While excavating a memory for details, you might sit and wait for a flood of sensation relating to an incident. It’s a counterintuitive exercise if you’re inviting yourself to relive events you’ve had lifelong societal training to shrug off.
Unwanted sexual overtures befall girls by around age eleven and throughout womanhood. Until this era of reckoning, we’ve shrugged it off, calling ourselves ‘lucky’ on the occasions we escaped with our bodies relatively untouched but our psyches smudged with fingerprints of unwelcome persons.
Below is a who-what-where outline of some of my personal set of incidents that happen to women every day. Some believe talking about it won’t make a difference. But we know not talking about it definitely won’t.
1. “You’re going to be so hot when you grow up.”
Speaker: Affluent-looking man, 25–30, walking downtown as I walk uptown
My Age: 10 or 11
Location: First Avenue between 79th and 80th, NYC
My Reaction: Flattered, confused, then…icky. He shouldn’t be saying this to me. Split-second sense of flattery gives way to darkness. Black dust settles in my stomach.
I float outside of myself, witnessing a child at a moment she’s not allowed to be one.
2. “Hey baby, can you ride a twelve-inch?”
Speaker: Muscular, jaunty man, 30-ish, walking east as I walk west
My age: 12-ish
Location: West 30’s, NYC
My Reaction: It takes me several seconds to work out what he’s referring to, and when I do, I feel like I’m being choked. Like I might die, but also, I want to die. How could he say that to me? He has dealt me a punishment.
I don’t fear for my safety as much as the permanent invasion of my psyche.
3. “It’s sexy watching you fold your panties.”
Speaker: Chris the doorman in a tropical shirt, after abandoning his post behind the lobby desk to corner me on the tenth floor
My Age: 14
Location: My building’s laundry room, NYC
Time: 3 a.m.
My Reaction: Fuck you. I continue folding with a terse smile, then give up and shove everything into the laundry bag to hurry downstairs. Before clearing the doorframe, Chris is fake-friendly and chuckles as he says:
“If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.”
I tell my father. It’s not that I worry Chris would really kill me, but I need a place to put my outrage. And ew with the underwear comment.
My father is in a position to have Chris fired, but I beg him not to. Chris is from Haiti and probably doesn’t have working papers, so my father agrees to leave it alone. Chris doesn’t bother me again, but it’s an emotional chore to walk through the lobby during his shifts.
For years, I can’t fold underwear without remembering the man who smiled while threatening to kill teenage me.
4. “No, tu non sei una vergine.” (“No, you are not a virgin.”)
Speaker: Florentine cabdriver and would-be rapist, 55-ish, rank and stocky, while I fight off his advances and tell him the truth — that I’m a virgin — not yet realizing he isn’t going to stop
My Age: 17
Time: Middle of the night
Location: In a taxi on a deserted farm road in rural Italy
My Reaction: A world-weary teenager, I first believe this is just another insistent asshole I have to set straight. I push him off again and again, uttering “No!” like to a disobedient dog. But he becomes more forceful and his eyes fill with fury.
God, dear god, you’re really not going to help me this time, are you?
Inside, I cannot breathe. But outside I can’t stop breathing faster and louder, like it’ll somehow rocket me out of there.
I brace myself for a beating that doesn’t come.
Instead he’s trying to pry apart my legs. They are twisted around each other like stone snakes. I hyperventilate. I yank out my hair and smash my head over and over again into the passenger window. I choose death.
“Amazza me, amazza me,” I scream. (“Kill me, kill me.”) I try to strangle myself. He forces my hands away from my throat, tearing off more hair from my head.
The would-be rapist isn’t a would-be murderer and leaves me on a highway, unraped. I am so lucky, oh god, so very lucky.
For months, I search for his face in the driver’s seat of every taxi on the streets of Florence. I want to find him and set him on fire.
5. Silent, triumphant, chin-cocked stare.
Who: Bespectacled Columbia University student with a backpack, after goosing me
My Age: 20
Location: Exiting the train at the 116th St. subway station by Columbia University, NYC
My Reaction: A gasp out loud at an invasion on the part of my body heretofore mine and private.
In my confusion, I stop short in a sea of passengers moving around me. It takes me a moment to make out what happened. I see him, the only other person standing still. He is half-turned in my direction, staring at me and smug. We’re separated by a dozen people.
I reorient myself, shaking off the freeze of shock, but it’s too late: I’m too far away to strike him in the jaw hard enough to dislocate it the way I visualize.
