When I graduated from college, I moved to New York City.
This was not the brave If I Can Make it There, I’ll Make it Anywhere stance you might be imagining. I was living in a lovely two bedroom apartment out in posh Forest Hills with a friend and the City was literally crawling with other friends and acquaintances; my parents were a short train ride up to western Connecticut.
Moving to the Big Apple felt SAFE to me.
I had attended a lovely Northeastern liberal arts college and had never experienced anything there that felt like sexual intimidation, let alone assault. I had done Summer Theater while in school with an actor who insisted on walking around the communal dressing room completely naked; believe me when I say, there was no rational reason for him to ever be in that building without at least his underwear on. But that was my only encounter during those years that really made me feel uncomfortable.
Shortly after moving into my new digs, however, I was walking one bright and sunny afternoon down a tree-lined street near the famed tennis stadium when I became aware of a car following closely behind me. I ignored it for a minute or two—probably has nothing to do with me, I thought—until finally, realizing I was alone here with the exception of this vehicle, I hazarded a glance over my shoulder.
There was a nicely dressed man in an expensive convertible with the top down—watching me walk while he openly masturbated.
I’m sure my face must have registered some fear and revulsion, and apparently that was the reaction he was looking for; he came, laughing maniacally, and sped off.
Because I can still picture him so vividly, I realize in retrospect I might have had the presence of mind to make a note of his license plate and report him to the police. But I didn’t do that. I instead, as I continued on my way, I thought with some unpleasant shock: this must be what it’s like to be a girl.
Unfortunately, I was right. During the next two years spent living in Queens and working and doing theater in Manhattan, I often found myself riding the subway home late at night. On more than one occasion, apparently inebriated men who found themselves alone in a car with me after hours treated me to the same behavior as the fellow in the convertible; you can’t understand how long it feels between stops.
Exiting the car as soon as possible, it never occurred to me to look for police; I was always just looking for other people, the safety of a crowd. I figured this was just something that happens.
That this is what it’s like to be a girl.
Working at a restaurant in the financial district I quickly learned that Tom Wolfe’s famed depiction of those men as self-regarded “Masters of the Universe” was very much the truth. We were told to brush off the sexual comments and come-ons as much as possible. If a customer got a little bit too randy, we were allowed to transfer our table to a male waiter (who would pocket the whole tip, no matter how deep into service you were). Keep in mind, this was a classy place—our uniforms were stately, not suggestive.
I just accepted that this was what it was like to be a girl.
When an older, educated man I had been casually dating manipulated me into a sexual encounter, only stopping when I literally fought him off, I told myself it was a misunderstanding.
People of my generation were not taught “no means no.” As a matter of fact, I think a lot of men believed “no” means “she just needs a little encouragement or convincing”. I don’t remember leaving his apartment afterwards; I didn’t tell anyone about it for many years.
I had decided that this was what it was like to be a girl.
When I moved to L.A. shortly afterwards I was thrilled to be out of public transportation and safely ensconced in my own car. One habit I did continue from my New York days was walking whenever possible. Now, I have not lived there in 16 years, so I cannot speak to the culture of the city now, but I can categorically state that in the 90’s it was not at all one of strolling. Everyone drove everywhere; hence the famous Los Angeles traffic.
I had a little studio apartment in the Hollywood Hills that was convenient to most everything on foot and the weather was generally (and also famously) cooperative to this end. I did quickly learn, though, that as walking was not the milieu of most, a girl walking by herself in Hollywood might be mistaken for a prostitute.
All of the time, actually.
You will recall now that the 90’s were the era of “grunge” and will not be surprised to learn that my standard walking uniform was a baggy pair of cutoff jeans, Keds and an oversized flannel shirt that had been my Dad’s. Nevertheless, I was asked on nearly a daily basis if I wanted a “ride.” In fairness, most men had enough self-awareness to look a little ashamed when I turned down this offer. Only once over the course of the years that I lived there do I remember a man getting angry when I told him no; ironically, he was driving an expensive convertible with the top down.
Occasionally the come-on was more elaborate or creative; one guy actually tried to convince me that he was going to get me work as an “underwear model” (didn’t realize this was a niche) if I would come to his place and let him take a few pictures. He pitched this with such confidence that I am confident it had worked for him in the past.
One of my most memorable encounters was with a man in a Jaguar; I was wearing my grunge uniform walking back to my apartment with groceries on a Saturday night. He stopped and asked if I wanted to go to the Four Seasons for a drink. We were on a crowded street, I didn’t feel threatened; I said “no thank you” and foolishly added that I wasn’t exactly dressed for the Four Seasons.
He offered to drive me back to my apartment to change. I then told what I believed was a polite but obvious lie: I already had plans. So he countered that he had sent his girlfriend to Paris on a shopping spree and was “bored and lonely”; he proposed he might take me shopping in Beverly Hills before going to the hotel to sweeten the deal. At this point I said, “You do realize I am not a hooker, right?”
His response was, “Of course. That is why I want you. You are special.”
Then there was the man who offered me an apartment, car, and plastic surgery for the low, low price of having sex with him whenever he liked.
This is what it’s like to be a girl.
And I am a lucky one, because I had a wonderful father and have many, many other incredible men in my life; my good experiences are legion compared to the sorts of things I am talking about here. For all my generalizing and rationalizing that “this is what it’s like to be a girl,” I NEVER believed that these behaviors were generally applicable to men. These are just the bad apples, I told myself.
But now my fellow Americans have elected a man to lead our country who has bragged about this kind of behavior and worse. And it breaks my heart. Because you just taught a whole new generation of women that yes, in fact, this IS what it’s like to be a girl.
And that is fine by you. But you accepted this verdict not only for yourself but for every sister, mother, daughter, friend, wife, girl and woman alive. You didn’t just overlook or accept this behavior; you actually voted for it.
And you wonder why women don’t tell these stories.
You wonder why we don’t call the police, look for support. It’s because we know that chances are good we’ll be told at best tough luck. At worst, our stories will be ridiculed and dissected or we will simply be accused of lying.
This is what it’s like to be a girl and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon.