For the longest time, I wanted to be Johnny Bravo.
If you were not fortunate enough to grow up in the glorious period known as the 1990s, allow me to explain. Johnny Bravo, a television program on the acclaimed Cartoon Network, was the man. Sporting a tight, black t-shirt and a slicked-back, blonde pompadour, Johnny was never afraid to boast about his physical prowess. Johnny’s exuded confidence, the type bordering on arrogance, in every part of his demeanor, especially with girls. No matter the situation or how unlikely his chances of success, Johnny would pursue women, exclaiming, “Whoa, Mama!” whenever he crossed paths with a physically attractive girl. My brother and I, sitting in my nana’s parlor in South Boston, would howl in laughter whenever Johnny’s efforts inevitably ended in failure.
In retrospect, Johnny’s impact on me still manifests in ways large and small. I bashfully admit that I still carry my comb around to retain that exact same pompadour in all circumstances. Yet, unfortunately, I fell victim to Johnny’s ultra-macho behavior in my own relationships with girls. For many years, I lacked the maturity to pursue a real, meaningful relationship, because that vortex of toxic masculinity had consumed me. I was too concerned with what I presumed girls sought, as opposed to what was best for me, to develop emotionally.
I am lucky to have escaped that dangerous route; for the past two years, I have possessed the capacity to view women as more than merely physical beings. I can now genuinely say that I much prefer deep, intellectual conversations than engaging in the debauchery which pervades both Duke’s campus and the world at large. It is truly liberating to escape the hook-up culture and just enjoy the presence of another human being. I find much more satisfaction when I share my hopes, fears, and dreams with another person than in mundane, vacuous physical pleasure. In turn, I have matured exponentially in terms of self-esteem and have gained a rich appreciation for my own wants and needs.
With that mindset, I quickly put on my white V-neck, grey cargo shorts, sterling silver necklace of Saint Christopher, and Nike HyperDunks. Tonight was going to be a great night; my friends Dzanan, Nikola, and I were headed to our favorite club in Belgrade. Located near the river Sava, Therapy provides a subtle yet calming ambience, and I was looking forward to the evening with eager anticipation. One of the benefits of my liberation from toxic masculinity has been that I, instead of focusing on finding girls, can simply dance and party with friends. The fraternal aspect of our relationship is undeniable, much like the one with my best friends back home, and I relished the opportunity to spend time with them, make silly jokes, and have a good time.
We arrived at Therapy by 1:00am, yet the club was already full to bursting. The indoor portion contained a DJ blasting EDM and techno music, whereas the outdoor courtyard bustled with activity: tobacco-rolling, rakija-drinking, and mingling between people of all walks of life. What I truly appreciate about Therapy is that you find generous people from all corners of the globe. Serbian, English, German, and French filled the air, like an orchestra of vastly different instruments but still all fit together. My grandmother is a master of jigsaw puzzles, often completing 500- and 1000-piece images, and I could not help but view Therapy in a similar manner. Additionally, although new individuals join the fray each time, the mainstays of Therapy return each weekend, like old friends catching up with stories of the work week. At this point, I am known as the American who loves to smile and can start a conversation with anyone. It’s my nature, for better or worse.
As it happens, the Serbian people are outstandingly generous, even though they come from meager ends; I cannot numerate the occasions when I have had to respectfully decline an offer for someone to purchase me Jelen pivo, the most popular ale of the Balkans. Yet the most remarkable occurrence within Therapy appears in the wee hours of the morning, when everyone congregates on the dance floor. I will readily admit that I cannot dance well, to put it mildly, yet that is inconsequential. No one really can in Therapy, to be frank. When you can feel that thumping beat, something inexplicable just arises in your heart, something words cannot do justice. Unless you’re there, you cannot truly understand, but it’s an experience I would recommend to anyone.
So, I was dancing with my friends, laughing, and having a great time. I felt as much as at home as at any point in Serbia. I wished, from the bottom of my heart, that the night would never end. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been granted this opportunity, these friends, this moment.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything shifted.
