Not Just Hello

There has been a lot of much needed discussion about street harassment lately.  I have my stories.  Yes, all women have these stories.

The first time I experienced street harassment I was a 13 year old girl.  They may have thought I was older, because I developed faster than all of the other kids, I was chubby, and I was tall.  I was walking down a country road in my home town and they were in a truck.  The truck slowed and they started saying things to me.  There were three or four of them.  I kept walking and they drove slowly beside me yelling sexual, threatening, and insulting things at me until I ran.  I ran off the road and into the woods.  It was incredibly terrifying and put me off walking outside for many years.

Later there was another somewhat similar incident in the same town.  I was older, had graduated from high school, had an apartment in the same small town, and was walking home from work at night.  Again, some men in a vehicle slowed beside me and started yelling things.  I walked, then ran, to get away from them as they followed me in the vehicle.  But I was afraid to go home, lest they know where I live.  So I ran to a friend’s apartment and escaped them.

Soon after that I moved out of that town.  I will never go back there.  Them country boys scare me.  Yes yes I know.  Not all men.  Tell that to thirteen year old me.  Tell that to the woman who is so terrified her heart is going to beat out of her chest.  Explain it away.  Tell me it was meant as a compliment.

I have other stories, of course.  But none scared me the way those two incidents did.  Once I lived in the city, having strange men say things to me became par for the course.  I would sometimes yell back, tell them to go fuck themselves.  I would sometimes ignore them and keep walking.  Occasionally I would come up with a witty response on the fly.  But generally these things now happened in areas with street lights and other people and I felt relatively sure that I wasn’t about to get grabbed and dragged off somewhere for I don’t want to think about what.

I still get harassed today.  I’m almost forty and I’m hoping to soon be old enough that they leave me alone, as some of my older friends say happens to them.  They tell me how relieved they are to be past the age where men find you a good target to yell “Hey baby, I want to fuck that ass baby, why you ignoring me baby, you fucking stuck up bitch!”

I’m still chubby too so that invites another kind of harassment.  One time, as I was walking down a city street, I walked past a man who looked at me like he wanted to murder me and said “If my wife was as fat as you I would divorce her.”

I have never had any man yell something at me that could even vaguely be considered a compliment.  Mostly it was very vulgar sexual talk, or talk about my body- my tits, my ass.  Or it was something insulting about being fat.  Of course, being fat gives me bigger tits and ass, so you see how the two subjects are related.  Often times it starts as a “hey I want to do ___ to your ___” then when I don’t respond, it becomes insults or threats.

Only one time did a man actually grab me, and I shoved that asshole so hard he fell on his back and whacked his head on the sidewalk.  I didn’t stick around to find out if he was alright.

When I see men defending street harassment, they always make it out like it’s just innocuous compliments. “Aw, I’m just trying to tell you you look good, why can’t I tell you that?”  Yeah.  No.  That’s not what it is and we all know that.

That incident that happened when I was 13, I know it could have been a lot worse and for a lot of women it is much, much worse.  After that, I found myself considering what men might say to me or try to do to me if I dared to do something risky like leave my house.  No, it did not keep me from living life, but it was always there in the back of my mind.

How many times have I looked over my shoulder?  How many times have I crossed the street to avoid walking close to a group of men or even one man?  How many times have I felt my heart pound and race in my chest? Too many to count.  Those experiences colored my whole life.

It’s not just hello.  Almost every woman can tell you.


Covert Jesus Party

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania dominated by Born Again Baptists. The first friend I met in elementary school happened to belong to a particularly devout family. Elisa was a very smart little girl with a caustic wit and sarcastic sense of humor. She could deliver a joke with a deadly serious tone that frequently went right over everyone’s head. I loved her for that.

Elisa was not allowed to play with Barbies, which were the popular toy of all our peers. I have never known the exact reason for this, though I suspect it had something to do with Barbie’s sexy appearance. So instead we would play Ghost Barbies using imaginary dolls when her parents weren’t looking, being very careful not to get caught. Talking about Ghosts (aside from the Holy Ghost) was also against her parents’ strict beliefs.

Looking back, I am surprised they let us play together at all. As a child of divorce, I was already on the goodchristian blacklist. I did not attend Their Church. But worse than that, my family was very sporadic in our attendance of any church at all. When my mother did take us to the Lutheran church, she did so “just in case it was true,” which is also the reason I was baptized. It was clear that Mom didn’t really believe any of it, although she kept an open mind. Nobody in my family was particularly religious except my paternal grandmother and she kept that to herself. We were godless heathens, through and through.

Anyway, some of my earliest interactions with proselyting Christians were through Elisa. She firmly believed that it was her duty to attempt to convert me, lest I go to hell. I firmly believed it was all nonsense. Despite all of the differences between us, we remained friends. Even when I declared my defiant atheism and refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance because of the God line, we remained friends. Years later, I attended her wedding, where she walked down the aisle in a White Dress and meant it. All along I secretly hoped that Elisa would go off to college and go buck-wild. She was too smart for all this nonsense, I thought. But it never happened. Elisa went to a Christian college, met a Christian husband, and is now raising three adorable Christian children. She seems pretty happy and for that I am happy. I am also secretly disappointed in a small way. Elisa would have been an amazing heathen.

I attended several events sponsored by her church throughout my childhood but one stands out in my memory.

