if you see something, say something.
CW: street harassment, sexual assault
Lately, I’ve been wondering if cunt is shorthand for woman who doesn’t take bullshit. That, or—if we were living in an alternate universe, as the 2016 U.S. presidential election has me wishing we were—it’s an attempt to normalize female genitalia. When kids scream Vagina! with the same glee as Penis! we’ll know that the future has arrived. “You’re using humor as a defense mechanism,” a friend said when I made this joke. Paraphrased, my response was, Well, duh.
The park we were talking in, incidentally, was also where a former congressman, one who was renowned for the quantity (if not quality) of his dick pics, walked by me on his way to the gym. During the week that followed, it seemed like men everywhere were inspired by him. When I bought apples from a street stand, the man selling them leered at me and said, Sure, baby, the baby glittering in the gold cap of his tooth. I quickly walked away, only to walk past construction workers who waved at my chest. The next day, I was on my way to the subway when a man said to me, Cunt. He didn’t even break his stride.
A few days later, I was in a coffee shop writing when a shadow fell over me. The shadow belonged to a man who wanted to know why I was using two notebooks. I told him they were for my thesis. He pulled his chair next to mine and began talking about the book he was reading. “It’s about grit and resilience,” he explained, before launching into a second explanation about why I needed to focus on the positive, i.e. stop talking about the election.
When I mentioned that a man had recently called me a cunt, he asked me the two questions—What were you wearing? Where were you walking?—that always make me wonder if there is a seminar somewhere called How To Ask Dumb Questions: A Primer! (I was wearing my body that is gendered female, and I was walking in my life, thank you very much.) After assuring me, “Don’t worry, you’re not a cunt,” Mike told me his name and then asked for my number. “I’m leaving the city,” I said at once. “I have to go back to college.” Bye Mike.
The first time that a man earnestly told me his opinion about my cunt-ness, I was 16 and walking to a bus stop. A homeless man asked, Lady, can you give me some money? I kept walking. He swore and said, You’re a cunt, you know that right?
Saturday, the day after Mike, it happened again—only this time, the guy’s name was Rich, and he wanted to take me out to dinner even after I told him I’d just gotten out of a bad breakup. Even better! No pressure, he said. I smiled quickly and told him to have a good day. He took the cue and left.
In Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, Briony, a young girl, stumbles across a love letter addressed to her older sister Celia. The letter writer explains what he would like to do to Celia: cunt is mentioned, but as a site of admiration, of daring and unfettered intimacy. To Briony, however, the word signals a warning about how a body can completely undo another’s. The first time I read Atonement, I was in middle school and didn’t realize that what Briony sees happening between her sister and her lover isn’t rape, but consensual sex. Like Briony, I was just young enough to think myself less innocent than I actually was.
To one man, I was a cunt because I was alive. But to the man who’d asked for money, I was a cunt because I didn’t give him what he needed. I did that because, young as I was, I was already aware that, in the wrong situation, the line between what men need and what men want can evaporate and leave a dangerous desire in its wake. Because of this, I ignore men who talk to me in public. Every time I do, however, I wonder if it’s actually a choice between charity and self-interest that I’m making, or if I’m telling myself that because I need something to believe in, or if there’s even a choice at all—when of course there’s a choice. I’m just tired of the consequences of making the wrong one.
For weeks on end, I dreaded walking to that bus stop. I didn’t know if the man would be there, and if he were, how he would respond. Would he follow through on the threat implicit in cunt and do something? And when he did (my mind pole-vaulted from hypothetical to actual with Olympic ease), how would I respond? I began clenching my hands in my pockets so that I could spring out fully-loaded fists if necessary. This was the point, I imagine, at which I began looking like I was asking for it—it, in this case, being my paranoia.
Though I have been followed home by men in their cars, though a man has shouted at me, in front of a beloved professor, “You’re a pretty girl but ugly on the inside,” though I have had men tell me, when I was ten, that they wanted to “mate” with me, though and through those things, I am beyond grateful that none of that abuse was physical. I am grateful, and disgusted by that privilege, and disgusted that it is a privilege.
Just ask Leslie Jones, an African-American comedian, whose website was hacked in August and whose stream of harassers speaks to the double-bind of racism and sexism that women of color face daily. Hackers posted nude photos of Jones and compared her to Harambe the gorilla, a degradation that escapes white women who also face online harassment. Jessica Valenti, for instance, ends her latest memoir, Sex Object, a beautiful and all-too-familiar meditation on objectification, with a selection of what men online have sent her: diagnoses of mental illnesses, death threats, rape threats, death threats to her six-year-old daughter, rape threats to her six-year old daughter. On their own, those attacks are heinous. And yet, they aren’t loaded with the racist vitriol that people send Jones and other women of color, women whose crime, in the eyes of their harassers, is to be not-white, female, and doing what men do—namely, have a brain and be vocal about it.
In 2013, the World Health Organization reported that one in three women will experience domestic or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Within my family and friends, that statistic is a sham. Every month, it seems, I hear from a woman of whom I’m proud and honored to know about previous assaults, while across generations, my female relatives have been abused and abandoned with such frequency that I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to realize that few men are raised with genuine respect and love for women. Just as I’m wondering if it’s possible to be born white in America and not have a shred of inherited racism, so too am I wondering about men and misogyny—and I say this as a white woman whose best friend is her father.
When I tell friends, particularly male ones, that I loved living in New York this summer, they’re surprised. I’m not: the city taught me that finding joy through something, not because or in spite of it, is not only worth seeking, but also occasionally possible. New Yorkers keep New York Safe and DANGER: MEN WORKING were the two signs I saw most frequently in New York, and even though the irony did not escape me, it was not something that I wanted to read too much into. I did and still do, but because I do not want to build my life through fear, I am trying to live otherwise. I am trying.