I was pretty nerdy in my youth—unlike now, of course—and so my parents confronted the issue of sexuality with me by doing the obviously right thing: They handed me a four-volume encyclopedia on the subject and told me to read up.
I wish I could remember the name of the thing, but alas I don't. A lot of it was stuff that was boring to me at the time, like the details of reproduction. I skimmed it but didn't really care a lot about the details. I never really resonated to biology—it always seemed messy and imprecise.
There was a section on dating, though, and I read through that pretty thoroughly in case it had any useful tips. It did. It's funny the kinds of things that stick with you over the years, but this did because of the practical and specific nature of it. It defined the confusing term “fresh” (a sort of interjection that was supposed to get uttered just before you got slapped in some mysterious circumstances) in the only detailed, serious way I've ever seen anyone try to define it. I checked the dictionary just now and it merely says very vague things like these:
15. informal forward or presumptuous
Random House Dictionary
15. Informal Bold and saucy; impudent
The American Heritage ® Dictionary
12. improperly forward or bold; “don't be fresh with me”;
This encyclopedia, instead of offering just a word or two, offered a full description of how things were supposed to work and why the word was significant. It was highly specific in a way that I doubt people will readily agree with—many will quibble that the numbers are arbitrary, and I suppose they are. But I was able to read past that and to get the essence of what it was getting at.
The article just came straight out and said that it was permissible for a boy to try to kiss a girl on the second date and to try “petting” on the eighth date. I have no idea where they got these numbers. They seemed arbitrary and unmotivated to me, and I knew even at the age of 11 or 12 when I read this that they were probably not universally agreed upon. But the point was that there was some such number. What was interesting was that the article was very clear on the notion that you had no entitlement to succeed in these things. It did not encourage you to be pushy. It didn't say that someone must submit. What it seemed to imply was that there was a time at which it was not out of bounds to think it might be proper.
So, as the article explained, it might be that a girl will kiss a boy on the first date, but he ought not try. The relationship is too fresh. After the first date, he may try, but she may still decline. Likewise, it might be that the girl would engage in petting on the eighth date, but maybe not. The relationship was too fresh before that to really consider the matter.By the way, I'm recalling all of this from memory, but I don't recall it talking about discussing, only trying. It might be I was just reading selectively, but more likely they were just acknowledging the obvious truth that it's enough trouble having to be a bumbling adolescent without having to be articulate about what you're bumbling about.
And that was a lot of dates out—I don't think I ever got to that many dates. I did count, though, even knowing that my date probably didn't have access to my encyclopedia and that all my counting was probably for nothing. I wasn't going to feel emboldened after that time, more likely just like I was timidly missing out. Being a kid is rough. It's a wonder any of us survives to adulthood.
Anyway, I think my encyclopedia's definition of this obscure word highlights an important detail that is often lost in a lot of dialog between the sexes at any age. Lessons in interpersonal communication rarely distinguish between the correctness of a bid for doing something and the entitlement to do something. This leads to the magical and unrealistic notion that people will “just know” when it's right, and that if either party tries something when it isn't “just known,” that's wrong.
Great emphasis is placed in our society on how important it is for men to respect a “no” answer from a woman. And I agree. But equally great emphasis should be placed on giving respect to the fact that there will be questions that, in due course, need asking, even if the answer will ultimately be “no.” Whether by word or by wordless bumbling deed, the mere asking of those questions at the proper time and without attempt to pressure is not disrespectful, and the need to ask them must be respected in the same way that the answer must. Respect between caring individuals goes in both ways.
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Originally published April 26, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.
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