Sex and the City

I’m going to take a break from the rationalist analysis (in addition the break I’ve taken from blogging in general – sorry!) to share a series of personal experiences that have made me think more about feminism, and my feminism and more generally about what it is to be a woman in this world. Major caveat: this does not represent all possible viewpoints or opinions, not even all of my own. But it is still an important one.

I spent the summer in New York City, where I walked and took the subway to and from work, and also around the city. For the first week or so, I noticed getting more street attention than usual, but I thought little of it. It had been part of my life before, in Miami, in the Midwest, in positive and negative ways, so I took it as an unfortunate consequence of city life that I would learn to ignore. Which was fine when it was occasional, something to be attributed to rare bad apples or at least apples with a sense of entitlement where their sense of self-control should be. But then it got more, and worse. Somewhere around three times a day, a man would whisper “sexy” into my ear as he walked past, or stop me and tell me how beautiful I looked, or ask me to smile, or holler at me from a car, or honk at me from a cab. “Isn’t it a compliment?” you might ask. Or perhaps, “Well, what were you wearing? Did you look unhappy?” I was, in fact, asked all of these things and more whenever I complained or pointed out the problematic aspects of my experience. Not that it matters, but for the record, I was wearing all sorts of things. I was wearing a miniskirt and heels; a knee-length skirt and a t-shirt; a business skirt and button down; dresses; jeans; work pants and flats. Sometimes jewelry, sometimes not. Sometimes with a swagger and confidence in my step, sometimes rushed, sometimes exhausted, trudging home. It happened in the morning, in the afternoon, at night.


—– One day as I walked into my office a man grabbed my arm to inform me that I was incredibly sexy and that I shouldn’t let any man tell me otherwise. Thanks, dude. I’m so glad you took it upon yourself to boost my fragile self-esteem by grabbing my arm as I was walking on the sidewalk —–

I tell you now that it did not make the slightest bit of difference what I was wearing. No, all that mattered was that I existed, and I was in the public view, and so it was the opportunity and the privilege of all men everywhere to tell me exactly what they thought of my appearance. And did I look unhappy? Well, sometimes, because sometimes I wasn’t in a grinning mood and it didn’t occur to me that it was any stranger’s concern how happy I appeared. Silly me. And sometimes, it was because I’d trained myself to stop being friendly enough to smile at strangers, because that was taken as an invitation to chat me up, to tell me how beautiful I was looking that day. Was it a compliment? Maybe, in their minds. But I don’t much care what their addled minds thought was a compliment. All that came out to me was that my stepping out the door in the morning was tacit consent for my appearance to be scrutinized and commented upon out loud to me by any man who happened to be in the vicinity. And that is ridiculous.

As I said, at the beginning, I ignored it. Eventually, though, it wore me down. It became a massive burden that I carried around, worrying every morning about what I was wearing, noticing even more than I normally did about every man within 100 feet of me, and whether they were looking at me, or would be looking at me. I felt beaten down by every comment, every yell, stare, follow, unsolicited question and honk. I didn’t want it, didn’t want any of it, especially not from men who could not be bothered to talk to me instead of at me, who did not engage in conversation or introduce themselves. And yet, every day, it was the same. The male gaze is an abstraction, a concept. But it began to feel more and more like a physical force weighing on me.

—– As I walked towards a meeting in Brooklyn, a band of teenage boys called out “sexy” in unison as I walked by. I said “Please don’t do that. It’s inappropriate.” They only laughed at me. —–

Mostly, though, it was indeed harmless. But if it was an innocuous appreciation of beauty, wouldn’t men respond positively to information to the effect of that not being the way to go? Why then, when I asked men politely but firmly not to do it anymore, they would curse at me, call me a bitch and on one particular occasion, follow me in a truck for half a block while cursing at me. So I’m sexy until I speak up for myself, and then I’m a bitch? Thanks, asshole. That really tells me all I need to know, doesn’t it?

