On Boys Being Boys

Rain clouds threatened overhead as I emerged from the subway to greet a chilly breeze sweeping through the street. It was around 11:00 on a Saturday morning, which had been filled with kickboxing and clothes shopping. I had reached my neighborhood with sweat plastering my hair to my forehead, tiredness screaming from my muscles, and accomplishment smiling through my pain. Just one more pit stop before reaching the warm shower and dry sweatpants that awaited me at home, i.e. heaven.

I took a right down Fulton Street and was met with a wave of chatter and festiveness as there was some sort of fair being set up for — complete with a stage and the smoky smell of BBQ. Swerving between wanderers who were picking up free merchandise, I neared a portion of the sidewalk halfway blocked by those not-so-beautiful green plywood construction walls that signify gentrification in this neighborhood. There was a steady flow of foot traffic in both directions creating a two-lane highway on the still usable half of the sidewalk. A man who must have been about 6’5” was coming from the other direction when I noticed his walk shifted from tall and straight to slumped down and leaning toward the oncoming passerby — me. As we passed each other he licked his lips, leaned into my ear, and said, “Hey, pretty.”

Now, I live in New York City. This is certainly not the first time I have been spoken to by men in the street. However, this is the first time that such an encounter has sent shivers up my spine so powerful that I placed my hand firmly on the knife I carry with me. It was the first time that my safety felt truly threatened by a man catcalling me in the street. I can’t put my finger on what was different about it. Perhaps it was his proximity to me, perhaps it was him licking his lips, or perhaps it was his unusually deep voice and the fact that he was a solid seventeen inches taller than I, which made me feel so vulnerable. I can only be thankful that it was daytime and there were hundreds of people around.

Whatever it was, it got me thinking. Until recently, I hadn’t really considered myself a feminist. Sure, I had lukewarm notions that women should be treated as equals to men, but I wasn’t passionate about it. Well, let me tell ya, after so many instances of being disrespected simply because of my gender, I’m fired up about it now!

Equality is a world wherein a woman can walk down the street and not feel the need to clutch her pocketknife. Hell, a world wherein a woman doesn’t need to carry a pocketknife. Equality is a world wherein a woman telling a friend about her sexual assault doesn’t automatically lead to him asking, “How much did you have to drink that night?” Hell, a world wherein a woman doesn’t get sexually assaulted. Equality is a world wherein a woman can say she’s a feminist without getting bashed for ‘hating men’. Hell, a world wherein a woman being a feminist actually means a damn thing.

You see, it hardly matters what I think or what I do because I am meerly a powerless woman. This fact was apparent the day I decided to wear shorts outside and a guy followed me down the block; the night I woke up in my own bed with my pants down and a guy I barely knew trying to insert himself into my life; the night a guy slipped drugs into my drink at a bar and I blacked out for eight hours; the day I got a text from a “secret admirer” who had swiped my number from the bulletin board at work and wouldn’t tell me who he was; the night my dog and I were threatened for walking down my block which a man thought him and his pit-bull owned; and countless other times, the most recent being that Saturday morning when “Hey, pretty.” was breathed into my ear.

These experiences are not unique to me. Ask any woman — or thirteen-year-old girl — in New York if she’s been catcalled and she’ll tell you she has. Ask any woman if she’s ever felt like her safety was threatened by a man and she’ll tell you she has. One in six women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape (Yes, I know, men can be victimized too, but 90% of victims are women.).

What can be done about this? According to every effort I’ve seen, the most useful way to prevent sexual assault seems to be to teach women and girls how to avoid these situations. We can’t dress too scandalously, so: no midriff, cleavage, or, god-forbid, shoulders showing. Our dresses, skirts and shorts can’t be too short or too tight. Those heels? They make us look like we’re asking for it. Red lipstick? Teased hair? Hoop earrings? Don’t even think about it. Basically you should leave your house without showering, brushing your teeth, or changing out of your ratty night clothes. But, wait — I was wearing jeans and a smelly work t-shirt the night I was sexually assaulted…so, how helpful are these tips?

Maybe I should have paid more attention to the tips telling girls not to drink too much. Guys can drink however much they want, but us? We’ve gotta stay sober enough to say, “No.” because, ‘No means no,’ but for some reason being passed out and unresponsive doesn’t also mean no. But, wait — I only had one shot before blacking out the night I was drugged…so, limiting my alcohol intake might not work.

Something tells me that these tips are a little outdated and not at all helpful. So, what can be done about this? I’ve got a brilliant idea!

What if we taught boys that taking advantage of girls is wrong? That consent is a nonnegotiable, that pussy is a privilege, and that even a “yes” must be met with respect. That boundaries are not suggestions, that “no” doesn’t mean keep trying, and that getting their jollies shouldn’t happen at the expense of another human being’s suffering.

What if we took the time to sit down with our boys the first day they realize that girls are made from a different mold and tell them that girls are, in fact, human beings? What if we never gave them the excuse that ‘boys will be boys’? What if we taught them to treat women with respect — not because they’d want to see their sister, mother, or daughter treated that way, but because women are human beings?

Men don’t disrespect women because somebody sat them down as a kid and said, “Women are scum. Treat them as such.” Men disrespect women because nobody sat them down and said otherwise. Sit down with your son. Tell him the truth. Tell your daughter, too, for she may have been led to believe otherwise.

Say “Women are equal to men. Treat them as such.”