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.

Remember that They’re Kids

UPDATE: A response to some critiques of the piece below lives here.

Recent events have caused me to think a little more than usual about the nature of the fandom my friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and I accrue to ourselves. And I realize that much of what I’m going to say here and now is self-evident, but…the problem seems to be that it isn’t. Not for a lot of people.

Of course, I’m kidding myself that the people who really need to hear this message will come to The BLog. Or take me seriously. But what the hell: I’m going to say it anyway.

Guys. Come on.

They’re kids.

In YA, we are so proud of ourselves for treating our young readers with respect and assuming a level of intelligence and maturity in them that I guess some people forget that — at the end of the day — those intelligent, mature readers are still kids. And we aren’t.

A very wise friend once told me that in any relationship between a child and an adult, the adult bears all of the responsibility. The context of our conversation was about intra-family relationships, specifically with regard to grown relatives just having to deal with the fact that their minor relatives can sometimes be assholes. You’re the grown-up; deal with it.

But it’s true no matter the nature of the relationship. And I feel like such an idiot even writing this because it’s so goddamn obvious, but — like I said above — apparently it isn’t. Apparently some people need a refresher course.

Last week, I attended a fun event in Washington state. After one of my presentations, a bunch of kids came up to talk to me. One them — a girl — said with good cheer and boisterous enthusiasm, “Can I hug you?”

Obviously, she wanted a moment of connection to someone whose work she admired. To someone, perhaps, she admired. And I understand that. And I’m sympathetic to that. But I said no.

I didn’t say it cruelly (I don’t think), but I said it in such a way that left absolutely no room for interpretation, that made very clear that this just wasn’t going to happen.

“Oh, come on, Barry,” some of you may be saying. “It’s a hug, for Christ’s sake. In a public place, a safe space, surrounded by people. It’s not a big deal.”

To which I reply: It very much is a big deal. I am a grown-ass man. Grown-ass men do not put their arms around underage girls to whom they are not related. Period.1 If you just follow this simple rule, you will not only never accidentally do something you might later regret, you will also never give anyone ammunition for later saying that you did something wrong, even if you didn’t.2

I’m very sensitive to this for a couple of reasons. One of which is that — duh — I think it’s obscenely wrong. Another of which is that it’s so easy for what appears to be innocent to be misinterpreted…or to turn out not to be so innocent after all.

But another reason is two experiences I’ve had, one of them very, very early in my career.

First, let’s go back just a couple of years, to a different writing event. Lots of authors in attendance. Roughly ten billion fans. Great time. For the day, I was assigned a college student and two high school students as my caretakers. They made sure I knew where to go and when, where the bathrooms were, when to get lunch, stuff like that. Great kids all, and we had a blast together that day.

At the end of the day came the big signing. Thirty authors, screaming fans, awesomeness all around. As I was signing, someone behind me came close and wrapped me in their arms.

I thought it was an author buddy goofing around. I chuckled and kept signing books. Eventually, I turned to see who was hugging me (the joke was going on a bit too long), and realized, to my dismay, that it was one of my caretakers.

A fifteen-year-old girl.

I immediately told her to let go and told her that she shouldn’t do what she’d just done. “I do that with all my friends,” she said. “I don’t care what people think of me.”

I explained to her that it was fine for her not to care what people think of her, but that I cared very much what people think of me. And that I do not want them to think that I’m the kind of man who allows underage girls to drape themselves over him. Because…gross. And also because…ew.

Maybe you think I’m a hardass. Maybe you think I need to loosen up. Okay, fine. Whatever. I take this very, very seriously. When an author is something of an arrested adolescent him or herself (as so many YA authors self-admittedly are) and the fans seem so mature and smart and cool, it’s too easy to let barriers down. And while slippery slope arguments in our culture are often facile and overblown, this is one hill I want to stay the hell away from.

When I was just starting out — maybe a month or so after the publication of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl  — I was scheduled for a signing at a bookstore near my hometown. I announced this on MySpace (remember MySpace?), including the information that I would be giving out temporary tattoos to people who came to see me. Someone responded, telling me how excited she was and how she couldn’t wait to get the tattoo.

The event came and went, and I received a new message from the MySpacer. She was bummed that she’d missed the event and the chance to get a tattoo.

Now, I felt bad about this and I still had plenty of tattoos and I love my readers, so I did the most natural thing in the world: I replied to her message, telling her to shoot me her address so that I could mail her the tattoo.

Easy, right?

Her next message included her address and this: “LOL my mom would be pissed if she knew I sent you this.”

And holy shit, my brain exploded. I had just asked a teenage girl for her address over the Internet…and she gave it to me. What the hell had I done?

Were my intentions pure? Absolutely. Had I done anything to harm this girl? Hell, no.

But I realized in that moment how easy it was to go tripping and belly-flopping down that slippery slope. How easy it would be to form a relationship with a fan that could easily get out of control. Not on my end, mind you — I have no interest in underage girls.3 But think of how volatile you were as a teenager. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a reader fantasizing that a relationship is more than it actually is. Forget for a moment the danger of a pedophile. Imagine instead a kid who becomes seriously invested in a relationship that is unbalanced both because of age and also because it’s just not as big a deal to the adult. That can be devastating, and it can be bad for everyone involved.

And it’s not the kid’s fault because you’re the adult. It’s your job to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place.

I never should have asked that girl for her address. I wasn’t thinking. It was stupid of me. I apologized immediately and told her that I was wrong to do it and that she was wrong to send it to me. 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.

We form relationships with our fans, but we have to be responsible in those relationships. We have to build some walls. We have to have some rules. It’s a powerful ego-stroke when a kid tells you that your book saved his life or that your story made her stop cutting herself. But you can’t wallow in that ego-stroke and let it fool you into thinking that you’re buddies with that kid.

You’re an adult.

No matter how cool or smart or mature or “together” or “amazing” they are, they’re still kids.

  1. Unless you’re pulling her out of a burning building or sweeping her out of the path of an out-of-control bus. In which case: Grab away.
  2. Just to be clear, before the pile-on begins: I’m not saying that this is the case in the current DFTBA Records contretemps. Nor am I saying that this is frequently the case. It happens exceedingly rarely, but why the hell would you want to roll the dice on something like this?
  3. Well, other than writing about them.