Some readers may object to language or material in this piece. It is not our aim to offend.
Well, if it’s a noun, then you really want to say “ass-scratcher,” not “scratch your ass.” I couldn’t help but correct the wine merchant’s translation. We—the Spanish assistant, the Indian assistant and I—were sampling aperitifs, which were named with varying degrees of sexual innuendo. The vendor was having fun with his audience of three international girls, and we were expanding our French vocabularies, learning words our professors never taught us. You’ve got to try this one, he said, once we had finished the “gratte-cul” (ass-scratcher). Everyone’s got to try the chocolate blowjob. A bit shocked by the name, we giggled, hesitated, and then held out our little plastic cups, “pourquoi pas?” Next was a strawberry shag (which I misunderstood as a strawberry shake and accepted way too eagerly), and then came a drink called “balls.” When asked why the names were so sexual, the vendor, who was obviously more at ease with us than with an older, more serious couple, told us that the drinks used to be named after diseases, but that just didn’t sell very well. It’s true that we probably wouldn’t have laughed had he offered us the measles.
I laughed, not because I particularly like that kind of humor in any objective sort of way, but because the exposition hall was bright and filled with colorful stands and because it was Friday and I was with my friends. I laughed and kept my feminist eyebrows from rising at the names’ rather machismo bent because the protective distance of a wide counter separated the merchant and me and because he was one of the friendliest vendors there. I laughed at the absurdity and because it would have been absurd not to.
Laurent, whose crewcut is as severe as his perfectly sheared hedge, insists on paying me, even though I learn more French during our conversation sessions than he learns English. I want to use you like a dictionary, he explains, slapping down a crisp bill, and if I treat you like an object, then I have to pay you. It will be like a hook up, but instead of having sex we’ll be doing language. I can only laugh, half-disbelieving what I just heard in the high school’s small conference room, the one usually reserved for discreet parent-teacher meetings.
I am keenly aware of the situation: Laurent, as both a French man and an experienced teacher, is in a much more powerful position than I, the foreign, female assistant who sometimes looks as old as her students. He closes the door behind him. There are a few armchairs and a matching red couch. Rarely are we disturbed. And yet, his joke and these circumstances don’t make me run because we know each other and because his humor is consistent whether we’re having a conversation session, or visiting a castle with his wife, or chatting with the other teachers in the lounge. For example, at Chenonceau, Laurent turned to me and, using a colorful and distinctly British-flavored slang, described this majestic castle as a mere boudoir in which Henry II shagged his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Laurent’s wife didn’t even bat an eyelash. And in the teacher’s lounge, when I arrived one morning in a bright pink cardigan, Laurent poetically observed, la sève qui monte—the rising sap—and then asked what the English equivalent was. (I didn’t—don’t—know.) It took explanations from two female teachers who were also in the lounge at the time for me to understand that this tree metaphor is not a benign reference to springtime.
Perhaps these sorts of remarks are common in the United States, but I don’t know. I am neither an expert in alcoholic beverages nor am I an assistant in an American public high school, so I cannot say whether the sexualized streak in these conversations is more typical of French than American culture. I can say, however, that gone are my sheltered Christian school days. Which is okay. I get over my shock. And I choose to laugh rather than (de)cry, even though my education has definitely given me the tools to do just that. I could have lectured Laurent on the dangers of objectification, complete with a bibliography and citations. Or, instead of humoring the wine vendor, I could have curtly pointed out the sexism, and then underlined my point by refusing to taste his aperitifs and thus take part in that phallocentricity. In short, I could have bared my carefully-honed feminist fangs.
Or I could have taken a slightly different route. I could have pointed out that this crudeness diminishes the dignity of not only women but men as well, that these jokes deprive sexuality—everyone’s sexuality—of its worth and beauty, reducing it to a mere marketing ploy or a conversational ice-breaker.
But those seventeen years of school taught me more than just critical analysis and rhetorical flourishes: there must be love with those truths. And the love in those moments was to join with those men in laughter, recognizing their intentions to charm and amuse, to brighten the afternoon, not to embarrass or harm.
Don’t get me wrong: there is a time when we should not—must not—laugh. Sexism and sexual harassment are very serious issues and merit our most piercing censure. But then was not the time. In those moments, a critique may have corrected but would have also alienated, humiliating those men and setting me on a high and sanctimonious horse. There was only enough room for either judgment or grace, so I bit my tongue. I smiled, I laughed—happy to do so—and mentally filed away my cry for a different time, for a future paper or presentation.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.