“I could suck on your toes!”
I turn to look behind me. No, I actually glance furtively out of the corner of my eye; I don’t want him to know that I’ve heard him, that I’ve acknowledged his plea for attention. I see a man in a wife-beater trailing behind me and my friend, and my pace quickens, and sweat dampens my skin at this point. It always does. My heart pitter-patters in my chest. I know that I probably won’t be physically injured, or somehow maimed, but catcalling always manages to get under my skin, quite literally.
When I don’t reply he continues.
“I like chocolate,” he prods.
Jesus, why the fuck won’t he stop? Get the message, bro. I grit my teeth. “Chocolate" is clearly a reference to my race. I have dark skin, darker than mahogany, skin the color of cherry wood. And yes, I may have skin that is somewhat resembles a special-edition Hershey bar, but I am not a thing to be eaten.
I want to leave my body, to shed my skin, to transcend my status as a food-object.
These days, it seems like everyone is a food-object. It’s too common for black and hispanic women to be harassed on the streets of New York City. We know this. A national survey in 2014 showed that black and hispanic women are more likely to experience street harassment. Another study says that black women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace as well. But we need to go beyond the statistics in order to understand the effect that it has on us: The other day, another friend of mine had to stop in a bodega when she noticed that a man had been following her for ten blocks. She made turns, crossed streets, and talked on the phone — loudly — but this man still followed her. He was a shadow that she couldn’t shed. Once she arrived in the bodega, the person behind the counter contacted the police, and the man eventually left, but the experience was still nerve-wracking.
Not all sexual advances are a bad thing. Sometimes we like to be flattered and chased after and called on the phone. But sexual harassment is distinct from this. It’s a game of power, intended to provoke and belittle. Persistently pursuing someone after they have denied sexual advances should not be condoned. There’s a line between an advance and an unsolicited comment, and that line should not be crossed. I want to feel sexually powerful, to walk through the streets wearing whatever I want whenever I want, without fearing people’s reactions.
In this world, when bad things happen to female-bodied individuals, it’s easy to convince ourselves that these things are all in our heads. People say that we’re crazy. People say that catcalls are compliments, that we should be flattered. But, in reality, these experiences are equally normal and terrifying. In 2014, a video called “10 hours of walking in NYC as a woman” was released. It showed a woman with light skin and long black hair walking through the streets of New York city as men openly harassed her. The video caused somewhat of a national firestorm, especially because most of the perpetrators appeared to be men of color. Although many of the criticisms of this video are valid, especially because the woman depicted in the video appeared to be white, it still calls attention to an important problem.
And I know that if you’re reading this, you probably know that these things are issues. But I still want to open up the conversation, because I’m still unsure if — and when — I should react to these things. I want to know how I should assert my body, and become more than a food-object, when these things happen.