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Talking Down Pornography

April 2, 2013

I went into a skateboard shop the other day while running an errand for my boyfriend. I had never been in a skateshop before, but as I walked through the sticker-covered glass door, the place had the familiar vibe of a 1990’s grunge music store. Black and bright-colored skateboards lay stacked on all sides, a beat-up couch covered in dog hair stood in the middle of the floor, and cool, edgy-looking posters lined the walls. Near the front door, a clerk demonstrated a skateboard to a mother and her two sons, boys who looked to be about 15 and 12.

As I sat on the couch, petting the owner’s elderly dog who dozed droopily next to me, my eyes briefly scanned several posters mounted above the counter. Half-naked women posed in various stances across the posters, and after glancing at them, I almost looked away in boredom.

But then I looked back at them. And then I looked carefully. All of the women were bent or stretched into pornographic poses, and all were precariously close to being naked. The woman on the right, a thin Asian woman, who represented the only non-white woman in this objectified group, was seated, facing the viewer. She wore leather, and her hands were bound together over her head by a leather cuff which was attached to a chain hanging from the ceiling. It appeared to be a beer ad.

My head buzzing with outrage, I turned to face the owner and the clerk, who were at the moment busy. The clerk spoke softly to the family, smoothing his hand over a black and purple skateboard. The owner sat across from me at the counter, bent low over a wheel which he chiseled. Both men had gentle voices and kind faces.

I began to pace through the store. Stuck on the counter at the other end was another poster of a woman who was bound and who had been gagged by a skateboarding sticker, which someone (not the poster maker) had stuck over her mouth. Which of these soft-spoken, mild-mannered men had done this to her?

I watched the family out of the corner of my eye. The young boy, who appeared to be getting his first skateboard for his birthday, seemed in awe of the coolness of the place. I have no doubt that his eyes had swept over the various women on the wall. Why wouldn’t they have?

I sat in heart-thumping silence, waiting for the family to leave so that I could say something to the two men. What, I wasn’t entirely sure, but I had some ideas. “Are you into S&M?” was my first thought. The men seemed shy enough that that might make them uncomfortable. Then I could explain to them that the images on their walls were depicting S&M, and did they really want young boys like the one who was just in here to see and absorb that kind of thing? And what about the boy’s mother? What about me?

As I stewed, the young boy was fitted for a helmet. “This is a women’s helmet, but it will fit better,” said the clerk, a man with a large brown beard. A long silence followed.

“Do you have a purple helmet that’s not a women’s helmet?” asked the mother, reading her son’s thoughts. She, like me, was used to navigating and upholding misogynistic situations for the sake of the boys. Of course her son wouldn’t want to be tainted with a women’s helmet. Of course this skateshop should be plastered with pictures of naked and degraded women.

At her question, the owner looked up from his tools on the counter and said, “Yeah, it’s really weird how they do that. They just take all the half-sizes and call them women’s helmets, even though they’re the same thing.” He turned to face the boy. “I wear a women’s helmet.”

The boy looked at him in relief, and the helmet was purchased.

Back on the couch again, my hand deep into the dog’s grimy fur, I smiled at the man who had resumed with his tools behind the counter. He had been kind to the boy and had put him at ease. He had smoothed over a potential embarrassment to the boy’s emerging masculinity. He had used subtlety and empathy to do so. And there was no other way that he could have done it. He couldn’t have given the boy a lesson in how women are just as good as men, and women and men have the same kinds of heads. Instead, he could only implicitly assure the boy, “You are not a woman. Don’t worry. You are not a woman.”

Deflated, I sat and looked at my jeans. These were kind men. They were not blameless. They had either hung the posters themselves or tacitly agreed to their presence. These men were demonstrating vicious, misogynistic imagery in their place of business, imagery which desensitizes men and women to violence against women. And yet these men were kind. And I said nothing.

Next time, I will say something. I want to be kind when I do it. I want to respect that these men know not what they do. What I say will be kind, but also powerful, convincing, even inspiring. When I have it, I will let you know.

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