“It would almost be funny, how fragile a man and his ego can be, if it weren’t so very literally deadly. She never used to think of it as anything more than catcalls, mere shouting voices, side-eyed glances, all cast into the darkest pits of her memory.”
She was thirteen, and it was the summer she started working for her mother’s law firm, in a small city in Northern Virginia. The office was nested above a flower shop owned by an old, even-tempered white man who liked to give her flowers as she passed by in the afternoons on her way back from running errands. Sometimes his touch would linger a little too long, his gaze would rest in places a little too low, and she remembers thinking how much she wished all his flowers would wilt in a single day, melt like wax on a burning stovetop. With everything gone, she’d never have to walk by his shop again. When she stopped working for the summer, he’d asked her mother where she’d disappeared to, a question which prompted her to ask her daughter whether he’d ever done anything inappropriate. She’d laughed it off. The anxiety buried in her eyes was not yet trained to appear for anyone but Solitude.
After a naive mistake, she quit longboarding, a beloved hobby, for two years. She was skating down Tenth Street in the East Village on a sunny afternoon, meters away from her destination, a dormitory located on the corner of Tenth and Broadway. Her back turned to the street, she had a view of her dormitory settled on the left-hand corner of the block as she rolled toward it, past high-end boutiques that always seemed to feature the most alien-looking lamps she’d ever seen. She was amusing herself with that thought, music blasting in both ears, when she failed to notice the van that had started to drift right alongside her on the road. Just a few steps away from her door, she felt two hands grasp onto her upper arms and begin to haul her up and off her longboard, tugging toward and into the driver’s side window, as though it was a portal to another dimension where this kind of behavior was welcome. She yelled out something offensive and highly unladylike and he dropped her. The second her feet planted on solid ground, she went back to retrieve her longboard where it had been left to drift, captain-less, into the empty road. Picking it up, she stood in the middle of the street, board clutched in one hand, her other hanging limply to her side, her vision too poor to catch a license plate or any kind of distinct feature on the white van that harbored her assailant.
Late to class, she huffed her way down University Place, pushing past crowds of her fellow classmates in an effort to make it in time. Head down, she jerked it up when she felt two hands clasp onto her shoulders, shaken out of her reverie. In front of her stood a man, tall, white, neatly dressed but poorly shaven, with a strange look in his eyes. “Oh, you’re a sweetheart,” he mumbled to himself under his breath before swooping in and locking her lips with his. She stood still, furious and confused, before pushing away and continuing on her journey, a hollowness opening in the depths of her stomach.
There was a job opening for a social media intern at a music production company in Jersey. She was offered a position but wanted to see if it would be a good fit before she committed. The work site was in a little no-name town, a two-hour commute by bus from the city, but it was the summer before her junior year, and she was eager to have something to do. Her mother stressed that she was to come with her, mainly because the site was not exactly official “headquarters,” but a house where a music producer rented out his personal studio to record artists (it was more legitimate than it sounds on paper). So, they’d both taken the trip up one day to test the waters, and were greeted by a warm, family-owned-business environment. This producer had his nephew, son, and wife in the mix of his professional life, all kind enough to take turns explaining to her what her responsibilities would be at the company. Everything was well and good, until she had a moment with the producer himself. She was standing in his kitchen talking to his wife, and he’d come up behind her and run his hands through her hair, whispering grossness into her ear. His wife stood aside and smiled vacantly. At some point he grabbed her hand and positioned her on a stool in front of a wide blue backdrop in his extensive photography studio. He told her to pose. When she very fervently declined, he took photos of her back as she left the room.
She didn’t take the job.
She was riding down Third Avenue on her longboard, having picked the hobby up again following two years of regretful abandonment. She was grateful for the breezy reprieve from what was otherwise a stifling hot summer night in the city. She’d gotten in the habit of only keeping one ear bud in her ear, ever since the van incident. On this night, nobody attempted to touch her. Still, she heard calls of baby and ’lil mama and opted not to answer. One response to her willing silence was flinging suspicious-looking white liquid on her face, like her forehead was a target for jizz-paintball practice. She continued riding until she reached her destination—NYU’s Palladium Hall—and was greeted by the reflective glass lining the long hallway with an image of her face, soaked in shameful white. It was no wonder everyone had been looking at her like she was a walking STI. She frantically wiped off her eyelids, her eyebrows, and the crown of her curly black hair. She noted placidly that her skin color contrasted quite starkly against the almost translucent liquid. That night, after one of the longest showers she’d ever taken, she fell into bed thinking of the luxury of being born a man.
