Men and Walls

prison from Art Gallery ErgsArt.png

This was shared anonymously on Facebook yesterday:

“Today, I talked back to a man who touched me in the street without my permission. It doesn’t matter what I said. What matters is that he grabbed me by the back of the head, called me a whore, and threw me into a wall. … The details are irrelevant. I will tell you that this happened in the middle of the afternoon. I will tell you that there were onlookers who did nothing to help. I will tell you that as I crawled around on the sidewalk, feeling for my dropped glasses, nobody came to help. I will tell you that as I walked away, shaking, bleeding from my mouth, nobody offered to walk me home. … I will tell you this isn’t the first time.

The angriest I have ever seen grown men is when I have talked back to street harassers. The crooning voice and narrowed eyes instantly morph into shouts and bulging faces, their shoulders expanding like a mast. Men are so loud when they shout; even when I shout back, I hear my voice higher and smaller, and I cannot project enough to cover that embarrassing ring of fear.

I never spoke back because I thought it wise or prudent or bold or empowering for anyone: It was not a thought at all, just an overpowering sense I could not take it one more fucking time. In the moment, I feared if that bludgeoned part of myself was walked over again without a fight, it might never rise again. And the terror of becoming unknown to myself, in those pulsing seconds, overcame the dread of external violence.

These are the “choices” women have on the streets: To speak and confront the violence, or stay silent and interiorize the violence. The violence will be with you one way or the other, pick a poison.  And I was lucky, that beyond the shouting and posturing, and that one wiry man who continued to circle me like a cat for several minutes—that the violence remained in their voices, remained in the postures, remained in the compressed air that followed me home, as I cut a strange pattern of streets, walking and trembling until I could be certain I was not followed.

Recently this woman spoke back and the violence did not stay a posture; it shoved her against a wall and bloodied her mouth. She says, “I expect to get hurt again. I expect to be hit by more men in my lifetime. I expect to be called names and threatened. I anticipate it. It has happened enough for me to anticipate it. And still, I was not prepared.” But one cannot be prepared, unless only leaving home in full defensive gear, never smiling or stopping to admire the rosebushes, just waiting for the next ambush. That is, assuming you have the physical capacity for that pose, and no children or strollers, and also no grocery bags or library books, and no inclination to wander along deserted sidewalks enjoying a long phone conversation with your sister in Pennsylvania.

Alternately, walk with a man who could be perceived as a threat or your lover, or preferably both. Alternately, try to pass for a man. Alternately, spend hours researching whether a knife will make you more or less safe, before making a decision you will forever doubt. Alternately, get dropped off directly at the door. Throughout, shut up or prepare to taste blood in your mouth. Or if none of this appeals, don’t leave your house. Assuming you have a street address, and aren’t one of those homeless women who hides from street violence so effectively that you are also uncounted. We have nothing to say to you.

So here in this 16th year of the 21st century, as people increasingly applaud “choices” for women, I would simply like to ask where these choices reside and how precisely I can access them. Because speaking or muteness, anger or depression, pepper spray or Uber: these are not choices, but coping mechanisms. And as long as the threat of male violence permeates our minds sleeping and waking—seeming as inevitable as the atmosphere encompassing the planet—there can only be the “anticipation of being hurt again,” the angling to get a better view beyond the bars. Squint enough, run hard enough, turn the headphones loud enough, for a moment you can pretend those shafts of steel are not at your elbow. But speak up to the next man getting off at the sight of your fear, and you will remember that cement wall was never far from the back of your head.

Image: Piranesi, “Prisons,” via Art Gallery ErgsArt on flickr