For a story so disturbing, I loved this wry account from one woman of the world we live in, which is, as many women know, a rape culture. You know you want to read this New Yorker piece by Mary Karr, because it's really funny and has a sort of happy ending.
Or the kind of happy ending we're allowed, these days.
On a spring day in recent memory, I was strolling up Ninth Avenue alone, after leaving a bistro lunch with a gentleman caller and my soon-to-finish-N.Y.U. son. It was sunny but not yet steaming. Businessmen had their ties tugged loose or suit jackets slung over their shoulders. There were floral frocks and filmy blouses among the adorably pierced and punked-out goths of Hell’s Kitchen. I could almost feel the financial yoke of my son’s college tuition slipping off my neck.
Then an approaching guy chatting equably with a tall friend dodged at me to grab my crotch. I don’t mean brushed by it maybe accidentally; I mean he grabbed between my legs with a meaty claw, big as a waffle iron. He also called me the C-word with breath that stank of beer. Then he passed on into a sandwich shop with his buddy.He wore a royal-blue plaid short-sleeve shirt you might find in a J. Crew ad, nicely hemmed jean shorts, and pricey sneakers. He was half my age and twice my weight and had the wide, muscled form cultivated by Equinox aficionados. Translation: he wasn’t dope sick or a flat-out loon.
In case you haven’t been on the receiving end of this sort of assault, you should know the primal physiological response it evokes—in this woman, anyway. The stomach drops, as if you’ve been shoved backward from a skyscraper and are flailing through space. Time dismantles. There are more frames per second, and people’s facial features become very specific. This guy had a squashed-down forehead, wide-set eyes, and heavy but neatly waxed brows.
Cops later told me my description was uncannily detailed—the result, I think, of the kind of change in perception post-traumatic-stress experts call “hypervigilance.” The reptilian area of the brain jolts you either to do battle or to bolt. Adrenaline and cortisol juice through you like a hit of meth, so you might find yourself still up and jittery at 4 a.m. (maybe even watching something as god-awful as “Waterworld,” the way I later did).
I stood outside the doorway of the sandwich shop—pulse pounding in my ears, my heart doing mule kicks in my chest. Inside, the Grabber, as I thought of him, was waiting in line to order a sandwich. He was fine; I was the one with the problem.
Shame hit, a cold backwash of elemental shame: something bad had been done to me; therefore I was bad. Even though I knew better, I started scanning for how I’d incited this. Pedestrians glided past. A sandwich was being made. I took stock of what I had on: in some ways, I wish I had been wearing booty shorts and Lucite heels and prissing past the Port Authority Bus Terminal holding my décolletage in my hands and saying “hubba hubba.” I should be able to dress that way if the urge possesses me.
Instead, I was wearing a modest dress and platform slides with big cork soles to save the feet from pounding concrete. For an instant, the shoes looked radiantly slutty, the old-maid equivalent of dominatrix spikes. I was drenched in sweat, and part of me wanted to bolt the two blocks to my apartment, scramble up the stairs, double-latch the door, and crawl behind some heavy furniture. But inside all that noise in my head, some space bar got hit, and a moment of quiet opened up.
One good side effect of a childhood as chaotic as my own is that I’ve worked up habits that can pay off in the middle of a butt-whipping. (I take twenty minutes of silence morning and night, and I see a therapist.) While the Grabber paid for his tidily wrapped sandwich, I noticed all the young women passing by—some, yes, in booty shorts, and with bodacious tatas—and I thought, If this sick bastard will do this to me in broad daylight, what’s he doing to these young’uns at 3 a.m.? My mind shuffled through the myriad times that run-ins like this had happened before. Then I came to and shouted from the doorway, “Not today! Not this bitch! You picked the wrong woman to fuck with today!”
The counter guy, bills in hand, craned around the line to see the madwoman outside. As the Grabber half-turned, the size of him shocked me and I backed away farther, to the other side of a parking meter, where my eyes could still shoot flying cartoon daggers at his broad back, albeit with some yardage between us.
Then a voice rose from the sidewalk. “What’d he do?” It was a man on a rectangle of cardboard you might normally step around.
“He grabbed”—polite words didn’t seem fierce enough, and the gross ones struck me as obscene—“my private zone!” This was the name my kid’s grade-school teacher had used for any area covered by a bathing suit: private zone.
So many guys might shrug it off: What’s the big deal? This one jutted his jaw out, saying, “He cain’t do that” with such fire that I started dialing 911. In a moment, I was on with a police dispatcher, describing the Grabber as he got his change and hustled out of the shop with his friend. They ignored me and started to get away, walking fast toward the bus station. My new friend on the cardboard said, “Go, go, go!” and I started to trot. They broke into a sprint, outpacing me right off.
Around Forty-first Street, a cop car pulled up, and I hopped in and recounted it all as they peeled out like they do on “Law & Order.” The female officer riding shotgun radioed the description I gave her to other cops, who nabbed him and hauled him, handcuffed, before me outside the Port Authority. “That’s him!” I said. He was blank-eyed, as if this whole thing were happening to somebody else. His buddy was amped up, though, claiming his friend hadn’t done anything. I shot back that that was horse hockey—yes, he had—and the buddy walked off as an officer put the Grabber in the back of a cruiser.
