I woke up this morning to the tapping of angled rain on my 5th-floor window, sat up petrified and checked to make sure my windowsill hole was still packed full with steel wool. The light raindrops resemble a sound I know too well, the sound of a rodent living just below the surface of the window’s metal ledge. The scratching, clawing, and occasional squeaking finds a way into every noise I hear. However small, I’m sure the sound belongs to something with a pulse. It’s just as terrifying every time.
Having an unwanted intruder does something to your nerves. Rats, mice, roaches. I spent a while thinking about why the small critters are something most of us fear. I came to the conclusion that the fear stems from an uncontrollable invasion of privacy. I cherish my privacy because I can be vulnerable. In solitude, I can remove the façade I put on each day to face the big, bad city. When the bad of the city enters in unsuspecting moments, it’s incredibly threatening.
Once you’ve had a pest problem you feel it everywhere. As I stand on the train platform waiting for the subway I see rats dancing in and out of the tracks. I feel it. I feel eyes on me. These are their streets. They run wild in the city. There’s nothing I can do about it. I hear something approaching. I feel it behind me. A swish. A hand. He grabs my ass and groans. Pests.
My roommate runs in the front door and slams it behind her. She’s visibly shaking. She explains how she was walking to her Uber when a man grabbed her by the elbows, picked her up, and began carrying her in the other direction. She kicked. She screamed. She elbowed and fought. She ran.
Just another Thursday night at our kitchen table, explaining the unwelcome advances that came upon us that day. It’s a relative of the adrenaline we felt when we both jumped on the same kitchen chair, Swiffer in hand as a makeshift weapon, ready to shoo away the little brown critter running around at our feet. But this time, we both knew the threats were more severe. The mouse was smart enough to avoid our traps but the men are cunning and authoritative.
I can’t say “It makes me uncomfortable when you stand so close to me,” because there’s no one else in the elevator. I can’t say “Please stop looking me up and down and licking your lips,” because my subway stop is three away.
I feel abused when he sits in the seat right next to me, not even attempting to hide the fact that he’s looking me up and down. I fake my confidence because it’s the only repellent, acting as if I could fight him off. But I know that no one in this train car would even look up, just as no one said a word on the platform and how no one, even the police standing ideally by, ran to help my screaming roommate.
I’ve taken self-defense. I know how to use my umbrella as a weapon. I’ve even learned a trick with my eyelash curler. I look at the things in my bag as tools. My headphones can be used to choke him. My keys can be used to gouge his eyes.
But I still don’t understand why my defenses are necessary. What is it about my stance that says “come touch me?” What was it about her position that said, “pick me up and take me with you?” I’m sure as hell not provoking it as I’m standing silently, looking at my phone and waiting for my method of transportation. I am not “asking for it” because I’m wearing a dress in the 90-degree summer heat. I feel as if I should cover my shoulders like I still abide by a high school dress code, but I’m not sure when bare shoulders were assigned as a synonym to “I want you to invade my personal space, stranger.” I could be wearing a t-shirt that says "harass me" and that still doesn't grant you permission to come anywhere near me.
I’m used to the wear and tear of the NY streets. The anger. The passion. But these take on a different meaning when eyes and hands are involved. My anger turns to disgust, genuine and raging. His passion turns to cockiness and unsolicited exploration. My calm demeanor turns to fight mode, but my morale is already defeated.
I had always believed flirtatious nature to be harmless and fun. That was before I was called “bubble butt” and “pretty mama” as I walked to class. It was before my friend fell victim to a date rape drug and I had to help carry her home. Before I felt, at 20, I needed to buy a fake engagement ring to wear to bars because a man will respect another man’s property before he respects my own. Now, I’ve decided I’m better off staying home.
But staying home isn't a foolproof plan. My social media and dating apps can be bombarded with unsolicited messages, crude and cringeworthy in execution. Hiding behind a screen makes the predators feel safe, guarded against a slap back or an "Eff you." It becomes clear in these messages that the perpetrators believe they hold the power, that what they desire is more important than my own emotional deterioration. I never asked for photos. I never asked for poorly executed pick up lines. I didn't ask for anyone to invade my personal accounts, the same as my personal space would have been invaded if I went out for the night.
How is that supposed to shape a generation void of self-love? Women live on a fine line between wanting to impress and needing to divert attention. Showing a little skin may make you feel invincible until you're grabbed in the restroom line. Covering up may make you overheat, and it can't be promised that unwelcome advances will be curved. How is a woman to dress for herself, to truly be who she wants to be, while she must plan with safety in mind? It's nearly impossible to embrace who you are when the basic fact that you are a human being is ignored and attacked.
It’s an epidemic, this greed, so overtaking that a man thinks he can take what he wants from me whenever he wants it. How broken must one be to believe they have absolute control over a stranger and their desires? To hear the word “no” and to simply ignore it? Don’t they have mothers? Have they ever felt love? I try to think of an equivalent but my mind draws a blank. There is truly no comparison to the emotion which follows a predator’s unwarranted harassment. It’s hollow and it makes you feel disappointed in yourself, which is the saddest part.
To my sisters who have been attacked, harassed, abused and raped. To my friends who have been drugged, stalked, catcalled and followed. To the women who are too afraid of men to ever go on a date again. Where do we go from here?
How do we go about saving our dignity, our independence, our ability to be seen as intelligent members of society instead of objects? How do we recover when we are perceived as sex toys by every form of media? Women in positions of power are asked questions about their fashion while men in positions of power are asked about business. Men in positions of power are asked about women, about how they can get them all. About what makes a woman worthy. So can will we be taken seriously? When will I be seen as more than a good pair of legs?
Is there a cure? When we are harassed we can verbalize our distaste, but risk being physically abused. We can call the police but may be ignored and written off as paranoid and emotional. We can stick with our friends and go to the parties, but we know all too well that at least one of us will end up in an uncomfortable situation. So what do we do? I really don’t know.
I’ve come to believe there is no happy ending when a man believes he has control over our actions and bodies. There will be no resolution until we convince the predators they are outnumbered; until the men with good hearts stand up for the women on the train platforms and the women walking to their Ubers. Until the men who hold the power begin to talk about and treat women with unchallenged respect and push movements toward equality. There will be no change until everyone, everywhere, believes it is their duty to stand up for those being attacked, physically, verbally and sexually.
But, until then, I’ll hold my mace in my coat pocket and let my eyes size up those behind me in city window reflections. I’ll climb into bed and hear my wall mouse squeak, call him friend, and feel at home. It’s a kind of invasive I’ve come to accept, knowing that it could be much worse. I may not have made it home to hear him squeak at all.