My father tells me I was about 15 or 16 when I was first cat-called. He said I came home sobbing one day, crying that a guy had approached me and asked, “Are you fucking yet, shorty?” My father says my tears broke his heart. I don’t want to break his heart any further by telling him that I was much younger when I first experienced street harassment.
I was 13 years old when that man said that to me. That wasn’t the first time a man had said something to me in the street, no. But it was the first time a man had dared to step in my personal bubble to say it. I was walking to the bodega where Sedgwick Avenue meets Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, when I walked past him. I don’t remember much about how he looked, just that he was taller and leaned close enough to me so I could smell his cologne. It was Fahrenheit and the only reason I know this is because I recognized it as the same one my oldest brother liked to use.
“Damn, shorty. You fucking yet?” Those were his words. I remember only because I looked up from the ground and into his face. I must have looked scared because he kept it moving, not saying anything else. At 32 years of age, I ask myself what could possibly have inspired that dude to say that shit out loud to me. Clearly, by his question, my virginity was still a possibility, so homeboy knew I was young. I wonder what he thought would happen.
I talk to my father about that day and he says with a laugh in his voice, “Well, you weren’t listening to me or your mami…you had gotten into the habit of dressing like una prostituta, so men were starting to look at you differently, Angie. You know, mama… tight tight jeans and low low tops.”
The comment from my dad was said jokingly, but it struck me that a 13 year old (in his memory a 15 or 16 year old) in tight tight jeans and low low tops can be told that she is calling attention to herself, that in some weird way, it could be her fault that men could say something like that to her in a cloud of Fahrenheit cologne. Ain’t that some shit? At 13 years old, I was somehow at fault for this unwanted attention because I was “dressing like una prostituta.” I was, for lack of a better way of saying it, asking for it. The slut-shaming, victim-blaming of it all makes me gag a little.
Not that Dad meant it with any malice or judgment. Not at all. I’m all about acknowledging how all of our perspectives are shaped by the -isms of this society and how sometimes we can’t see how those -isms have shaped us in negative ways. I always say, “They don’t call it a blindspot because you can see it.” My father’s blindspots aside, I suppose my father just doesn’t want to come face to face with the infuriating fact that I was a baby when men began to harass me in the street.
Because that’s what I was, after all. A baby.
“Well, whatever you say, Angie. It wasn’t your fault, but after that, you learned your lesson. You didn’t dress like that anymore.”
I ignore the comment and instead tell him with a giggle, “Dad, tight tight jeans and low low tops didn’t go out of style for me for a long time after that. Shit, probably still hasn’t.”
We laugh.I ask him what he told me that day as I cried to him about Fahrenheit dude.
“I told you that that’s the kinda shit you’re going to have to go through as a woman. That’s why I raised you to be a bitch, Angie. Fuck these men. You didn’t deserve that at 15.”
I was 13. Like I said, it wasn’t the first time a dude had harassed me in the street. But it was the first time I was afraid of it.
Remember in your Saturday morning cartoons, how when a pretty woman character would walk by, the male/animal cartoon character would fucking lose his shit? I’m talking bulging eyes, stomping foot, drooling with an extra long tongue hanging to the floor losing it as they whistled at the woman passing? American English records the first use of the term, “wolf whistle,” a term that is defined as, “a whistle with a rising and falling pitch, directed toward someone to express sexual attraction or admiration,” in 1945.
The term ‘catcaller’ didn’t come around until the 17th century, during the 1650s, when theatergoers would whistle and jeer at the actors to express disapproval for the actions onstage, sometimes using a noisemaker that made a sound that sounded like an angry hissing cat. The term didn’t take on a sexual meaning until the 20th century, but the idea is all the same. Women, apparently, are present only for the entertainment of men and when they want to vocalize their feedback, they will.
For years after the Fahrenheit dude incident, I hated walking by men. I would walk with my head up, fearing that I wouldn’t see it coming and be unprepared for a man to invade my personal bubble again. I would walk by men, stiff and uncomfortable, staring straight ahead, my eyes on the next corner that was far enough away from him/them. I would cringe at my awkward gait, knowing that they’d see my discomfort.
