When man and woman are at odds . . .

July 02, 1996|By Sandy Close

SAN FRANCISCO -- More than race, class or turf, the male-female divide strikes me as the most critical faultline crisscrossing the youth culture.

Margaret Norris, a veteran teacher who works with kids from some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of San Francisco, agrees. She describes the gender war in terms that make the femininst version look like a picnic. ''Male-female relations these days aren't love-hate,'' she says. ''They're pure hate.''

I've asked dozens of young women in America's poorer cities and working-class suburbs what they think of young men; invariably, the answer is the same. ''Men ain't [expletive].'' By contrast, most young men, when asked about the opposite sex, complain that ''Women put on airs.''

Such hostility could, of course, just mark a sharper edge of erotic interest. But interviewing young people from homeless squats to cheerleading teams about where they see themselves in five years, what I found remarkable was the absence of any reference to a romantic relationship. Twenty-five years ago, Yoko Ono and John Lennon sat naked in bed together before the TV cameras of the world conjuring a world of peace and love. The kids I've talked with dream of dining-room tables with friends around them, not tables for two.

This is not to say today's teen-agers have sworn off sex. But for many, sex carries little expectation, or experience, of intimacy. These are kids who've grown up in empty households; never had a conversation with a teacher outside the classroom. Absent conversation, as Oscar Wilde wrote in ''De Profundis,'' his essay from prison, there can be no possibility of companionship.

A young Laotian gang banger I know from North Richmond, Calif., says that when he's depressed he doesn't call a girlfriend, he takes out his .32 and fires off a couple of rounds in the back yard. Many young people, unable to express their pain verbally, will tell you that violence is more exhilarating than sex.

Girls get meaner

Perhaps that helps explain why so many youth counselors observe that girls are growing meaner, tougher. In junior high schools and high schools around the Bay Area, more girls are being suspended for fighting now than boys.

The irony is that almost every young woman I've interviewed from poor urban neighborhoods agrees that it's harder to grow up as a boy than as a girl. Asked to draw up a pecking order for the world they inhabit, they describe women as haves and men as have-nots.

The evidence is obvious: the mortality rates, incarceration rates, unemployment rates of young black and Latino men are way higher than those of their female counterparts (as are those of young white males). As the main care providers for kids, women also have greater access to welfare -- as well as a reason to get up in the morning.

Political discussions about gender-gap politics rarely probe this deep into the culture. Some experts and policy makers with whom I've talked insist that such anecdotal observations are irrelevant. After all, inner-city youth culture is not reflective of the mainstream.

But as raw examples of what happens when the relational texture of life literally rips apart, these young people offer the best example I know of where our collective culture is moving. To me they aren't the margin. They are the core of the American calamity.

What to do? All too often, feminists take their cues from the zero-sum game of presidential politics. They promote programs that favor one gender over the other -- as in ''Take your daughter to work'' -- and wind up only further inflaming mutual resentments.

A China scholar offers an insight drawn from 5,000 years of Chinese civilization: If the man and the woman aren't in sync, the social structure can't hold.

The most crucial question of this presidential campaign may well be which of the two candidates -- the permanent adolescent or the aging patriarch -- can bring the genders together, not exploit their differences.

Sandy Close is the founder of YO! Youth Outlook, a newspaper by and about young people published by Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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