Adulthood and the Right to Make Our Own Choices

Healthy disregard for my lack of skill with a cue kept me out of San Juancito’s pool hall during my first year in the Peace Corps in Honduras. That and the insistence by the villagers that women weren’t allowed. But then another American, one with thoroughly feminist notions about why she absolutely would enter that pool hall, came to town.

Our attempt to play billiards prompted not just displeasure but hostility from the owner. His shaking hands — part fury, part local made jet-fuel — gestured to a sign above the door: “Se Prohibe la Entrada a Menores de Edad” (Entry to Minors Prohibited.) Worldly 22- and 26-year olds, respectively, we pointed out that this sign didn’t bar us. But he insisted, for women the sign would always apply.

I can’t say I was exactly eager to become a regular — habit, testosterone and crappy plumbing meant the players peed into a trough at the back of the room. But the implication that as a woman I hadn’t reached — nor indeed could ever claim — adulthood pissed me off. Perhaps you’re thinking…well, that was Honduras — a less developed country without benefit of our enlightened feminist ideals.

But think now about whose right to decide is constantly questioned and tested and proscribed. I’ll give you a hint — it’s not heterosexual men.

Among the hallmarks of adulthood is the right to make decisions — even colossally stupid, spectacularly unsuccessful ones. Those around you may beg you not to marry that tax evader or beg you to put on some sunscreen or stop living on celery — but for better or worse if you’re an adult they can’t actually make you do or desist from what you deem right. It is not, as some opponents of abortion rights claim, the relative merits of a particular decision that grant the freedom to make it. The idea that because some people are troubled after termination is grounds for outlawing abortion makes just as much sense as prohibiting marriage. Our divorce rate attests to how often it’s a much-regretted and very bad choice.

One marker of adulthood is the right to make your own bed and the expectation that you’ll lie in it. This separates the capable from the immature. We’ve staked these rites of passage to particular ages, 16, 18, 21 or 25 — depending on what abilities are at stake. This obvious confusion about what counts as maturity notwithstanding — the more troubling reality is that certain groups in our society just never get to be considered adult.

When Justice Roberts argues that women can’t possibly know what they want when they contemplate ending a pregnancy, we’re hearing a sober version of the logic that kept me from the pool hall. If women cannot be trusted to know what they want and act on that knowledge, then in effect we are saying they aren’t adults. Women aren’t the only ones whose right to make their own decisions is subject to outside approval. Gays and lesbians in almost all states are prohibited from selecting who to wed.

In a society where marriages are not arranged, selecting a spouse is the prototypical decision of adulthood. It’s no accident that our society fixates so much about weddings — this is a shared social ritual that marks us as grown up. Girls are taught to fantasize and hasten the arrival of this event; it’s a time they are granted some public recognition as adults. Boys, on the other hand, will grow into men whose ability and right to be considered mature is never in question. They don’t need any extra status and thus have no reason to long for their day as a groom.

Dr. Ilan Meyer, during the trial to restore marriage equality in California, spoke about the role marriage plays in our common notions of the desirable rites of adulthood:“We all grow up and are raised to think that there are certain things we want to achieve in life…It is I think quite clear that the young children do not aspire to be domestic partners. But certainly the word marriage is something people aspire to…a common socially approved goal for children as they think about their future and for people as they develop relationship. It’s a desirable and respectable goal.”

So what does it mean when a group is systematically denied the right to pick who they want to marry? Or another group whose desire to decide what happens to their bodies is questioned and constantly curtailed? At some level, even if only unconsciously, it means we think they aren’t adults. The great irony of this is that it’s only in making decisions and living with the consequences that we can both become and demonstrate we are more mature. What we deny outright to gays and lesbians and attempt to diminish for women is not just the mantle of adult but the opportunities to become worthy of this designation.

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  • elyzabeth

    One of the Hew Hampshire state reps (I think it was John Cebrowski), made similar statements–and not even ironically.  Apparently, same-sex marriage is a cruel joke because gays and lesbians get to role-play at being real people, just like little kids get to make-believe being princesses and Star Wars characters.  He didn’t even imply that gays and lesbians can’t be trusted to make their own decisions–he stated it outright.


