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Micro-aggressions, Cat-calling, and Triggers, Oh My! A Record of Harassment

[Original publication date: May 16, 2011]

(Trigger warnings:  offensive images, talk of sexual assault, sexually aggressive language)

Last week, Olivia wrote about the anger around the cat-call, saying, “Sometimes I feel like I have molten lava boiling right underneath the surface of my skin. It’s been building, and waiting, and accumulating all things toxic.”

When I read her piece, I had just finished my week-long recording of all the harassment – sexual, street, and micro-aggressive – I had been subjected to. It was cathartic to read her feel her own anger, and I found myself filled with the same sadness, hurt, defiance, and rage she had so well described.

It’s spring in New York, which means the warm air has ramped up the sexual tension on the streets, and it has become harassment season. I decided to take on this project when I heard a man on the train proudly proclaim, “It’s skirt season – time to finally see all the goods!” as he ogled a group of younger school girls. I over-think my wardrobe, knowing that no matter what I put on, I will experience something in my day that will trigger me.

Street harassment is so commonplace in the city that it’s often easier to ignore it than it is to confront it. There is also the inherent risk of who is able to confront it by the consequences of what happens when they do. Situations can end in threats or violence, and they often do. To note, when I looked for information on the statistics of women assaulted after being cat-called or harassed, all I could find were the same stories on one woman assaulting her cat-caller. It is light years away from the stories I’ve heard, what my friends have encountered, and the experiences I’ve had. You call someone out, and sometimes you are met with physical threat.

Of course, “cat-calling” or any form of harassment is only beginning to take on the shape of being a serious issue, with the help of Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment. This week alone, I was reminded of how far we have to go when I stumbled upon a thread where the idea of “privilege,” as in, “the privilege of being hot,” was considered something that women and feminists needed to be aware they had, that street harassment or workplace harassment was somehow only relegated to those who were “hot,” that ” hot” is the ultimate value for women, and the price of being such is to be placed for public consumption, grateful and welcoming for what is verbally thrown at you. Not only was this argument loaded in hypocrisy, misogyny, and ignorance, but it was reminiscent of articles like thisthis, and this, where ladies just need to relax and see that men are just trying to “mess with them.” There are even places that broadcast tips on how to “spruce up” your cat-call, and even sites that dedicate themselves to “calling out” the “self-centered” behavior of women who work against cat-calling. We have not even scratched the surface on this; we have just given the nameless a name.

This project spanned the borders of cat-calling and went into the micro-aggressions of my daily interactions, my work environment, documenting all things that triggered me. While they might be “different” in intent or verbage, they all lead back to the same idea, the same problems, the same old shit. While my experience can only offer a glimpse at a larger problem, I implore more women, of all different backgrounds, of all different experiences, to try this documenting if possible, to write down every trigger, every micro-aggression, every cat-call, everything that you experience that makes you on edge because of your body, of your identity, of your supposed “place.” In a way, it made the abstract real, and I even found myself doubting if I was recording this accurately. Was I too sensitive? Assuming too much? Making nothing into something? But that’s just it – the inherent doubt and fear that causes us to sometimes just not say anything. To not defend ourselves. To not report a rape.

Harassment crosses gender, racial, abled, and class borders. This piece is written from someone who is cisgendered, able-bodied, and white, someone whose voice, while doubted in the spectrum of “harassment,” is more likely to not be doubted than, say, someone who is poor, gender-queer, or disabled. I cannot speak on behalf of the multiple intersections of sexual harassment when it crosses racial, gender, and abled lines, of who gets listened to and how they are affected by it. I can only speak on what happened during my week and my frustration, my anger, and the vulnerability I feel each day.

As a normal writer for Persephone, I wish I contribute this under my own name. But at this time, I cannot.

Monday

8:30 a.m. There is a cop posted at my subway station platform. He is there every day. I always try to avoid his eyes after he always calls out to me, “Hey! Why don’t you smile?” or, “Hey there, beautiful,” and, “What, you avoiding me?”  Yes, yes I am avoiding you. You terrify me. You represent the cop who groped my crotch and breasts when there was a roundup of protesters at the G-8 conference when I was sixteen. You represent the cop who would often follow me in his city-issued car as I would walk home from the grocery store, whistling and saying, “Hey pretty thing, why do you live in a shitty neighborhood like this?” You represent officers Kenneth MorenoFranklin L. Mata, and Richard Kern, as well as the continued misreporting rape and sexual assault. Again you ask me, “Why don’t you smile?” I smile faintly and hurry off in the opposite direction.

8:35 a.m. A construction worker yells out, “Hey pretty! Why don’t you come here more often?” My train pulls in before I can respond.

8:50 a.m. A man gets on the subway an inch away from my butt. It’s crowded and I am tense, because it makes it really easy for guys to just cop a feel and get away with it. It has happened to me before. There are signs on the subway that say otherwise, but why would a sign stop someone? I am gripping the pole, ready to pounce and start raising hell as I see him checking out my ass in the window. My jaw is clenched. We pull into my subway stop and I flee.

12:30 p.m. I’m the only woman in an office of about 26 men. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, and sometimes I feel so isolated that I have to go hide in the bathroom and catch my breath so I don’t end up crying at work. I can’t show a “weakness” like that; it just confirms what many people believe about women in the workplace. A woman comes in to interview, and I’m excited to possibly have someone else here. A coworker stops by my desk, asks what she was here for, and sighs, “I mean, yeah, if she’s qualified, but what if they just hire her just because she’s a girl?”

