In the early years of teaching sexual risk avoidance education, I heard a term that really stuck with me: publicly private. Hands down the best use of an oxymoron I’d ever encountered. We encouraged young people to set boundaries, to keep their behaviors marked by the thought, “Don’t do something in private that you would be hesitant, ashamed, or horrified to do in public, or say in front of your grandmother.” Sadly, many of us have private behaviors we would never want to be known in public.
Although it has been more than two decades, I can remember so vividly the time I was hiding my private choices. I was a college sophomore and everyone knew my boyfriend wasn’t good for me, so I began to hide my interactions with him. So much so that one night in February, I waited until my mother had gone to sleep, quietly put the car in neutral, and backed it out of our parking complex until I was a safe distance away. As I turned the car on I thought to myself, I’m home free! I can go see him and be back before my mom ever knows what happened. No harm. No foul.
Cue the snow. We lived in Upstate New York, and during the winter months snow could come out of nowhere. What I thought I was keeping secret was about to have very visible results. On my way to his apartment, I ended up in a snowbank. Stuck. I had no choice but to call my mom in the wee hours of the morning. I never got to my boyfriend's place that night. The very thing I was trying to avoid (being found out) was now very apparent public information. I was totally embarrassed, but more upsetting than that was the look of disappointment on my mom’s face. It was a hard lesson but cemented what I’d heard a hundred times over “What we do in the dark, will eventually come to light.” I now had a very real visual for that.1