometimes naked cooking, depending on what I’m making. I stop paying attention to the show. Then she says, “I know this is really weird, but, um… my friend wants to take pictures of me, and I really want to share them with someone, but I don’t want it to be creepy or sexual, and so I was wondering if I can share them with you. Can I — ” “YES!” I interrupt her, super excited that my friends want to share naked photos with me. Platonic naked photos. That she trusts me to look at her body, not judge her, not see her as a sexual object, compliment her on how good she looks naked, and then erase the pictures from my phone makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Like a baby panda. This happened a day after a different friend sent me a photo of himself wearing a lacy ladies thong in front of a sink full of dildos and anal beads (hot, right?!). Thanksgiving was this past week, and I’m thankful for trusting friends and the beauty of the human form. By the way, the one article of clothing my friend was wearing was a baseball cap.
I had a student come to my office hours yesterday for a chat. As he was talking to me about his girlfriend and whether or not he wanted to marry her (I’m sure you can imagine my reaction to that… we had a whole conversation about marriage and monogamy), he abruptly stopped and asked, “Jo — have you ever been in a relationship?” “Of course,” I replied, laughing. “Lots of them.” “Then… why are you alone?” he asked. I told him that I’ve been with people who wanted to spend their lives with me and I didn’t feel the same at that time, and that I’ve been with people who I’ve wanted to build a life with, but they didn’t. That it’s just never worked out. That being with someone I really want to be with is more important than being in a relationship just to be in a relationship.
He then said: “Well… aren’t you lonely?” “No,” I said (the answer is more complicated, of course, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to turn my student into a therapist). “I mean, I date people. Actually, I was supposed to go on a date this weekend, but it was canceled.” “Why?” he asked. After hesitating for a long time and thinking, Can I say this? I answered slowly, “She’s not feeling very well and wants to stay home. She lives in another city.” “Oh,” he said. “So you date men and women?” “Yup!” I answered. “I’m not shocked,” he said (which I find hilarious). And then: “I understand how men and women are sexual, but I don’t really understand about men and men and women and women.” “Well…” I started, reminding myself that we are in a school setting and he’s my student, so I have to tread carefully. “A lot of people think that there’s only one definition of sex, and that’s penis in vagina sex… but there are lots of different kinds of sex.” “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know that.” (Oof, I thought. I feel sorry for your girlfriend.) I went on: “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say any more on the subject, but you have the entire internet at your fingertips.”
We chatted a bit more and he left to meet a friend; I felt lucky that I have students who feel comfortable talking to me about relationships and sexuality, and I feel very lucky that I have students with whom I can be honest with about my relationships. Straight teachers post pictures of their families on the walls of their classrooms and talk about their husbands, wives, and children, and that’s sanctioned because it fits into the narrative about what relationships and families are “supposed” to look like. It’s exciting to be alive during a time when that narrative is changing.
I walked into my 12:30 class yesterday and found a former student sitting there, in the dark, with one of my current students. “Hi!” I exclaimed in a lively manner. “It’s so great to see you! What are you doing here? Did you just want to sit in on class today?” She smiled and said she was happy to see me too, but her eyes looked sad. I looked over to the student who was actually enrolled in this class and asked how she was; in a tiny voice, she replied, “GM isn’t coming. She died.” Thinking I’d misheard her — that one of GM’s family members had passed, probably a grandparent, I said, “I don’t think I got that — someone in GM’s family died?” “No,” she said, now starting to cry. “GM died.”
I sat down. When you hear something so shocking, your first reaction is to just not believe it because it seems so impossible. I asked how. She was hit by a car. Walking home from school. To be more precise, walking home from my class. I started crying. I asked when the funeral was so I could go; they said that her family had already held it, less than twenty-four hours after her death. I asked if they could get her parent’s address for me. They said they would try.
More students filtered in, and as time for class came, I told them that we wouldn’t have class today; that if anyone wanted to share something about GM, they could. That if they wanted to go, that was okay. That if they wanted to stay in class and just be together, that was okay. That feeling and expressing sorrow and grief was okay. I told them the things that I thought were wonderful about GM, and there were a lot of them. She was not only the brightest student in the class, but would be the first to volunteer to help anyone with anything without being asked. She radiated grace, confidence, and joy. She was an effervescent young woman who held everyone’s attention and gave her attention fully. She was absolutely charming. She was twenty-two years old.
