“She had gone along with what the piano teacher wanted because she felt sorry for people who wanted things so badly.” – Alice Munro, "Corrie"
There was a time in my 20s when I felt obliged to respond to any man who was interested in me. If a man turned to look at me in the street, I checked my posture, maybe walked a little sexier; if he smiled, catcalled, whistled, hissed or made kissy noises, I smiled. Otherwise, I was self-possessed and independent, didn’t rely on men, had a great job and was basically a feminist without knowing it.
I thought of those street oglers as weak, giving into juvenile impulses, and like Alice Munro’s protagonist, I felt like the one with restraint and power. This, of course, is crazy logic. But because I had been a sexualized child, seeming to make men weak because of my female body, it was deeply ingrained in me that sex was my most important attribute. To be hooted at was as if my best trait was being acknowledged, like a teacher might commend a good student.
Around 1980, before the days of caller ID, I got an obscene phone call that started with heavy breathing and then “dirty” words muttered in a vaguely English accent. I listened quietly and neither hung up nor spoke. There was a moment of silence and then I said, “What do you want?” He repeated his nasty words and threw in a couple of sex acts. It was trite, run-of-the-mill stuff.
“No, what do you really want?” I said. He hung up.
A few days later, he called back. Same thing: breathing, muttering. I greeted him with a cheery hello as if he were an old friend and asked again what he wanted. This time he was quiet and after a few long minutes, I hung up.
Over the next year he called — sometimes often, other times not for months — and we developed a rapport. He said his name was Jeffrey, which I spelled as “G-e-o-f-f-r-e-y” in my head. Sometimes I’d say I was busy and couldn’t talk. If I had a friend over, I would hang up and casually say, “Oh that’s my obscene phone caller.” I could hang up freely since I was in charge.
We quickly developed a pattern: He told me his sexual interests, which I almost always said were boring, then I’d guide him toward more perverse, “advanced” interests. He’d give them a yea or nay and I’d pry into why these things did or did not suit him.
I became the obscene respondent to what became an almost demure caller. In quiet, stilted speech, he told me little bits that I tried to piece together to add up to why a person might make obscene phone calls, but nothing was obvious. Meanwhile I never revealed anything about myself — not my age (22), location or my own sexual interests. The talks were not a turn-on, at least not for me — more like forming a bond with another sexually damaged person.
It ended when I proposed a real-life meeting … of sorts. I chose Circus of Books, a pornography bookstore in West Hollywood. I told him we could play a game: we would not let on who we were, but later when he called, we would say who we thought the other might be. I went to Circus of Books but it turned out he didn’t. When he called again, he said he was afraid. I told him I wanted to know who he was, what he looked like, what made him tick. He never called again.
Then I moved to New York City, got married and had a child, and was trying so hard to be normal that I stopped noticing bad behavior by men in public.
And there was no shortage of bad behavior. New York City is a man’s town. Men move way more freely in the city than women do and they commandeer public space. It really is virtually impossible for a young woman to get from one place to another without having her thoughts interrupted by male attention. But I lost my street smarts.
In six months, crazy things happened: While having a quiet moment away from my baby, sipping coffee over a book in a café, a man sat across from me at my table and said he got sexual vibes from me and suggested we go to his place; two other men sexually accosted me in stores in broad daylight, one as I pushed my baby in the shopping cart.
My therapist told me I didn’t have a gut instinct for dangerous or predatory men.
My over-compensating solution was to be on hyper-alert all the time and scowl at every man who paid attention to me. This wound up making me angry. I came out in the '90s and went through a spell of “man hating,” although that didn’t feel right either, because there are several men who I love very much. I ditched that bad idea.
I started observing other women and how they responded to ill-mannered men. Most ignored them or didn’t really hear them, like street noise, but for me it was a call directly to my traumatized past. Then my half-sister came to visit. She grew up in the same household as I did. Her response to catcalls was to smile and thank the offending man! She was worse than I. From her behavior, I understood that our responses were the weak ones. There was no power in being objectified.
By the time I was in was my 40s, I had gone to college, raised my children, had two professions and it was no longer anonymous men who made me feel worthy.
Eventually as you get older those street oglers stop seeing you, which I’ve heard women bemoan as if that means they’ve lost some pizzazz or something. But to me, it’s a relief. I’m attractive to the people I want to attract and that’s what matters. But still there’s the random guy who says something or makes noises. I want to turn to him, laughing, and say, “Are you kidding?! I’m 57 years old!” But I ignore him and move on.
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