…The instantaneous personal magnetism of other people
is almost overwhelming sometimes, whether attractive or repelling…
-Nick Laird, from "Talking to the Sun in Washington Square"
Standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the gatekeeper was friendly, polite and encouraging. The line was long, we'd get there soon, he said. He chit-chatted to everyone, and then gave a woman about to leave a hug. They knew each other, apparently, had worked together The hug was "appropriate," it was innocent. The line sighed in relief, at least the women in the line did. The woman standing in front of me threw me a conspiratorial look. She'd been living in Barcelona where men and women, gay and trans, flirted with abandon, she told me, No big deal. So what has happened here? Americans are uptight, she said, they are Puritanical, the codes are different, the come-ons regulated by convention and laws. It's not just #metoo which legitimately confronts abuse, assault, and worse. It's something else, something embedded in our culture. Our mating rituals are all askew.
I'm a feminist, long married woman who likes men. I have never minded being hit on and usually have managed a comeback at a workplace encounter that bristled. Mostly, I've been okay. I'm tall and athletic, self-confident in my sexuality, and only once in my life felt fearful of a man when I was nearly accosted on the running track around the reservoir in New York City. I had foolishly decided to take a run off hours when the track was nearly empty. I turned around quickly, out-ran the guy, and shouted like a mad woman to "fuck off." And even that metaphor—mad woman—tells a story of learned, inter-generational, female self-denigration.
Long before #metoo, construction workers in New York City stopped "wolf" whistling at passing women, and men stopped exposing themselves on buses and subways, not that those are comparable; they aren't. I missed the whistles—I guess I was getting older—and thought, why shouldn't older women get a whistle? But I didn't miss the unzipped pants on the buses and was grateful when the configuration of the seats was changed to open plan.
Fast forward to 2023 and the gatekeeper at the DMV. When I got to the head of the line I asked—jokingly—if he always gave women on the line a hug? He laughed and explained that he knew the woman. "Well, that was obvious," I said."I heard your conversation." Then the DMV shut down for lunch but not before I was told that my husband had to sign the registration renewal, not me. And why is the car only registered in his name? And why couldn't I change the registration without his permission? Another long story.
"I see you are back," the gatekeeper said. "Did you tell your husband you asked for a hug from a younger guy?" I laughed. My husband laughed. No big deal. But then the guy said, "Why is that when older women hit on younger men they are called Cougars, and when older men hit on younger women they are called perverts?"
Hmm. How to explain? He thought being called a Cougar was a compliment.