The whistling, the licking of the lips and the thirsty comments—navigating the waters of this archaic mode of communication.
You know that feeling: the tingling on the back of your neck; the burning sensation on the tips of your ears; the butterflies rising in your gut.
You’re being watched. Or worse—you’re being followed.
Your body prepares for your next move: Shoulders stiffen. Jaw locks. Heart pounds. You clench your fists and get ready for flight or fight—you’re not sure which. The eyes shift away when you’ve spotted them; the trail ends when you turn around to confront their tail.
Other times, though, you don’t see it coming. Other times, the engagement isn’t just with eyes. Maybe you’re walking down the same sidewalk and there it is.
You’re looking fine.
Hey, baby girl.
(I’m not your fucking baby.)
Whatever they say, it pisses you off. It sets your day on a downward spiral, fucks it right up, makes you disgusted with the weight of the world, the stench of the world, the shit of the world, the goddamn price and the privilege of going outside.
Or maybe…it’s your fault.
Maybe you asked for it. Maybe, you looked available. Maybe, you had the audacity to look like you’re having a good time. Maybe you’re off the sidewalk and—heaven forbid—ordered a drink for yourself and are laughing—laughing!—then, boom, there it is.
“Hey, gorgeous,” they say, leaning in way too close on the same square foot of bar you’ve been leaning on. “What’re you doing here all by yourself.”
It’s not a question: It’s an accusation.
You smell on their breath the bottom-shelf grain mixed with some noxious energy drink that gives them the liquid courage they need to approach you. Part of you feels disgust, another pity, the other outrage—but mostly, you just feel shame. Shame because you were smiling. Shame because you looked available. Shame because maybe in some dark cavern of your mind…you wanted it. Maybe, for some fucked up reason, you needed it.
What the fuck.
You thought that shit was never going to end, that it was the inevitability of being female, that you’d never know what it was like to wear a dress or heels or walk out in public without being told how much you looked like you were asking for it.
But, now…Now, you’re in your thirties. Now, you wear a wedding ring. Now…
Hey! Look at that! The attention stopped! You’re free! Right? Because now the eyes flick from your ass to the glint of your diamond on your hand and they turn away. Now, you’re safe! You’re free! But now: the emptiness. The fear. That fear. Where’d that come from?
Before, that fear had been toward the perpetrator. Now, that fear’s on you. (Now, that fear’s on you.)
Because as much as you wanted to believe you were above needing to be fueled by pejorative and objectifying male attention based on a patriarchal lens that was designed to suit a heteronormative male gaze (you minored in gender studies, for Christ’s sake), the abject howling of testosterone-charged desire and approach of booze-fueled socially normalized entitlement somehow helped you to feel accepted, somehow helped you feel validated. It somehow legitimized your femininity, your virginity, your sexuality, your desire.
Before, you didn’t doubt your worth because you couldn’t escape it.
Now, there is a humiliating yet insidious desire to get back that cheap affirmation. Now that the emptiness is here. What now?
Because something bigger than upperclassmen liberal arts courses has been written inside of you, a social code so ingrained it’s scratching at your DNA festering and waiting for that moment you thought you were free. You thought you were free?
Tonight, you’re out with a girlfriend enjoying some happy hour wine and it’s a warm night and you both have your sundresses on to catch the breeze on your legs out on the patio and actually she’s a couple of years older than you and it’s like they can smell it—she’s single. She’s free.
There’s a crowd of them trailing you, hovering around you like mosquitoes closing in as you move from rosé to gin and tonics, just waiting for you to get just buzzed enough to say “yes” or whatever version of yes they need.
“Hey girls. Can I sit here?” He interrupts your conversation and pulls up a chair, ice clinking in his sweating glass filled with the familiar golden glint of liquid courage. You snarl. She recoils.
And in an instant, you see that familiar burn on her cheeks as her wide eyes fly to you in a panic and you remember that sensation—you recognize that humiliation—you remember the Oh-God-please-tell-me-she-doesn’t-think-I’m-asking-for-it and the Oh-God-do-I-look-like-I’m-asking-for-it?
The humiliation. The shame. Now, you feel something new: Outrage. Understanding. Determination.
In an instant you want to protect her, to shelter her, to tell her you understand, to take away the humiliation, the fear. And you look at her and you look at you both and you realize you know the fuck what? She doesn’t deserve this shit. I don’t deserve this shit. I never deserved this shit. And I don’t need it.
You shouldn’t have to feel like you were asking for something or that you don’t have the right to be alone or that the shit you wear on your ass or your hand conveys some language of availability or property and you shouldn’t have to feel embarrassed or afraid to be out in public or that if this bullshit ever fucking stops it’s somehow a failure on your part as a woman as an object of desire that you’re worth so much more than this.
Because you, you have the right to be out in public. You have the right to feel safe. You’re enough, you know that? (You’re enough, you know that.) And this time, it’s not a question.