Walking down the street with her mother on their way to dinner, she remembers thinking very hard, Don’t talk to me, Don’t say something rude, Don’t touch me in front of my mother, like repeating the mantra in her head would force it to manifest in reality. But thinking it didn’t make it so, and when one particularly young catcaller addressed her as ma before he said something she wished he hadn’t, she couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony—then that embarrassed shame washed over her. She had a panic attack in the single-person bathroom of a restaurant no more than an hour later, the deep wine-colored walls a quiet pacifier to her furiously beating heart.
It was hard for her to understand how anyone could do these things, let alone in front of her mother. But then she’s reminded how her mother’s agency as a full-grown adult doesn’t make her any less of a woman, and so in the eyes of the men who habitually harass, she is no more deserving of respect than her daughter. The proof: She has never experienced these things in the shadow of her father.
What is it about women that men can’t seem to respect? To take it a step further, what is it about black women that makes them so far from human in the eyes of the people who so easily objectify, vilify, and brutalize them?
Her name isn’t baby, sexy, ‘lil mama, or bitch, but they call her by these incorrect monikers anyway. She’s not alone. Indeed, being the proud owner of another title—female—earns her membership to this misnamed population. Her race, on top of her gender, seems to create an incremental negative effect on her personhood in the eyes of her catcallers, making her, and women like her, easier targets for volatile intrusions in their days—a conundrum if there ever was one, because this differentiation, along with the act of the calling itself, simply shouldn’t exist.
Sexual harassment, like any other systemic injustice, never just ends in the reality of the ones who suffer from it. It isn’t just the moment, an unhappy aberration, frozen as a nonsensical occurrence that cannot touch the other moments of one’s life. It stretches into the set of experiences that shapes the way a person thinks, interacts with the world, and perceives threats. It’s peering into the windows of a boutique flower shop on Tenth Street and University Place and hesitating at the door because the man behind the counter looks a lot like the one from childhood who used to cause hazy discomfort. Or, instinctively throwing one’s hands up in a guarded “X” position when passing parked cars with men idling in the driver’s seats, windows rolled down to possibly grab and intimidate from. A prevailing, unfair symptom of harassment is seeing the shadows of the people who have caused hurt, and using them as representatives for a large swath of humanity that has done nothing wrong.
As such, there is no one solution to the problem at hand when it comes to the mistreatment of women in society. Her only suggestion would be to remind the people around her of the effects that such treatment has on the psyche of women all across the world, the ones who are too afraid to say anything anymore because the stories of women who spoke up and were, in turn, pushed into oncoming trains, shot, or beaten, immediately come to mind. In April of 2017, Reagan Medgie, only twenty-two, was pushed onto the subway train tracks for rebuffing a man who groped her. She survived, unlike so many others. Just a few months ago, in January, a man killed Misha Moore in Atlanta because she turned down an offer of eight dollars for sex. In December of 2017, Shemel Mercurius, just a junior in high school, opened the door to her home in Brooklyn only to have a man she’d refused to date point a submachine gun at her person and let loose his bullets. She died waiting the twenty minutes it took the ambulance to arrive.
There is a problem with toxic masculinity in societies all around the world. It would almost be funny, how fragile a man and his ego can be, if it weren’t so very literally deadly. She never used to think of it as anything more than catcalls, mere shouting voices, side-eyed glances, whispered words of slutty praise, all cast into the darkest pits of her memory. But there’s something more to it than that, that lurking fog that swathes itself in the ignorance around it—her ignorance, because she’d been too afraid to call it what it really is: violence.
Living through these experiences, for her, is like having a flu that never ends. She wakes up in cold sweats at night and gravitates toward cramped corners during the day, Solitude by her side, as they attempt to alleviate the residual stress of being the object on which men displace their sexual frustration. Sometimes, she wonders if it’s just her that the world hates. If she’s the only one who feels the callouses of unwanted hands sliding down the arch of her back on uncomfortable, crowded nights. But, she must remind herself of the unfortunate, yet hopeful truth: She is not alone.