In the courtyard, a brick wall lined with rows on concrete steps enables worn-out dancers a moment of reprieve from the hectic nature of indoors. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some girl that I had danced alongside earlier in the night. While we hadn’t spoken, I admired her passion for the music, and I had even let her try on my plastic sunglasses. She seemed fun, yet there was something more. Positive energy radiated from her body. With a four-leaf-clover tattoo on her right hand and a moon tattoo on her upper earlobe, she struck me as a free spirit, the type of person with an amazing personality and backstory. She was, as far as I could tell, a superb human being.
Three Serbian men, the most menacing in a dark blue shirt which exposed his rippling muscles had cornered her between that wall and a nearby fern. I could see her visibly shaking her head, the universal sign for no, yet I could see them pushing even closer. When the man put his hand firmly on her shoulder, I snapped.
Now, I am not a courageous person by any means. I’m not being modest; I do believe that quite sincerely. I may never back down from an intellectual challenge, and I love to debate and hash out ideas, yet even the specter of physical confrontation spooks me. I grew up in a household where violence was tolerated, where the Book of Proverbs offered a guideline for treatment: “To spare the rod is to spoil the child.” After that experience, any inclination toward anger manifested into fisticuffs was driven out of me.
Yet my fear of fighting was trumped, at least in that instance, for something far greater: my love for my sister. She is only fourteen, yet she is much more mature than I was at that age. To picture her in a similar situation, on the precipice of assault by strange men, incites me. I care, perhaps too much, about the safety of others at the expense of myself, but it’s just the way I’m wired.
I immediately bolted from the dance floor and engaged directly with the men. If that sounds absurd, well, it’s even stranger to write four days after the fact. Before anything else could occur, I extended my arm to the girl, and she accepted without hesitation. The rest of the night was a blur; I spent at least thirty minutes just holding her hand as some small attempt at comfort. My mind was wracked with anxiety and sorrow and guilt. How could I have allowed such a potentially devastating circumstance to occur? Irrational, maybe, but my mind wasn’t thinking clearly. I was so nervous and felt so alone.
Unfortunately, assault and rape are not exclusive to Belgrade. Nearly 50% of Duke women report some encounter of this nature before graduation, and that rate is nothing but an underestimate. At the same time, I am no hero; I was just acting how any rational person would have. Yet I completely understand those men’s logic. That Johnny Bravo thought process, that a guy can simply have any girl he desires, that a million declines can be usurped by one timid affirmation, is not bound to this continent.
In truth, I have seen the exact same behavior at Shooters. I have seen women groped, abused, and coerced back into a dorm. Yet I failed to act. Why? Is it because I know these men and refuse to acknowledge their actions as abhorrent? Does the social stigma of “cock-blocking” a fellow man prevent me? Am I just not brave enough?
It’s probably a combination of those reasons and more, not to mention the unwritten “bro code.” Yet when that same code inculcates forty young men into hiding rape, into allowing brothers to drive intoxicated, into permitting egregiously harmful crimes, what value is it? Why do we men uphold a moral standard which endorses hierarchical toxicity to endure?
Again, I don’t pretend to know the answers. If I did, I would fix the system. I’m just someone who has been freed from the chains of masculinity which once defined my very essence. We use alcohol as an excuse to forgive, or at least lessen, the potency of some actions, but that is completely asinine. Maybe alcohol grants lustful men the ability to ignore their conscience, but it does not turn them into rapists. No, that power lies in a societal beast far more difficult to defeat: again, toxic masculinity.
For the past few days, I have spent time getting to know that young woman. We have shared much personal information, and, as someone forever reluctant to reveal his darkest moments, I am fortunate to have discovered a willing, empathetic listener. To the degree that a friendship can evolve over walking around a city and eating burritos together at 4:00am, we have achieved a real bond. Maybe some years ago, I would have lamented this circumstance, yet I now cannot imagine anything more gratifying. Although I expected to leave Belgrade with goals to bring back to Duke, I have now established one chiefly: to inform other men that physically intimacy, especially when not consensual, is not nearly as rewarding as a personal connection.
I’ll even make sure to inform them that they can retain their pompadours.