BY PAIGE TOWERS
"Wow, you look delicious," he says.
It’s the first warm day of March and I’m standing on a busy corner, waiting for the light to change. I’m going home after a doctor’s appointment on the Upper East Side—walking north up 2nd Ave. The stranger who called me "delicious" is now directly beside me looking me up and down. I don’t turn to look at him but I can see him in my peripheral vision; he’s white, middle aged, wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase.
I take my phone out of my purse and text my husband.
"What is going on?" I write. "I’m being harassed constantly today. Maybe it’s the warm weather?"
The man begins to lick his lips and I’m triggered; the hair on my arms rises, my heart rate speeds up. With barely a thought, I pivot and start walking west. It’s noon and I haven’t eaten yet today; I’d planned on stopping into H&H Bagels, which would have been only one more block away on 2nd if I’d continued on my original path. But I must get away quickly.
"I want to get some of that pussy!" the man yells out at me as I walk away. I don’t look back.
Later I wondered why I didn’t turn, face this man and talk back to him. It’s unclear, but I think in that moment I was simply too tired and hungry. I was also just flat out overwhelmed. During that 35-minute walk back from the hospital to my apartment, four men commented on my appearance and/or expressed what they desired to do with me. At least five men either whistled or made some sort of tongue clicking sound in my direction. Well over a dozen men checked me out in an obvious manner—one man even leaned over and blatantly stared at my crotch for a prolonged time as I walked by.
"How you doing today?" he asked my crotch. I didn’t respond; nor did my crotch.
It didn’t matter that I looked professional, that I wore my hair in a low bun, wore a jacket zipped all the way up to my neck, black pants, flat boots, and a scarf that my husband’s mother brought home from India—I was somehow still a target.
("These pants are too tight to wear out, I guess?" I said to my husband when I got home.)
In the past I have talked back to men who harass me on the street—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I have received quick apologies or caused men to flee the scene. I have also received extreme verbal aggression, threats of assault and have been followed. I am unsure what the best strategy is—to talk back or to ignore and avoid?—but generally I try to follow my instincts, even it leaves me feeling upset with my self-perceived weakness later.
Thus, in light of the fact that street harassment can sometimes feel like a losing battle, I’ve found another way of dealing with it. After being inspired by other women’s online accounts of men objectifying them on the street, I took to Tumblr last year by creating a blog called "Interactions With Men." It has little readership; in fact I rarely post it to my social media accounts as—I’ll admit—I’ve been discouraged by a lot of online backlash from non-feminist men (and a couple of outspoken non-feminist young women). But it’s still a way for me to record these events exactly as they happen, and there’s something empowering about that, especially considering that men on the street have sexualized me—like many other women—since age 12 and really even before, and I’m really tired of it.
What I do is carry a pocket-sized journal and pen with me at all times, and if I have a negative interaction with a man in which I feel objectified or talked down to because of my gender, I jot it down exactly as it happened. (I also occasionally just use the "Notes" function on my cellphone.) Of course, I don’t record every instance. In fact, I record very few of them, mostly—I suppose—because they happen all the time in small ways. But when an interaction immediately hits me in the gut and leaves me feeling angry or discouraged or sad, I find that writing it down exactly as it happened helps alleviate those negative feelings.
For instance, "Interaction #3" on the blog is a short entry, but it records a scenario that many women have experienced—a male stranger wanting a woman to smile for him and then turning cruel when they ignore his request. I recorded it as this:
August 2014. Vagrant man. Corner of 14th St. and 6th Ave.
Man: Smile for me, sweetheart.
Man: C’mon baby. Just one smile. It’s a beautiful day today.
Man: I feel sorry for you. Really, I do. I fucking do.
Man: Stupid bitch.