We sat in silence and cried together for a long time; no one said a word. After class, some of the students came to my office to talk about GM; they were pretty shaken up. They cross the street several times a day, eyes glued to their phones, ear buds plugged in, completely unaware of their surroundings. Traffic laws are pretty much the same in Korea as they are in the US and Canada, but go largely unenforced and unpenalized. They told me that after exams, we could all go visit her grave together.
When I got home from school, I immediately emailed former students whom I still keep in touch with just to tell them that I love them and to be careful. Since I’m a teacher, I’m giving you all an assignment: Right now, tell someone who’s important to you that (s)he is important to you. Like, right now. Don’t wait. I know this seems cheesy and like something you’d read in an email forwarded to you by your aunt who only sends you forwards, but do it anyway.
The popular western-style bars in my city in Korea happen to be sports bars; I visit them at least once a week, so I know all the barflies. I was sitting in one of these bars last week, talking with a sports-loving acquaintance, and Lorde came up in conversation. He started talking about how he finds her unattractive (he said it in MUCH harsher words), and I went off on him about how talented she is and how he shouldn’t give a fuck how she looks because it’s not important — and besides, she’s super beautiful! I then laughed at myself and said, “I’m feministing you.” “I realize that,” he replied. Then he continued: “But you objectify women at least as much as I do, Jo.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said. He laughed because he thought I was kidding, but in my head, I was thinking Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. Is he right? DO I objectify women as much as this guy? He constantly talks about women’s appearances, and when he asks me questions about whether or not I’d have sex with any given woman in the bar, I actually answer him. It was one of those instances where you realize you’ve done something wrong, feel horrified, feel ashamed, and then want to deny it but can’t.
I had complained to his girlfriend recently about how he talks about women and asked her how she could be with a guy who seems to respect the individual but not the gender. I told her that he has said some really fucked up shit to me about women, and he has — but what I didn’t say is that when he was saying those fucked up things, I said nothing. I did nothing. And in my silence, I was complicit in his words and behavior. She mentioned to him that maybe I don’t want to be treated as one of the guys, and he said to her, “What are you talking about? Jo loves being one of the boys! She takes it as a compliment!” And the thing is — he’s right. I’ve always taken it as a compliment when my male friends tell me that “I’m just one of the guys.”
But I’m starting to think that the price of being in the boy’s club is too high. Thanks to conversations happening on the internet around consent, toxic masculinity, and entitlement, I’ve been reflecting a lot about how we propagate misogyny in some really subtle and insidious ways that we might not even recognize because we’re not talking about them. I don’t want to be a part of reinforcing the negative ways that men talk about women’s bodies… but right now, I am. Ideally, I’d like to be a part of changing gender narratives. This means two things: One, I have a lot of uncomfortable conversations coming my way. Two, I get away with saying a LOT of inappropriate things to women I don’t know (“Hey — you have fabulous cleavage!”) just because I’m a woman, and I need to make a conscious effort to stop making those comments.
I cherish my friendships with the men in my life, and I’m friends with some really great feminist men. I’m also friends with some pretty misogynistic guys, and I don’t want to be one of them. Before I can have a conversation with them about the way they see women, though, I think I have some internal work to do regarding how I think and talk about women.
I realize I’m super late on this, but here goes. I just finished reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series (well, at least the books that have thus far been published), so I was SO FUCKING EXCITED to see this television show that everyone’s been raving about for the past four years.
There are a lot of memorable scenes from the books; the first one that indelibly burned into my brain was Daenerys and Khal Drogo having sex on their wedding night. GRRM describes how Daenerys is crying at first, but Drogo takes hours to comfort her, undress her, and then basically get her into a full stage of arousal by caressing her everywhere until she’s wet before asking her consent to have sex. She replies with an enthusiastic yes, and it’s super hot. Sexual agency! It’s the best. Reading that scene, I was like “Fuck YES. GRRM knows how to write sex scenes for women!”