And I would ball my hands into fists so tight I would leave red marks in my palms that took hours to get rid of.
Soon, I internalized the unwanted attention, validating how I felt about myself through them. I must look dope as shit if I’m getting that kind of attention. How I saw myself became wrapped in the violence of a whistle, in the overtly advances of men who were sometimes almost twice…no triple, my age.
Sadly, this went on for years.
I am 14 years old. I have a doctor’s appointment, so my mother has taken the day off and lets me play hooky. We stop at Caridad Restaurant on Kingsbridge Road to order take-out coffee cups of their sweet milky avena that we’ll sip on the bus ride over to the doctor. It’s a treat and I have to wait to have mine until after my appointment, but still, it’s so good, I don’t even care.
We walk into the restaurant and there are lines of cabbies from the Bailey Dispatch up the block ordering their breakfasts in Spanish before they start their shifts.
“Tráeme un tres golpes y una café negra, por favor.”
Mami waits on the line, pulling a few singles out of her purse, chatting with the waitresses she recognizes from the neighborhood. I stand away from her, out of the way of the line of cabbies, silent in my awkwardness. A man walks towards me from the direction of the bathroom. He sees me standing there and smiles at me softly. I think he works for the restaurant and I always assume everyone recognizes me as my mother’s daughter, so I smile back, showing the gap in my front teeth. He smiles harder and steps forward.
“¡Qué linda sonrisa! ¿Sabes lo que dicen sobre las niñas con dientes separados?”
I hear my mother’s whistle, not like her normal long one that calls me upstairs, that fills the air with it’s piercing sharpness, but a short one, a quick exclamation point in the air that makes both he and I look in her direction. She is standing there, brown paper bag with our avenas in her hand, smiling the gap-toothed smile I inherited from her.
“Sí, señor. Podemos silbar. M’ija, let’s go. I don’t want to be late.”
My mother never used “m’ija” when talking to me.
The man lets out a low guffaw and smiles at my mother, turning towards the line so he can order his food. I walk towards my mother and we leave the restaurant. When we’re on the bus riding towards the doctor, she hands me the brown bag to hold and says, “Imani, I need you to listen to me.”
I nod. I wonder if I did something wrong, but she smiles and puts her hand on top of mine.
“Be careful smiling back at men, Imani, ok? When you’re in the street alone, don’t turn around when they call you and if they start walking behind you, just turn your head to the side so you can use your side-vision, your peripheral, you know what that is?”
I nod again.
“Be careful smiling back though, Imani. Just be smart when we’re not with you. Be smart always.”
At 14 years old, my mother gave me lessons she had to learn at a similar age. The same lessons her mother had taught her. Don’t invite the attention and don’t encourage it. In that way, you’re smart and you don’t invite them to take it any further.
I wonder how many mothers have had to have this conversation with their daughters or if its just me. At 32 years old, I am certain that every mother does.
I have gotten harassed/cat called/wolf whistled in the street in some crazy ass ways. I’ve been hissed at, shouted at from across the street, stared at as if I am an animal in the zoo. Car horns beep at me as I cross the street, startling me into turning to the sound only for a wink, a kiss, a smile. Sometimes, it’s not even the horn but a flash of their high beams.
I’ve had men grab their crotch as I pass by and I’ve had men lean so close to me as I walk by them that I can feel the warmth of their breath on my earlobe as they whisper “Que bella, mami!” or “Preciosa!” or “Damn, mami!” They tell me, “You can at least smile!” or “Damn, you can say thank you,” as if them invading my space is a compliment to me, as if I should be grateful that they acknowledged that I exist, let alone that I am attractive enough to talk to. I should thank my lucky fucking stars that they thought of me in a sexual way and wanted to tell me, a stranger, that they have a hard on.
