Jennifer Loustau

Sep 14, 2020

3 min read

16

I had a few boyfriends, starting with a really good one at 16. He was probably the coolest boyfriend I ever had because he grew up in Africa and went to exclusive male schools. He said I was his first girlfriend because he only knew two girls in the whole wide world, a neighbor, and me. That was fine with me.

My mother abhorred the word “boyfriend” and wouldn’t let us kids use it. “Friend” was OK, “beau” was OK. Since that age we’ve come up with “significant other” and “partner.” The Urban Dictionary tells me we also have “homeslice,” “punkie,” and “kool aid.” Let’s talk about my friend-who-was-a-boy.

The friend-who-was-a-boy was such a gentleman that at 18 he invited me to Winter Carnival, I declined, and then he said, “Oh, good, I know who I’m going to invite,” and he ended up marrying her. It was tough going for the rest who followed, ending up apologizing to me, or I apologizing to them, or we both apologizing.

Some girls and women seem to find dating fun and exciting. I pretty much hated it. What’s the problem with friends-who-are-boys? Is it “Dump or be dumped?” Not even. That would be parity of sorts. The problem with dating is that it’s the first time girls learn about who controls the relational space. The boy does. He gets to set the terms, she gets to respond, and then he may or may not agree with the response. You don’t see that? Who proposes marriage? Who says yes or no?

It’s a cultural norm that the male defines the interaction between the male and the female. We accept this as a given, as the way it should be. Even at 16 I’d learned that I had to wait for a boy to call, and if I turned him down, I could not accept a different date (see 15). As a result, every boyfriend came as a surprise. I waited passively until some male noticed me, and then I said yes or no. Most of the time it was a call from a complete stranger, not a friend or an acquaintance. Boyfriends aren’t real friends; that’s what I learned.

Once in college, I went to Boston to visit a male friend who was taking a semester away. When we sat down to talk, he asked me why I was there. I answered that I wanted to see my friend, and he had no response. It was an awkward visit and I learned never to do that again.

It carries through a lifetime. On first encounter the male decides are we shaking hands? Are we pecking cheeks? Are we telling raunchy jokes? Are we buying drinks? I think it explains why so many men are now being accused of unwanted advances and they are confused by the accusation. Isn’t this what we always did? Why are women suddenly unhappy about it?

It carries through all male-female interactions. The second Clinton-Trump debate of 2016 was an object lesson, with Trump encroaching and menacing Clinton while she answered questions. I watched for it carefully in the 2020 Democratic debates; Warren was fighting for parity in word and deed. And while the pundits made a huge deal about Harris inserting her own life experience in rebuttal to Biden’s busing record, I saw it as a simple political transaction. The pundits saw it as an embarrassing take-down of the former Vice-President. Who did she think she was?

In fact, the whole first woman president smacks of this old bias. The country wasn’t ready for a female president; we need the male candidate to pick the first female candidate. A long list of highly-qualified women sat beside the phone waiting for the call.

At 16, the friend-who-was-a-boy was someone to cut school with, hide in the bushes, laugh nervously, and feel wickedly free. It was the first time I had ever acted outside my predestined path. I didn’t wake up that morning expecting to cut school that afternoon, and I didn’t expect to be anyone’s girlfriend. That was a fun day. Why couldn’t it stay that way?