How satisfying was all this? Very.
En route to the station, the female officer looked back through the cage: Did I need counselling? I told her I’d had enough counselling to chase the sucker up Ninth Avenue.
I only wanted to press charges.
I filed a report. Later they told me the guy was a thirty-something from Jersey. He had a light rap sheet with no record of sexual assault. Nobody ever called me to court, but the cops had cuffed him, dragged him out of the bus station, and booked him. A woman should be able to count on follow-through from the justice system—they’d eventually fail to charge him—but at least he spent a night at Rikers. At the time, I felt somewhat vindicated.
For days after, I kept chewing on what thrill the Grabber got from his move. It just won’t translate to my gender. There are plenty of guys I might fancy kissing on the mouth, but to grab a passing one in the crotch and say, nice package? One pal joked, “Oh, yeah, try it,” suggesting that, for men, any sexual overture is welcome. I asked how he’d feel if a fellow weighing three-forty cornered him somewhere isolated and manhandled him. Suddenly this struck him as way more sinister.
Statistics show that nearly twenty per cent of women in the U.S. have been raped at some point in their lives, and around forty-four per cent of women have reported some other kind of sexual violence. But I suspect that the figure is more like a hundred per cent for women who will have endured things many men might consider minor—an unwelcome penis pressed against your leg at a party; being humped at the water cooler; being fondled, lunged at, felt up, squeezed, rubbed against. Verbal assaults few try to count. I’m glad to have aged out of the days when every street worker or blunt-puffing idler was part of a masculine gantlet I had to clear.
Since ending a ten-year relationship this fall, I’ve been subject to several gropings and gross jibes of the type you’d expect behind a junior-high gym dance, and they’ve been delivered by grownups, putative pals, not one of whom I even dimly considered getting jiggy with. Did they think that coarsely describing some body part or restraining me in locked arms or bending me over furniture would help to bed me? A few tried to say that at my age I should be flattered.
Not all offenses hurt the same way. Crude cracks seldom overwhelm the way a physical attack can. Nor are the sloppy lunges of somebody at a well-lit party as intimidating as some random dude grabbing you in an alley. One girlfriend of mine had a stranger in a first-class cabin turn his computer to show her snakes coming out of a woman’s private zone. It deeply upset her. “Some things you just can’t unsee.” At a Thanksgiving dinner where I hosted my son and his fiancée, a boorish guest showed everybody smartphone shots he’d taken of a woman’s breasts. (I told him that if I wanted to look at boobs, I’d go to a titty bar.) The point is: even a boundary violation mild enough to invoke nudges and winks among less sympathetic people can leave you feeling slimy.
Underlying all these actions exists the apparently unshakable tenet that any expression of male sexuality is somehow normal and every man’s right, whether or not a woman on the receiving end is repulsed or upset by it. All of us—male and female—envision all manner of erotic encounters without acting them out. But many of my male friends brush aside the behaviors that women find truly scary, the kind we know from experience can be the prelude to a nasty or even dangerous run-in. And something in the repetition of these behaviors—and in the culture’s blindness to the insult—wires itself into your body fibres and instills a debilitating sense that you’re not quite safe walking around.
My therapist—less a how-do-you-feel-about-that nodder than a wry commenter on my human comedy—didn’t argue with my estimate that all women have been to some degree sexually assaulted (as she was, as every one of her female patients over thirty-plus years has been). “It’s nothing you’re doing,” she said, adding that guys who force themselves on ninety-year-olds don’t target them for how hot they are but for how easily overpowered.
My own pet opinion is that the guys who make creepy comments on the street or grab you or constantly seek to reassert sexual possibilities in ways that make you uncomfortable aren’t just oafs. They seem to get a perverse thrill from mortifying you. That’s why I chased the Grabber down. It bothers me to say that it took a man’s urging to give me the gumption. Still, I’ve often wanted to find that guy living on a piece of cardboard, to thank him.
No matter your chromosomal sex, let us all be the wrong woman you picked to fuck with today.
Let us all be not-this-bitch.
It's also International Day of the Girl Child Day.
Think about that.
If you know how to think.
May you only be a man who has only boy children, so you never have to learn how to think. Because thought is hard. And you might have to change your mind. Or learn something. Or learn anything.
I don't need to be a parent or a husband to a female member of our species to value the other sex or defend her against singular or epidemic expressions of sexual predation or assault.
We need to have compassion for women, support, nurture, and celebrate them, because we are all people, they are people, and all people should be given a real chance to thrive. Plus, as Tony Kushner wrote, it's harder for women.
Have a nice day in the Patriarchy, everyone, it's the International Day for the Girl Child Day!--it's like Labor Day for girls! And there never was a more delightfully clunky, cross-multiple-languages expression of support for women--or people--that I can I imagine.
Have a great day.