It’s happened. On the subway, a crowded rush hour 4 train on my way to class at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. There was a Yankee game and the 4 train was extra crowded because of it. He was crunched in behind me. I had headphones on. I could feel his breath on my neck as he spoke, so I pulled out one ear bud and said, “Huh?”
He whispered it again. “You’re making my dick so hard right now.”
When I didn’t respond, but tried to push him off me a little, he sucked his teeth and shoved me.
“You should say thank you when a man gives you a compliment, shorty.”
Needless to say, I got off of the train and was late to class that day.
But the most startling thing is the aggression with which some of them respond to my trying to ignore them. The hateful words spat in my direction when their attempt at not getting my attention . “Fuck you then, you stupid bitch. You’re ugly anyway. Nobody wants you anyway!”
Imagine what that can do to a young girl. Imagine the kind of self-hatred and bullshit that piles up into her adulthood. Imagine how unsafe she may feel when they get angry. Imagine how fast she walks home that day.
Now tell her it’s her fault.
There are groups out there that combat street harassment, I know. In fact, there’s groups all over the world that try to combat this. All over the world! I can’t say that I have joined any of their rallies or actions. I can’t say that I can recall a specific name of one of these groups off of the top of my head.
I suppose that’s one of the dangers of it all. This shit gets normalized. You get used to it. So used to it in fact, that you note when you don’t get cat-called because it happens so often that out-of-the-norm means you don’t get cat-called. I’ve had men tell me that it’s probably not that bad, that I’m gassed and have a too-high opinion of myself for even being upset about it, as if my ego somehow thrives on these incidents.
I can’t front. For a long time, especially during my teens, it did. Do you see how dangerous that is for a young girl? Something that frightened me to self-harm, something that made me cringe became so normal for me that at 16 years old, I would call myself ugly if boys/men didn’t say things to me in the street. What the fuck is that about?
I’ll tell you what changed and it wasn’t some grand epiphanic moment. The shit, when I wasn’t completely zoning it out, became straight up annoying. No one wants to be bothered in the street. Leave me the fuck alone, get out of my way, no I don’t want to fucking talk to you. Fuck. Out. Of. My. Face. I began to respond to these advances by being rude and outlandish, combative and confrontational. Sadly, this placed me in even more danger.
So, what is my perspective on how this can end? Do we combat it by being defensive? Being combative? Do we zone it out? Do we say thank you? Do we continue telling our daughters that this is what they have to expect from men? That men are nothing but animals who can’t control their sexual drive, so they will call out to us, invade our personal space, make us feel unsafe…..and it’s all a compliment? Do we continue teaching our daughters “rules” to how to navigate walking home from the bodega?
I suppose we must teach those “rules” to our daughters because, safety first and all that. Sadly, we live in that kind of world.
But we must also teach our boys that it is NOT okay to do that to women, no matter what they see their homeboys, their brothers, cousins, uncles, or their fathers doing. We must teach our boys that they must show women respect in the street and if they think she is attractive, that a hello, a good morning, a smile will do just fine and if she finds him attractive, being respectful and polite will only get him the attention he craves from her. We need to teach our sons that they are NOT uncontrollable animals that can only think with their dicks. They are human beings with compassion and morals and brains. Teach them to tell their boys, their brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers that they shouldn’t do that and be protective of women, whether it’s their sister or their mother or whatever.
We need to stop saying that shit, too. “Oh, imagine if it was your sister that had to go through it.”
Guess what, genius? Your sister does go through it. Every fucking day.
Let’s stop normalizing this invasive and disrespectful behavior. Let’s stop making it okay for our boys. Let’s stop blaming our girls.
Teach our boys respect and consent and boundaries instead of warning our girls and blaming our girls for the lack of them.
I don’t know how to end this because I will be honest, I will probably get on the train and go home and have to deal with this shit as if I didn’t spend hours breaking it down in essay. I know I will have my headphones on. I know I will walk home. I know I will turn my head to the side, just like Mami taught me, using my peripheral vision. I know I will get home safe.
That’s what I know.