Sex and the Ivy

Catcalls and Final Straws

Filed under: Feminism, Women — Elle September 1, 2006 @ 7:33 pm

When I first put fingers to keyboard yesterday, I wrote knowing that my experience wasn’t a unique one. But it was only after reading comments and receiving feedback that I realized just how prevalent it was. I’m not sure whether the responses have been more uplifting or disheartening. On one hand, a lot of girls – too many of my close friends to count – share my fears and concerns. On the other, there’s a certain solidarity in knowing that you have support in confronting these obstacles. I’m speaking for a lot more frustrated women than I thought.

I want to clarify a few things. It’s pretty obvious that I hold some feminist beliefs. At the same time, I wouldn’t identify myself as a feminist, because there are many aspects of my life that don’t align with feminism at all. That being said, I think people need to understand that what I’m discussing here isn’t about feminism and isn’t even about equality. Rights, fair wages, and non-discriminatory policies are all good and fine – but sometimes I worry that in pursuit of these very worthy causes, society is forgetting about the most basic courtesies, the everyday actions that are the best indication of how women are really viewed in the world.

I think JB’s comment is the most telling. From a non-female perspective, it seems that women have all the same rights and opportunities as men. With affirmative action and diversity programs, some might even argue that women have certain advantages. But it’s only when you look beneath the surface and walk in our shoes that you realize how difficult it can sometimes be to live as a woman.

Although I’m not exactly known for being complacent, I’m hardly violent or belligerent either. Until yesterday, the single physical altercation I have ever been involved in occurred on a playground. My reaction on the bus was pretty uncharacteristic. It is far more likely that I would have simply not said anything at all and moved away had the crowd permitted. But I think the reason why I chose to lash out instead was because I had finally had it. The anger I’ve accumulated over the course of many years reached a boiling point when that man violated me. He wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last, but at that moment, he was the one thing I could fight back against. That’s why I yelled at him, that’s why I kicked him, and that’s why I wouldn’t have stopped if it wasn’t for the bystander who calmed me down. Considering my stature and physique, I was hardly in any position to do real damage, but if I could’ve done real harm, I would’ve. I wanted to draw blood yesterday. I wanted him on the floor. I wanted my heel on his neck. I wanted him to feel the way he and other men have made me over and over.

You hear stories on the news all the time about women who kill their boyfriends and husbands because they’ve been physically or emotionally abusive. I’ve always written these women off as mentally unhinged, but on some level, I think I can understand. I don’t want to kill anyone but like them, I’m sick of being a victim. I try not to feel like one, I try not to live like one, yet time and time again, someone does something to remind me that I am one.

When I was 12, I sat down on the floor of my local library beside Rolling Stone archives and thumbed through an issue about the Backstreet Boys. Shortly after, a man took a seat next to me and opened a magazine in a manner that allowed the back of his hand to touch the side of my breast. I shifted. He opened his magazine wider. I shifted again. He did right along with me. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know how to. I wasn’t sure if I was just paranoid. I didn’t want to make a scene for no reason. But I left that situation feeling at fault for letting myself be victimized.

I’m 19 now, fully grown, a Harvard student, and headed toward a promising future. I lead meetings, I head organizations, I take on enormous responsibilities. But every so often, I feel like that 12-year-old again. You might say that the guy on the bus and the man from the library are predators, exceptions in the grand scheme of things. But what about men who catcall at underage girls? What about the frat boy culture that permeates male-dominated workplaces? What about guys writing off their female coworkers as “bitchy” when they try to lead like them? Every one of these situations leave me feeling just as helpless and without recourse as I did all those years ago on the library floor.

The man on the bus may have crossed the line in a way that most people wouldn’t dare, but everyday many men toe that same line. I’m not saying that every guy does, but enough guys engage in that behavior to make a significant portion of women uncomfortable. I’m tired of being dehumanized and objectified by lewd glances and come-ons. I’m tired of feeling intimidated and scared when walking alone on the street. The reason the man on the bus thought he could touch me was because men escape unpunished for degrading women all the time. What happened yesterday was not his fault alone. His crime falls on the shoulders of an indifferent society.