So then WHY IN GODS’ NAMES (see what I did there, GoT fans?) does HBO turn this scene into a rape?!? Drogo looks angry as he fucks her from behind, Daenerys is sobbing, and there is definitely no verbal or implied consent (via body language) given. You’d think that after Sex and the City, HBO would be comfortable with women’s desire, but apparently rape is more palatable to viewers in the minds of HBO executives and / or the show’s writers than a teenage female expressing sexual desire. Just. Ugh.
A couple of months ago, I was at a dance club, and I started dancing with an attractive woman who was new to South Korea. The dance followed a familiar pattern (you know what I’m talking about): We started out by facing each other and moving our bodies together, then holding hands and doing some partner dancing with footwork and turns, then hands slid up to waists and we had our hands on each others’ backs, and then our foreheads were touching, and then we were kissing and grinding to the music, completely oblivious to all the people around us. After the loooongest time, we finally managed to break apart and decided to get some fresh air. While outside, I asked her to come home with me; she made some witty comment, we grabbed our bags, and we were off. I don’t remember how it came up, but on the way home, she mentioned that she was twenty-four. I was shocked because she looked and seemed older; I had assumed she was at least thirty (I’m in my mid-thirties). It really threw me.
When I was twenty-four, I had a thirty-seven year-old pseudo-boyfriend for about a year. At the time, I remember thinking how cool it was that I was dating someone with real furniture (the kind that doesn’t come in a box) and a full-time job with benefits. I had just graduated from university, and it made me feel like a grown-up. I didn’t have romantic feelings for him (nor he for me; we were both still in love with our exes), but I thought he was hot, and the sex was good. I always felt inadequate when I was with him, though. I hadn’t done the traveling he’d done; I hadn’t read the books he’d read; I wasn’t familiar with the music he listened to, and I for sure didn’t understand his job (he was an oceanographer). Considering we were so off personality-wise, I never really understood why he wanted to date me. He eventually ended up marrying a woman who was two years younger than me.
When I entered my thirties and looked back on it, I thought, “What was wrong with that guy? Why didn’t he date people his own age?” I’ve come to the realization that nothing was wrong with him. Maybe dating younger women made him feel more youthful. Maybe being an older, protective man turned him on. Maybe he just thought younger women are hotter (in which case, he’s got a LOT of company). Or maybe all the women his own age were partnered. As we get older, the dating pool inevitably gets smaller as people pair off, move in together, get married, and have kids, which makes dating someone your own age more difficult.
That being said — I can’t seem to get past it. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher and the idea of dating someone who could have been my student at some point in my career squicks me. When I tell this to people in their early twenties, they get offended. “It’s really not that big of a deal,” they say. “It’s only a decade.” I felt the same way when I was in my early twenties. I ask them if they would date someone who was ten years younger than them. “NO!” they say, horrified. “That’s illegal!” “What if it were legal?” I ask. “Would you date someone ten years younger than you?” “Of course not,” they inevitably reply — “they’re children.”
Aaliyah said that age ain’t nothin’ but a number, but it’s so much more — it’s a whole lifetime of relationships, experiences, education, and cultural references. When I say to someone, “Hey, do you remember when the Challenger exploded?” and they don’t because they weren’t born yet, it makes me feel old. I realize that age gaps in relationships aren’t a big deal for a lot of people, and my younger friends are probably laughing at this post and rolling their eyes. I have loads of friends in relationships with people who are 5-10 years older or younger than them, and they’re truly and beautifully happy. My parents were thirteen years apart (which is probably why my friends all thought that my dad was my grandpa). And I would (have) absolutely date(d) people who are older than me… but I’m starting to think hard about the fact that the median age of single people is going to stay the same while I age.
I am not calling twenty-somethings children; however, I teach students in their early twenties. I officially recognize them as autonomous adults, but I also call them “my kids,” just as parents call their adult children their kids. I realize there is a HUGE range of maturity in young people; when I was young, older people always thought I was older than I was. Nor am I criticizing folks who choose to date people who are much younger than they are. I’m just kind of freaking out because I think I’ve finally hit a point where I realize that it’s going to be tough from here on out to find people my own age to date. Also, I’m starting to think that maybe it’s time I got out of the club.