Girls! Girls! Girls!

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‘In the Café, or The Provincial’; painting by Félix Vallotton, 1909

In 1992 I was chairman of the History Department at New York University—where I was also the only unmarried straight male under sixty. A combustible blend: prominently displayed on the board outside my office was the location and phone number of the university’s Sexual Harassment Center. History was a fast-feminizing profession, with a graduate community primed for signs of discrimination—or worse. Physical contact constituted a presumption of malevolent intention; a closed door was proof positive.

Shortly after I took office, a second-year graduate student came by. A former professional ballerina interested in Eastern Europe, she had been encouraged to work with me. I was not teaching that semester, so could have advised her to return another time. Instead, I invited her in. After a closed-door discussion of Hungarian economic reforms, I suggested a course of independent study—beginning the following evening at a local restaurant. A few sessions later, in a fit of bravado, I invited her to the premiere of Oleanna—David Mamet’s lame dramatization of sexual harassment on a college campus.

How to explain such self-destructive behavior? What delusional universe was mine, to suppose that I alone could pass untouched by the punitive prudery of the hour—that the bell of sexual correctness would not toll for me? I knew my Foucault as well as anyone and was familiar with Firestone, Millett, Brownmiller, Faludi, e tutte quante. To say that the girl had irresistible eyes and that my intentions were…unclear would avail me nothing. My excuse? Please Sir, I’m from the ‘60s.

The life of an early-‘60s adolescent male was curiously confined. We still inhabited our parents’ moral universe. Dating was difficult—no one had cars; our homes were too small for privacy; contraception was available but only if you were willing to confront a disapproving pharmacist. There was a well-founded presumption of innocence and ignorance, for boys and girls alike. Most boys I knew attended single-sex schools and we rarely encountered women. A friend and I paid hard-earned money for Saturday morning dance classes at the Locarno Ballroom in Streatham; but when it came time for the annual social, the girls from Godolphin & Latymer School laughed at us all the same. We cut the experiment short.

Even if you got a date, it was like courting your grandmother. Girls in those days came buttressed in an impenetrable Maginot Line of hooks, belts, girdles, nylons, roll-ons, suspenders, slips, and petticoats. Older boys assured me that these were mere erotic impedimenta, easily circumnavigated. I found them terrifying. And I was not alone, as any number of films and novels from that era can illustrate. Back then we all lived on Chesil Beach.

And then, to our surprise, we learned that we were part of the “sexual revolution.” Within a matter of months, a generation of young women abandoned a century of lingerie and adopted the miniskirt with (or without) tights …

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