8 Responses to “Catcalls and Final Straws”

  1. Frances Says:

    Alright, I confess: I read your blog at least on a weekly basis, not because I really agree with anything you say, but it’s just said so well that I don’t mind reading it; on the contrary, I seek it out.

    I thought sexual harrassment was just something you kind of have to live with when you live in a place where 60% of the population is illegal aliens from, like, Nicaragua. It really surprises me that you have to deal with the same bullshit 3000 miles away.

    I have no problems with people using the term “bitch” or making sexist comments at all, and I usually laugh of comments from lowlife butchers and sketchy old men about how much milk my body must be capable of producing. I have to admit that sexism is a big part of what’s helping me keep my job now (you’d be surprised how desperate sports guys are to have female counterparts that are under 60), so me talking feminism would be totally hypocritical. Plus, I hate feminism; I can’t shake the stereotype of a feminist as a bitter lesbian who couldn’t find a job as a plumber.

    Pushing all that to the side, which I know is where we part ways, I just want to say that I’m really proud, as a woman, of what you did on that bus. It isn’t the behavior I would’ve expected from you (granted I don’t know you very well), and I think you did exactly the right thing. I’m not going to say that if everyone acted like that, sexual harrassment would disappear, but if you can do that, other women will feel capable of defending themselves, too. Not just that; you acted like that once, and next time it will be easier to defend yourself, until it comes to the point that you yourself feel stronger, and you’ll forget that you were once afraid.

    I promise I won’t leave comments this long ever again. Keep up the good work.

  2. elle Says:

    It’s precisely because you don’t agree with anything I say that I particularly value your comment. I’m glad that what I did on the bus was something you were proud of. I think when I wrote the entry detailing the incident, I gave the impression that I felt a lot more victimized than anything. The truth is I felt scared all day after it happened.

    It really wasn’t until I read your comment that I’ve begun to feel otherwise. For all my continued concerns and fears, perhaps I did set an example — not just for others but for myself as well. You’re right. Fighting back, no matter how fleeting the satisfaction, is the only way to eventually overcome feelings of helplessness.

    Thanks for the insight.

  3. Maggie Says:

    Ok, so I just have to tell you…I”M SO PROUD OF YOU!!!! I’ve seen you grow so much this past year and hearing that you defended yourself like this makes me want to jump up with joy and yell, “WHITE RUSSIAN WEDNESDAY came early this week!” Seriously, though, I am very proud of. You haven’t always fully displayed your protests against the chauvinistic tendencies that unfortunately fill our society, but I knew that you were starting to more and more aduring the last semester. This is the exact situation in which it fully bloomed. I love you!

  4. jeane Says:

    it makes me depressed when i think about these things because it feels like there’s no solution at all. it’s not against the law for men to do this us. i wish it were. i hate being violated.

  5. wendy Says:

    i agree with nearly everything you said.

  6. wendy Says:

    really, i sound like that 12-year-old girl. i sort am. i haven’t grown at all.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Okay…. I read the Blog, Nice site I found and I bookmarked the site… Plan on coming back later to spend a little time there.

  8. Jennifer Says:

    Frances, you give women a bad name. You put up with sexist and degrading comments from men and use your sexuality to stay at your job. Also, you’re pathetically naive if you actually believe that a feminist is a “bitter lesbian who couldn’t find a job as a plumber”. And why the negative connotation about lesbians? What’s wrong with lesbians? You must be one of those people that believes they all are a bunch of macho manhaters. It doesn’t take a genius to come up with that trite stereotype. Also, if looks matter so much to you why don’t you check out feminist websites like and feministe? The women there pretty much fit the conventional standard of beauty. Can you imagine? feminists can actually be pretty and not manhaters. I know it’s hard for ignorant people like you.

Leave a Reply