I remember the excitement of being invited to a party at Elisa’s house with lots of other little girls and boys. This must have been around the fifth grade and parties were the highlight of our lives. It was not a birthday party though, and I thought this quite strange. Parties were generally for birthdays.

In many ways the party seemed like any other children’s party. There were snacks and balloons, decorations and cake, party favors and music. Then mid-way through the celebration, we were told it was time to watch a movie. So we gathered around the TV and VCR and Elisa’s mom pressed play.

The movie turned out to be a film about Satan and his evil plot to destroy humanity. Satan had a little impish demon helper slave that was wreaking havoc on the world and reporting back to his master with the news. It wasn’t a cartoon; it was live action. Satan and the imp were puppets I guess. Or maybe Satan was an actor with a horrible mask. At one point the imp said to Satan “Yes master, everything is going according to plan! People are reading their horoscopes and having abortions. It won’t be long now!” I didn’t know what an abortion was.

After the movie ended, we were asked to stand in a circle. Elisa’s father told us that all we had to do to be Saved was accept Jesus into our hearts and we would go to heaven! So one by one, we were asked if we accepted Jesus into our hearts. Most of the responses were not memorable as the majority of the kids were already a part of their church or another Christian church and they had already been indoctrinated to give the acceptable response. One girl, Marissa, who was partially deaf, broke down in tears because she felt that God had forsaken her by giving her a disability. “Why doesn’t God love me?” she wailed pitifully. The Christians comforted her and assured her that God had a plan for her and she should know that God loves all his children and she accepted Jesus into her heart through sobs and tears. Personally I thought it was a valid question. If God was so all powerful, why would he choose to make people suffer?

And then it was my turn.

“Do you accept Jesus into your heart?” Elisa’s father asked.

“No.” I said.

“Why not?” he replied with concern.

“Because I do not believe in God.” I said.

They didn’t seem prepared for this answer, so after some hemming and hawing, they moved on to the next child. Like dutiful Baptists, they continued to invite me to church things. I went to some of them, because I liked Elisa and found it to be an interesting experience. I went to quite a few churches, as a matter of fact, of my own accord. I was intrigued by them and their differences and similarities. I read the entire Bible (it was incredibly tedious and boring.) But never for a second did I waver in my belief that it was all a bunch of bullshit.

Elisa and I remained friends. Despite the bait and switch from fun-party-time to coerced-Jesus-time, I recall that party as a fun event and I laugh at fifth grade me. I was already so determined that all of these people were deluded on every level and living life for a non-existent God of an imaginary heaven, an opinion that has never left me to this day.


You Aren’t a Girl Unless You Wear a Dress

When I was a little girl, I loved to run around outside in our country backyard wearing nothing but my “ruby necklace” made of shiny red plastic beads. I liked to play with my brother’s toys, especially anything that involved building blocks or digging in the yard. We played outside all the time, catching salamanders in the stream that ran behind our house, a variety of bugs, and little frogs in the yard. I liked finger painting and making a big mess with Play-Doh. I never wanted to be a princess or play with baby dolls. Baby dolls seemed ugly to me. I didn’t know what you were supposed to do with them.

Photos of me from this time show that I wore adorable little Osh Kosh overalls, corduroy pants, and rainbow stripes. I was a quintessential child of the 80’s. I loved Punky Brewster. We shopped at the thrift store.

But like many children, I was sensitive to the opinions of my peers. My memories of being a child are like clear focused spots in a sea of black fog. I remember very few specific moments. One memory that stuck with me, thirty years later, is being teased by the most popular girl in my kindergarten class.

Even then, I remember being aware that there were popular kids and that I was not one of them. I didn’t grasp the nuances of this until much later, but even as children too young to understand things like class, the popular kids were the rich kids. They had the coolest toys and clothes. They were already indoctrinated with the idea that they could and should get everything they wanted at all times and they had the propensity to act like spoiled little brats because of it.

I don’t remember her name but I remember that she was an adorable pushy little Asian girl with long shiny black hair and many fancy expensive-looking dresses. On the day when this memory took place, she was wearing a dark red velvet dress with lacy white trim, white tights, and shiny patent leather maryjanes. She had taken her place atop the jungle gym and declared herself the Queen of the playground. There was a social order to recess, you see; only the Queen was allowed to sit on the top. How do kids learn to do things like this so early? We must have been five or six.

I was wearing brown corduroy overalls, a colorful striped shirt and sneakers. I also had very long hair, but it was plain and brown and frequently a tangled mess. I was playing on the jungle gym and climbed high enough to be close to Her. This is the distinct part of the memory: She hung down from one of the top bars by her knees, so that she was upside-down, her face framed by her beautiful long shiny hair, looked me dead in the eye and tauntingly said:

“You’re wearing pants! That means you are a boy. If you were really a girl, you would wear a dress!” Then she laughed at me.

This was very confusing. I knew that I was a girl and my brother was a boy, in the most basic way children know such things. Nobody had ever tried to tell me that there were things I had to do to be a girl, I thought you just were what you were. I knew how my brother’s body was different than mine and that was what made him a boy. If I didn’t wear a dress, would I grow boy parts?  Would I be like my brother? I was shy when I was a little kid, and easily embarrassed and upset. I did not like people making fun of me.

The next day, I threw a massive temper tantrum and insisted that I must wear a dress to school. The memory ends there, but my mother later told me that I would not wear pants anymore that year, I insisted on always wearing a dress so that I would be a girl.