Another misconception to correct is this idea that being alone is the problem. Because I will tell you that in a town further north than New York, smaller, more quaint, I was surrounded by at least 6 other people, two of whom were men, one of whom was over 6 feet tall, and two men still thought that walking by me and calling me hot was a fine thing to do. It begins to feel physically oppressive, just walking around.

—– I also went to a Middle-Eastern country this summer, to a place where, as a dear friend said, “A woman walking alone is not thoughtful, it is an invitation.” I was, for example walking along a beach in front of my friends when I realized a man was behind me. He informed me that I was beautiful and that he liked my smile (I had smiled at him and his friends as I walked past, to be polite) but that I otherwise looked sad. He offered to make me less sad. No thanks, get the fuck away from me. Another time, I was in an ocean with several of my friends. A man came up to me and we started having a conversation, interrupted by waves. Every time a wave came, I would duck under. He started to put his hand on my shoulder, presumably to help me. That was fine, I guess, until his hand moved to my stomach, then my ass, and I asked him to stop and walked away. Another girl had had the same experience, but her story involved the line, “And [nearby known adult] came over to help me, because I wasn’t going to say anything” and that made me sadder than almost anything else I’ve heard. She wasn’t going to say anything even when what he was doing was inappropriate and wrong, because we’re taught to be quiet and polite. And that is bullshit. —–

But all of that was on vacation. But I came back to my Midwestern city and went out today, by myself, and had a great time. But on the way home, I ran to catch my bus and had a cab slow down and honk at me. Walking to a different bus, a man called out “sexy” as he passed, and I was in a mood, so I yelled “Don’t do that. Ever.” to this receding profile, hoping beyond hope that one of the times I spoke up would encourage another woman to, or would let a man know to stop, or would alert him to the fact that we do not, in fact, necessarily love your tender nothings thrown at us from the comfort of your cars or generally larger bodies. This is my home, but I’m still just a piece of meat, an object of gaze, and not only that, but publicly branded as one. And I am sick of it.

Look, this is majorly complicated by gender (men also get sexually harassed, and women do the harassing), class, race and nationality (expectations are different, conceptions and socialization of masculinity is different), personality types (not everyone dislikes it) and a million other things. I could have and indeed in other occasions have given more charitable interpretations of the events detailed in this piece. Nevertheless, I wanted to give an account of the ridiculous and unfair burden of being female in urban America (and elsewhere) in 2011. I hope it is illuminating.

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18 thoughts on “Sex and the City

  1. chortlevork says:

    What a vast and sticky problem this is. It can be extremely hard to convince some men that they aren’t experts in what women like. Unfortunately, in most cases they are rewarded when the attention is received positively and ignored when the attention is received negatively. On the one hand I hope more women can be confident enough to speak up when they don’t like it. On the other hand, my best guess is that a generalized sense of street vigilance will fail to distinguish between lowlifes/harassers and friendly strangers, will lead to more distrust, and along with it, more racial, class, and gender divisions.

    • Christina says:

      Absolutely. That’s why I don’t talk about it all the time, and certainly not always in this way. It’s something I actually worry about a lot, especially when I’m talking to other white cis girls about walking around [our neighborhood].

  2. Queen Elizabeth I says:

    Thanks for calling out all of the bullshit. I appreciated this.

  3. Emmy says:

    Thanks for writing about this. Similar things happened to me in the Middle East. I once got followed home from a bar and had to lie about going to a friend’s party (I gave him an intersection a few blocks north of the hostel I was staying at), and then, several blocks short of where he thought I was going, I quickly ducked into the hostel not giving him time to do anything. At the time I was wearing brown jeans and a non-revealing button down shirt. Another time a man (after inviting me to have ‘drinks’ at his house, which I of course turned down) followed me around an entire city on Shabbat, which was basically deserted, until I yelled “DAI!” (STOP!) really loudly, and went running back to the place where I was staying. At the time I was wearing a long black skirt, a long black sweater, and black stockings.