It’s not lost on me that these situations are not so much interactions as they are simply, well…me being targeted and objectified by some guy. For them to become true interactions, some would say that I must do more than frown, ignore and/or walk away. Yet, my silent protest against men constantly watching and commenting on me as I move through what is perceived to be free and public space feels like the most common interaction there is: the man exerts a sense of control over the woman, the woman holds her head up and continues by, protesting through her silence. After all, do we really gain freedom and power in public space if we constantly have to be talking/fighting back? What about those times when I just want to run out and grab a quick a lunch, or want to get home after a long, stressful day?
The blog has deviated a bit in purpose as soon as I started it. My original intent was to just record the way some men talk to me on the street, but very soon I found myself wanting to write more. The way that men can sometimes talk to women—the talking down, the talking over, the "mansplaining"—these instances all left me feeling disempowered in the same way that being sexualized by a stranger on 2nd Ave. does, and sometimes even more so.
In "Interaction #5" I wrote about a security guard at a college I used to work at who loved to explain things to women, as if he was the keeper of great knowledge. When he once started to tell me about running, he neglected to listen to me repeatedly telling him that I’ve been a runner for over 15 years and have even run a marathon.
"I promise you: if I can do it, you can do it," he said at end of the interaction, still somehow refusing to hear the fact that running is a major part of my life.
In "Interaction #9" I recorded an interaction I had with a man during a business lunch in which he literally explained Amy Schumer to a female coworker and me. We both tried to jump in to the conversation as Schumer is a huge idol for both of us, but he continued to talk over us.
Here’s an excerpt:
Me: Yeah, she—
Man: It’s like, she doesn’t care what she looks like at all. She just gets up there, and doesn’t care if she’s overweight. She’s just…here’s the thing about her…(Takes sip of beer.)
Other woman: To me, Amy Schumer is a new kind of role model. She—
Man: Here’s the thing. (Sets down beer.) Amy Schumer…it’s like…She. Doesn’t. Care. And I respect that. Like, she doesn’t care what she looks like.
By the end of the interaction, it was clear that the man thought he was being feminist by pointing out that he thought it was cool that Schumer doesn’t care that she’s not pretty (in his eyes)…thus still commenting on the way she looks, instead of—I don’t know—commenting on how incredibly brilliant, funny and accomplished she is. (Or at least allowing us the chance to do so.) And yet, while I wanted to call him out on his behavior so badly at the time, the sad reality is that had I done so, I truly believe that it quickly could have turned into a conversation about the end of my position with that particular company.
I’ve made records of interactions with a male family member, a co-worker of my husband, a co-worker of my own, a deliveryman, a handyman, random men on the street, that white guy in the suit.
It’s a risky decision, I realize, as I could alienate someone close to me, or someone who has influence over my professional career. Yet, although many—no, most—of my interactions with men are neutral or positive ones, the scrutiny and misogyny I often feel during everyday activities, like boarding the subway or sitting down at a meeting, is a reminder of how far we have to go. And I’d like to make a record of where we are right now.
When I got back to my apartment after my doctor’s appointment on that warm day—still hungry, still overwhelmed—I wondered at what point I would be able to walk through public space "normally;" when would I be able to simply move forward, privileged to my own thoughts and enjoyment? I felt relief to be out of the spotlight, sure, but I was seriously defeated. So, I took out my journal, jotted down the details of a couple of those interactions that had happened on the walk home, and put them on the blog the next day.
It’s an imperfect tool, but with this blog I can, at least, provide a tiny amount of evidence to my reality. I continue on with little purpose other than wanting to provide a testimony of what being a woman can mean, although I do hope that it serves as a reminder that it’s okay not to agree with the system, with the culture, with the way things are. We can choose to talk back, or not talk back, but either way misogyny is happening—in a vast range of ways—and I have a record of events to prove it.
Paige Towers is a writer based in New York City, and her work has appeared in Bustle Magazine, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney's, Midwestern Gothic, Prime Number Magazine, Barnstorm Journal, Catch & Release: the online literary journal of Columbia University, So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, BioStories Magazine, and many more. You can view more here.