Before I had a boyfriend, I was terrified to go anywhere by myself. During my mid to late teens, I was subjected to catcalls almost every time I went out alone. From men old enough to be my grandfather in mall food courts to married 40-year-olds in semi-trucks, I felt like a target in the presence of men. It’s a talent really, the way men you’ve never met can so effectively show you your body through their eyes. The way a man can diminish you until you are made of only a pair of legs, one butt, and a couple of boobs. Overtime, I began to think that men only desired me in a sexual manner. I thought that my body was the one thing that defined me in the eyes of men and that I would never be the girl who found a man who appreciated her for her brain or her personality. And I accepted my fate, I stopped expecting romance and began to grapple with the harsh reality I found myself in.
The first time it happened, I was 15. The last time it happened, I was 19. And I blamed myself every time. Not because of what I was wearing, which was oftentimes jeans and a tshirt, and not because I “brought it upon myself.” I blamed myself because I was never brave enough to stand up to the men who claimed my body with a single glance. I never yelled, never threw a fit, never called for help. I simply walked (or sometimes ran) away, trembling with fear and a kind of rage only women know. The most I ever did was report an elderly man who had made obscene noises and gestures towards me to the mall security office. This was one of the first times I was ever catcalled, so I still had hope that justice or repruccusions would come from my courage to speak up. The officers took me relatively seriously, until they saw the man I was accusing, who was a veteran in a wheelchair. I was told there was nothing they could really do after I watched the man passionatley defend himself to the officers from affar. Did they believe my accusations? I want to say yes. I want to say they were put in a hard situation and made the best choice they could. But truthfully, I think most men stand up for other men. I think most men are conditioned to believe other men over women. And I think those officers were doing just that.
Once, while my dad waited in the car, I was verbally harassed in a Subway restaurant. I ran out of the store, sandwich bag in hand, sobbing. As I ran through the parking lot, the man yelled “have a good day, sweetheart,” and for some reason, that is the one thing I can’t get out of my head. Yes, it is possible for a man to politely harass you. For a man to catcall you but still have manners. There is a certain point when compliments become violence. There is a certain point when admiring someone’s body becomes inhumane. After finally coaxing the story out of me, my dad called the restaurant and angrily reported the homeless man who cornered me by the soda machine. I told him not to. I don’t know why really, maybe because I knew they would believe him. Maybe because I knew they would take the action that had never been taken for me. Maybe because I knew his male voice over the phone would carry more conviction than my female one could ever.
In 2019, things changed. I met my current boyfriend, Greg, who instantly made me feel safe. And no that’s not because I need a man to protect me or because I was lonely or weak or incomplete without him. It’s because I haven’t heard a single catcall for almost a year. I can walk through the grocery store without men making kissing noises at me. I can go to a restaurant and eat peacefully, without a man “complimenting” my ass. And sure, there’s still the stares, the up-and-down looks, sometimes even a slight comment. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can finally relax while running errands or having a day out. As much as it bothers me, it’s nice to feel protected by the man I love. It’s also nice to live a life free of catcalls, even if it is only because I have a man by my side.
Over time, as my boyfriend and I started going places together more often, I came to realize that my newfound safety wasn’t due to the fact that I had become invisible to the entire male species or that every man in the world was scared my boyfriend would beat their ass if they so much as looked at me. The truth is that men respect men. Most men respect other men more than they will ever respect women. This is the part that bothers me. When the average catcaller sees me out with Greg, does he automatically think of me as property? Does he think it would be wrong for him to catcall me not because I deserve respect, but because my boyfriend does? There are women who have stories about men who catcall them while they are with their male partners, and then upon noticing the boyfriend, apologize. They apolgoize to the boyfriend. The more I think about this, the more I realize that although the catcalls have stopped, the discrimination most likely has not. Sexism can be silent, sneaky even. Men who would normally catcall me now resist the urge because they would never disrespect another man and something that belongs to him. They keep their mouths shut with deference because they recognize my boyfriend, his maleness, and his privilege.
Sometimes, I look at Greg and wonder if I should hate the fact that his presence alone makes me safer. But the truth is, I’m still not safe. Women in this world are never safe. Just because the verbal harassment I was so used to experiencing has now gone silent, does not mean discrimination has dissapeared all together. It simply means that I am feeding off of my boyfriend’s privilege. Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Now that I have Greg, have I escaped the possibilty of sexism? No. Have I escaped the threat of death that Margart Atwood so bluntly describes? No. However, I now have somewhat of an understanding as to why a man by my side makes me feel safer. I now have the position to see my experiences differently, and if I’m lucky, to work through both my own femininity and the hardships that come with it. There are complexities to even the most traumatizing situations. There are layers within every relationship. Women deserve to feel safe, even if that safety is only present because of the man standing next to her. With safety, however it is obtained, women can begin to change the world. We can begin to find real security that comes not from the presence of men, but within ourselves.
Read personal essays, poems, and other casual, unpublished work about my life here.