Sometimes I’m seconds away from screaming and quitting on the spot. Then I remember rent. Student loan bills. Food. And that I have meager savings, and I’m still paying off medical bills from a year ago. That I have no back up plan in an economy that does not favor the unprepared.

6:15 p.m. On the train home. A man stares at me, straight at me, looking me up and down for the whole ride to the next stop. I hiss, “Fuck you, pervert,” under my breath, hoping he can hear me and go to the next train.

6:30 p.m. “Heeeey, sexy,” comes from somewhere on the street, and I can’t see where. I ignore it. I turn red with anger and embarrassment.

Tuesday

8:20 a.m. I’m walking to the subway and pass a deli. I can feel eyes on me from the guys who hang out there. I don’t make any contact. I hurry to the subway.

9:30 a.m. I’m out grabbing milk for the office and see our building super staring down a woman on a phone. As she passes, they nearly break their necks looking at her. I finally catch their eyes and shoot them a look from hell. “What, are you jealous?” he asks.

4:30 p.m. Another super in our building says to me, “Oh my god, you are so sexy! You are so sexy!” I ignore it because in the past when I have complained about it, I was told, “Oh, he’s just like that. He means no harm. He’s Afghani – they’re just all like that! It’s harmless.”

6:30 p.m. For the first time in a while, I’m not catcalled when I go home. Several guys pass me, and I keep expecting them to say something or reach out and try and grab me for my attention. Nothing happens. My jaw is clenched the whole way home, and I feel anger rising in me as I think of theoretical situations where I start screaming and yelling about how wrong it is to yell at women on the street. I reach home. My heart is still thumping through my chest.

Wednesday

8:45 a.m. I’m on the train and a banker-esque looking guy keeps staring at me. I finally ask if I have something on my face because he keeps staring. He doesn’t answer, looks annoyed, and turns away from me.

11:00 a.m. A delivery guy drops off some packages. “You the only woman in here?” he asks. I say yes. “Man, you must be who all the guys come to!” I don’t know what he means, but no matter what he intends it to be, I find myself instantly defensive. I’m not here for all “the guys to come to.” I’m not here to be a presence.

12:45 p.m. I run out for lunch and pass a guy. “Hey sexy, can I get your number?” I don’t say anything, barely even registering it, because I’m flustered and have a million things on my mind. “Oh, so you don’t wanna talk to me, huh? You think you’re better than me? Fuck you, you snobby bitch.” This, I catch. I’ve gone from being sexy on a pedestal to a snobby bitch. Funny how you can fall so fast when you haven’t even been asked to be put up somewhere.

3:30 p.m. I run out for some air. As I walk around the street, a truck passes me. “Pssssssst!” a man hisses at me from the passenger side. Calling me like a dog. The car drives off.

6:15 p.m. An older man sits directly across from me on the train and just stares at me. I’m indignant and will not move from my seat. I’m so tired of moving or adjusting because I am uncomfortable. I blast my music and bury my head in my book. I look up two stops later, and he is still staring directly at me, specifically my chest. I finally just stare back, anger etched on my face. He gets up and goes to the other side of the train.

6:25 p.m. The construction workers for my subway stop hang out on benches inside the station. I can hear them talking about the women they would bang as I pass.

Thursday

8:40 a.m. Late today. I’m walking on the other side of the street to avoid the deli. As I’m waiting for the light to turn, an older man says to me, “Smile, why don’t you?” I don’t feel like smiling, especially not on your command.  “I don’t smile on command,” I say. “I was trying to make you feel better, you don’t have to be rude,” he says. Oh yes, I’m sorry. Telling a complete stranger to smile is a social service I should be grateful for. Thank you for noticing me. He scoffs with self-righteousness and walks ahead of me.

1:04 p.m. ( Trigger warning and NSFW). Someone with authority sends an e-mail with this image around.

6:20 p.m. A man on the subway smiles at me. He seems nice, but I don’t know him. I smile back weakly and avert my eyes back to my book. When I get back up, I make eye contact with him again, except this time, he’s giving me a look as if I’ve been rude to him, that I’m too good to talk to him. For a few seconds, I feel bad – he had no reason to feel shitty that I didn’t talk to him, I just don’t want to talk to him. Then I realize I’m justifying this person’s supposed irritation with me not reacting to him. I stop and wonder why the first thing I always feel is guilt, as if it’s me who is in the wrong for receiving unwanted attention.

6:30 p.m. “Hey, cutie! Where you headed?”

9:10 p.m. I finally tell my partner about this piece I’m working on.

Friday

9:45 a.m. I am expected to maintain a certain demeanor in our workplace, which somehow translated into being a maid, a task deemed too low for them. Someone at work throws a dirty dish right in and walks off. I ask who he thinks is going to wash it. He sighs heavily and says, “I wasn’t hired to wash dishes. I’ll wash it this time, but honestly, is washing one dish really going to kill you?”

12:30 p.m. There is a staff lunch, and it gets brought up that a well-known food establishment has been known to funnel money into sex trafficking. A coworker yells out, “Well, I’ve got to get my whores somewhere.” I feel my face get hot. “You know sex trafficking brings in mostly young girls who are completely abused, right? They’re not whores, either,” I say. My coworker stares at me, and then a few other chip in, “I love underage hookers!” “Lets go there for lunch every day!” “Where do you think their hookers are from?” I leave.

5:00 p.m. I go to get some leftover food from the break room, and two of my coworkers are sitting in there. “Heeeeey you, gonna get wild this weekend with some bitches and hos?” “Do you refer to all women as bitches and hos?” I ask. “Oh come on, lighten up! You know what I mean,” he says.

Yes, I guess I do. I guess I know what all of this means.

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