    Solidarity.

  4. LadyG says:

    Some Unwanted Male Attention stories from my 2011 summer-in-the-city alone:

    Seated, wearing a skirt to my ankles and waiting for a train in not-my-neighborhood: older black man says a variant of “you look great in that outfit” and leans in. I lean back, he senses my discomfort and says “oh, you don’t like that?” and wanders away. I move next to an older black woman with children and experience no further trouble.

    Returning home at midnight from a weekday concert, I ask a (Latino?) cop why there are so many police cars around the train station (turns out there had been a shooting an hour before). “It’s because you’re so gorgeous, honey.” I say “Thanks,” and walk away.

    Last Saturday, walking alone to meet friends around 8:30 PM, I encounter 5-6 drunk bros and one drunk blonde girl. I mean WASTED. One guy lags behind to keep pace with me. He’s too drunk to do anything but say “hey” and offer me a high five. I give him one and smile vaguely. His bro friends shout “hey, leave her alone, dude!” I move past them. From behind, the girl offers me a piggyback ride on one of her guy friends. I ignore them, and another one shouts “you’re just trying to take attention away from yourself!” She laughs.

    Later that night, still on my way to meet friends, an older man comes up behind me on the escalator and compliments me on my “Mary Poppins” boots. This is actually a pretty good description of them, as they are black leather lace-up ankle boots with chunky heels. And they’re kind of scuffed. He clearly wanted to say more, but I acknowledged his comment with a smile and turned my head away. Nothing further.

    Yesterday, I was walking home in a cardigan, pencil skirt, and professional flats from work when a Latino driver in a DOT (Department of Transportation) truck honks at me. And grins. That is actually the first time I’ve been specifically honked at.

    I think you all get the point.

  5. Queer Jewish Dandy says:

    Although street harassment is complicated by many things, the broader point remains that it is never acceptable. I was saddened to read that many women do not feel comfortable speaking up when harassed. It’s an aspect of male privilege I hadn’t previously considered. It would never occur to me not to speak out in those situations, even when I get read as female.

    • Emmy says:

      It’s often due to shame. When this happened to me in high school, my immediate thoughts often turned inward, blaming myself.

    • LadyG says:

      Or fears of violence. I am a relatively small female, and it wouldn’t take much to incapacitate me.

      I am scheduled for self-defense classes this fall.

    • Christina says:

      Or a messed up sense of politeness. Like, what if he was just trying to be nice? What if he was actually trying to flirt with me? What do I owe him?

      • Queer Jewish Dandy says:

        I’ll address all three of these comments in this one. I understand all these reactions, but other than fears of violence, they are not the reactions I have when harassed on the street. I obviously don’t have a solution, but particularly in response to Christina’s comment, the male privilege you’ve made me aware of in the situation is that I don’t have feelings of shame or guilt or trying to see the best of people when they harass others.

      • LadyG says:

        You owe the same degree of politeness to him you owe to all human strangers. Often response = encouragement, but not always.

        It takes practice to know how to trust your gut. Common sense is not common.

  6. chortlevork says:

    Anyone notice the Unwanted Male Attention theme on the season premier of Modern Family? Notice how it ended? Yeah. Fuck that.

  7. Christina says:

    Guys, I really want to thank you for your supportive response to this. I was really unsure about posting it, because even in friendly and generally good communities, this stuff tends to get dismissed, brushed a side, or explained away. It feels good to have even the things I think are maybe petty, maybe not worth sharing, taken seriously. Thank you so much. And feel free to continue sharing your own stories.

  8. […] ETA:  You can read more about a few of my stories on Christina’s excellent post, “Sex and the City”.  I expect them to continue happening as long as I go out in the urban […]

  9. […] Adventures of the Mischief Machine doesn’t like it either, and neither does Equal Writes and Are We Feminists? Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponTumblrDiggRedditEmailPrintMoreLinkedInLike this:LikeBe the […]

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