    My first impulse was to give the guy a pass because he’s an old fart and his bigoted generation will die off in a a few years, but I still see vestiges of that attitude in my age group too, at least relating to women (I’m in college).  Too many guys think that women need to be taken care of and protected.  Of course, if you ask them what women need to be protected from, you get stupid answers.  Home invaders?  Predatory car salesmen?  Their own lack of financial wisdom?  Terrorists?  Their hormones?  Apparently women don’t need to be protected from anything in particular–just protected in general.  The corollary of course is that since women rely on men for this protection, it is only natural that men have some measure of control over them.

  • mechashiva

    Yeah, the drive to “protect” women is really indicative of the way society infantilizes us. It’s particularly ironic when you consider that the things men seem to want to protect us from (robbery, assault, and rape are the typical answers) are mostly perpetrated by men we know and trust to some degree.


    “Protect” is just a nice way of saying “control.”

  • curtisp

    for people to want to protect those they care about. When we cross the line is when we impose and pretend we know what is best for other adults. There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect but not allowing adults to be adults is where our concern turns into something immoral. Please don’t knock the guys too much. I have to admit I have had very protective fears for men that I care about to a point where they get annoyed and rightly so.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    It’s an interesting and delicate balance between seeking to ensure someone’s well-being and stopping them from being the agent in their lives. I certainly seek to control my pre-schooler lots of the time. And, if I’m honest, I seek to control my husband too. (Not very successfully!) But the difference there is that I want him to do things a certain way, my way aka the right way, generally because it’s best for me. His safety and health are rarely if ever in danger when he seeks to do things his way.

    Perhaps, for me at least, the instinct to shield our loved ones isn’t the problem. The problem is why we act or don’t on this instinct. I truly don’t believe my kid is yet capable of making all of his own decisions — so I won’t let him. I don’t like all of my husband’s decisions but respect his right to make them. And he respects my right to disagree with him on the outcomes.

    As far as not letting gays and lesbians “play make believe” — who ever has himself convinced that sexual attraction and intimate desires are a game is a very sad person indeed.



  • crowepps

    The excuse of protection was the reason ‘traditionally’ women weren’t able to sign contracts, handle their own money or wages, control their own real property, be the guardians of their own children, etc.


    I agree with you that it is ironic when men are asked why women need protection and their rationale is that what women need to be protected from is — men. Isn’t that setting the fox to guard the henhouse?

  • crowepps

    Private school students’ gay-bashing not free speech, court rules

    March 17, 2010 | 11:04 am

    Students at an elite L.A. private school who posted death threats and antigay messages on the Internet site of a 15-year-old classmate can’t claim the constitutional protection of free speech, a California appeals court has ruled.


    The parents of the boy targeted by the threatening and derogatory posts on his website withdrew him from Harvard-Westlake School and moved to Northern California to protect him from classmates who had incorrectly labeled him as gay and pronounced him “wanted dead or alive,” the boy’s father said in a lawsuit brought against six students and their parents.


    The defendants had attempted to deflect the charges by seeking a judgment from Los Angeles County Superior Court that the comments were 1st Amendment-protected speech on an issue of public interest, a motion denied by the lower court and upheld by the 2nd District Court of Appeal in a 2-1 decision Monday.


    The Los Angeles Police Department detective who initially investigated the hostile website postings against the student, identified only as D.C., had declined to pursue charges against the other students, saying their “annoying and immature Internet communications did not meet the criteria for criminal prosecution.”

    The Los Angeles County district attorney likewise declined to prosecute.


    The appeals court decision separating cyber-bullying from free speech will allow the boy and his parents to move forward with their suit against the students for alleged hate crimes.

    –Carol J. Williams
    I would note that while people have a constitutional right that restricts “the government” from censoring their speech, this is a private civil suit where one citizen asks that his and his family’s rights be balanced against the rights of others, and does not involve government censorship at all.
    It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court handles the similar facts in Snyder v Phelps.