6. “It’s not healthy when you say you’re ‘addicted’ to me.”
Speaker: A guy my age I find more exciting than anyone in the world for two full years, stating his opinion shortly before his hand transforms into a hostile weapon against my body
My Age: Early-20’s
Location: My apartment, NYC
My Reaction: Wow, that’s really unpleasant and hurts but I love him and don’t want to offend him by making him stop.
Each of us has slept with only one person in the past, and never with one another. After two years of passionate gripping and the psychological game in which we take turns chasing and resisting the other, this journey down the front of my underwear is the farthest we’ve reached together sexually. It feels awful. Like a physicalized castigation, like he blames me for something, like he has decided to deliver his anger to the center of my body with a scolding forefinger.
What did I do to bring this on? Maybe it’s his inexperience. Maybe he thinks it’s supposed to be like this. Maybe I can make myself like it. Maybe…
I stop him, gently. I smile as best as I can, still worried about his ego. After a few minutes, he leaves. What the fuck just happened to me? And why?
Within several hours, there’s probably little to no physical pain, but I keep trying to make sense of his hatred toward me. Only, I hate myself too now.
7. “Are you an actress? Because I’m a director [and] my dick led me to you.”
Speaker: James Toback, film director and documented chaser of starlets
My Age: 30
Location: Bank of America ATM, Sunset and Doheny, Los Angeles
My Reaction: Maybe I can tame this primate through intelligent discourse and he’ll put me in a movie anyway.
I leave his hotel suite physically uncompromised, but feel like I took a swim in sludge. Not because I agree to go to his hotel for the ‘meeting’ in the first place. And not because I listen calmly while he propositions me to be his effective sex slave for three straight days to show ‘trust’ for ‘my’ director so he could write me into a movie.
Not for a million dollars would I watch you jerk off even from across a football field.
The reason I feel drenched in black muck after all my no’s is because he asks me to sit there to compose an essay as to why not…and I do it, while he gets on a business call.
When I mark the final period, the sense of violation I feel is sudden, and to know I allowed it is asphyxiating. I realize too late he wanted me to comply however way, even through the pretext of an essay, and I fell for it. After I finish, he’s still on the phone, acting like I’m not there.
I rip out the pages and take them home.
At least that’s the memory — taking the pages — I think of as fact, rather than a means of self-soothing.
8. “You don’t have what it takes to make it in this town.”
Speaker: Member of well-known 90’s band turned faded has-been, after my palm blocks his uninvited kiss aimed for my lips
My Age: 30
Location: Elevator of the Key Club, Los Angeles
My Reaction: I’m a damn manager at this venue where you’re about to play. I’ve been kind to you and showed you around, you cake-makeup hack! I’ve experienced men’s disrespect toward women for two decades now, but this is the first cliché of the “You’ll never work in this town” variety thrown at me, so after I’m done being resentful, I’m amused. Silly has-been.
It’s neither my first nor last run-in with turning down a pseudo celebrity, which is how I learn that no street cat-caller is ever as entitled or nasty as the rejected celebrity male.
9. “What can you do for me?” (Implying a sexual act.)
Speaker: Middle-aged driver of a BMW I just hit with my car, after my heartfelt apology and gratitude when he agrees not to involve the police
My Age: Late 30’s
Location: Yucca and Cahuenga, Los Angeles
My Reaction: A new cliché. A variation of “Maybe we can work something out,” while staring at me with glazed-over eyes. You watch too many soaps, dick.
I wonder if I’d still be technically at fault though his car was in reverse, but I can’t risk finding out. My insurance has lapsed and I can’t afford his collapsed BMW bumper. So I play it straight:
“Well, let’s see. I can do your résumé, or some video editing, and uh, I’m decent at Photoshop.” He drops his lewd gaze and walks off carrying his bumper, shaking his head in disgust.
I get in my car and drive away.
He probably considered right off I might not be at fault since he was backing out of a public strip mall onto a commercial street, making him responsible for damages to my car instead. But what makes my insides bubble into a rage cauldron is the presence of his disgust, as if other than his bumper, I took away something that should’ve been his.
The preceding is a mere sample, making up not even 10% of what I’ve encountered over the decades, having been among the ‘lucky’ women. Today, “That’s just the way the world is” isn’t good enough anymore. No longer is the point “It could’ve been worse,” but that it shouldn’t happen at all.