Male Guilt, Hugs, and More

Tl;dr: I’d rather be known as the author who doesn’t hug readers than as the author who hugs too many of them.

Okay, I didn’t expect that!

I’m really amazed that anything I could say would touch off so many responses. As it turned out, I was traveling all day yesterday, so I couldn’t respond to comments as they came in. But I hope to tackle at least a couple of possible misunderstandings here…

This is going to be long. Because apparently last time, in my desire to be brief, I left room for misinterpretation, which was certainly not my intention.1

Many people wrote and tweeted to thank me for my post and to discuss the ugly issues it raises. Some, though, were perturbed by a few specific issues. So I want to take a moment to discuss them.

This bit in particular seemed to bother some folks:

Grown-ass men do not put their arms around underage girls to whom they are not related. Period.

In making this statement, I raised the specter of the presumption of male guilt, and this upset some people. I am humbled and truly touched that the people it upset most seem to be women. Whenever the oppressed rises in defense of the oppressor, I get a little misty.

So, this presumption makes some feel uncomfortable. Guess what? Me, too! I don’t like this aspect of the world right now, but until it changes, it would be feckless and clueless to pretend it’s not the case.  We can work together to fix things, but first we have to admit to the problem. We can’t wish it away.

And in the meantime, while I am happy to discuss the issue of male guilt and work toward a solution, the fact of the matter is that on my list of things wrong with the world, it’s down pretty far. I am vastly more concerned with a woman’s right to choose, marriage equality, institutional racism, the way we treat our veterans. In short: My money goes to NARAL or the USO long before it goes to an organization to root out the presumption of male guilt.2

I appreciate the concern for me and my brethren, but… I’m a middle-class, straight white dude living in the U.S. Don’t worry too much about me: I think I’m gonna be okay.

The conundrum I face regarding the presumption of male guilt is nothing compared to what women and people of color and the LGBT community go through every day, so rather than rail against it, I acknowledge it and plan my life accordingly. Given the advantages my DNA and the geography of my birth afford me, it would seem churlish to complain overmuch about such things, when there are deeper injustices in the world.

That said: No, I don’t like that I feel uncomfortable hugging fans. But there it is.

Some people asked if it was really necessary not to do so in public, in full view of other adults. All I can say is I just find it easier to have a simple, iron-clad rule. This way, I don’t need to assess each situation. I’m a simple guy, so that works for me. It’s the internet: YMMV.

Why do we presume men are guilty? Dunno, but here’s the thing: until it changes, I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t changed. Change comes first — then hugs. 🙂

A teen chimed in on Twitter to castigate me, saying:

as a teenager and feminist, I take resentment not only to the assumption that men are inherently guilty, but also to the idea that we are “just kids” and ignorant to implications & boundaries to which I ask, at what age do I stop being ‘just a kid’ and can be treated with adult respect?

I can only reply that as a middle-aged man and a feminist, I resent the assumption, too. I also resent that my wife is sexually harassed when she walks down the street and that my workout partner at the gym has been handcuffed on the subway five times for the crime of being black. I care about all of these issues, but like I said above, I care about hers and his much, much more than my own.

The next part of this Twitter comment seems to be simple confusion based on a word with more than one meaning. The usage of “just kids” seemed — to some people — to imply that teens are somehow less than adults: Less deserving of respect, in particular.

Nothing could be further from the truth and this was and is absolutely not my contention or my belief. I was using the word as an intensifier and in its sense of “actually” or “really,” not in its sense of “merely” or “only.”

Here is the sense of it: “We work hard for our readers and we respect their intelligence, so we sometimes think they’re adults but they’re not.” Full stop. Statement of pure fact.

Why does this matter? Let’s discard every possible variable and assume that any random teen in a situation is just as mature, intelligent, rational, and capable as an adult. We still can’t treat that person precisely the same as an adult because in the eyes of the law, s/he isn’t.

When will you, Twitter teen, be treated with adult respect? The parental answer is probably “when you earn it,” but that sounds like I’m saying you haven’t. I don’t know you, so I have no idea if you have or not. So let’s stipulate that you have.

As I alluded to in my original post, I think that the work YA authors do shows the enormous respect and esteem with which we hold teenagers. Would I spend years of my life writing books to show the teen side of issues if I didn’t respect them? Would I work hard to create characters that transcend teen stereotypes if I didn’t respect them? Would I spend my non-writing time traveling all over the country to speak to them in schools and libraries if I didn’t respect them?

You have my respect already. You don’t have to wait for a special day on the calendar. You have my respect and you deserve it.

But since you’re not an adult yet, you deserve to be protected, too. Even though I know you don’t think you need to be. Yes, that undoubtedly seems unfair to you. It seemed unfair to me, too. It’s not Barry Lyga declaring this — it’s the law. It’s society.

The event that prompted me to write my original post was about a fourteen-year-old girl who became embroiled in a sexual relationship with an older man. Maybe she thought it was okay. But in the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter. In the eyes of the law, it’s up to him to say that it’s not okay.

And he didn’t. And the people around him didn’t think anything was amiss because the girl was cool and smart and mature, so they forgot that none of those things matter when boundaries are broken.

A part of respect in a relationship between an adult and a minor is acknowledging the power imbalance and setting reasonable boundaries. We can quibble about the nature and tone of those boundaries, but I don’t think we should quibble about their necessity.

There was a time when fourteen year olds were married off, but we don’t do that so much any more.

I feel strongly about this. I have friends who were molested as children. I spent time with the detectives of the Baltimore City Child Abuse Unit, learning things and seeing things that I will never unlearn, never unsee. Hell, I wrote a book about this!

I’m talking about setting boundaries. Set your own, if you Iike. But just think about it.

I’ve been stalked. I’ve been harassed for years by people who think they have a relationship with me that exists only in their heads. I won’t apologize for deciding how far I’m willing to go.

Ask anyone who’s seen me at a school or bookstore: I will stay until I’m pulled away. I will sign everything you’ve got. I will answer every question honestly and forthrightly. I will listen to you. I will shake your hand and fist bump you and take a picture with you. I will, as Bill Clinton once promised, be with you until the last dog dies.

But I won’t hug you. I don’t think that’s a big deal, in context.



  1. Attention editors: this is why my books are too long!
  2. Does such an organization even exist? If it does, I bet it’s one of those men’s rights groups. Sigh.

Comments

  1. “Why do we presume men are guilty?”

    I think this is a factor of rape-culture.. To be able to ask “What was she wearing?” or “What did you do to deserve being raped?” goes hand-in-hand with the presumption that men all are mindless beasts, incapable of restraining themselves from raping women who so much as hint at sex. Because if some men are capable of not raping even the nubile, cosplaying beauties who drape themselves over him, then all men should be able to not rape and that obviously isn’t true, therefore all men are guilty by default.

    It’s stupid as all get out, but since when has rape-culture been about making sense?

  2. Barry,
    Your stance and your message are important and I appreciate your willingness to put yourself out there and encourage people (fans, parents, both) to think about the impact of adult actions on teens.

    I went back to your older post and I especially resonated with this part:
    “Because God forbid she think, Wow, Mom gets all bent out of shape about the Internet, but I sent my address to that Barry Lyga guy and it was fine. And then she sends her address to the next guy who asks, only he’s not a befuddled YA author. He’s someone worse. Much worse.”

    Thank you for the thought and care you bring to your work and to your interactions with fans. You’ve never been one to shy away from tough topics. We were just discussing your books over dinner last night at my house 🙂

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