Street Harassment: Compliments vs. Catcalls

You've all seen that video, right? The one where a woman walks around New York City for 10 hours and finally the whole world gets to see what it's like to be a woman on a public street. As a woman who's lived in San Francisco and NYC, I can tell you it was completely accurate. One of the hardest things about living there was the constant feeling of being encroached upon, of being unsafe.

Many, many people have said many things about the video, so I won't reiterate all of them. I do want to acknowledge that are problems with race representation, and Slate in particular has run a couple of articles addressing this. Mainly, I want to talk about the biggest themes I've run across when people try to defend the men's behavior in the video: that they are just trying be polite and say hello or that they just wanted to pay her a compliment.

First, many of those "polite" greetings were anything but. Tone and context are very important forms of communication, and we all know the difference between a leering "Good morning" and a friendly or polite one.

Next, as a woman in public, you quickly learn that supposedly polite phrases like "Hello," "Good morning," and "Have a nice day," are often just a first gambit for your attention. As soon as you even glance over in response to a greeting, there's a very good chance the person will then say something gross or threatening. I would rather be friendly and open to meeting new folks, but instead I have to completely close myself off in public to avoid even worse harassment than I get when I'm silent and unresponsive.

Finally, and this is the main thing I want to contribute to the conversation, these men are not complimenting women when they call out to them on the street. Compliments are expressions of admiration and respect. They indicate that you think someone has done something well and you want to commend them for it. They are, essentially, social gifts, and yes, people almost universally like them. I've received actual compliments on the street and been pleased.

Catcalling, however, is not in any way a compliment. When we're being honest, we can all see the difference between someone saying, "Hey, you look really nice today!" and continuing on their way, versus someone looking you up and down, licking their lips, and saying, "Mm, sexyyyyy." The first is a compliment, and the second is an expression not of admiration but of sexual pleasure.

99 times out of 100, when a guy catcalls, what he's doing is verbalizing the pleasure he gets from looking at a woman. This is why it feels gross. It's why these comments feel like they're on a continuum with the guy who masturbates at you in the movie theater or humps your back in a crowded subway car. They are on that continuum. All of these acts involve a person (usually a man) taking pleasure from the body of another person (usually a woman) without their consent.

Gentlemen, although you might not be able to help taking pleasure in the appearance of a beautiful person, there is a difference between feeling pleasure and expressing it. It is even possible to look surreptitiously and respectfully to your heart's content. (I know this from personal experience.) You can have your pleasure and keep it to yourself.

The minute you vocalize it, though, not only are you assuming that this person has to care about (and accommodate or at least allow) your pleasure, you are suggesting to her that, just because she exists in a female body, she has no choice but to provide you with pleasure. This is where power comes in, whether it's conscious or not. It's a reminder that men can take things from a woman that she never wanted to give.

A compliment is a gift, but a catcall is a theft. You are using my body to pleasure yourself without my permission, and then you are rubbing it in my face. That is why it is harassment, and that is why it needs to stop.

Letting .com Domain Expire

Just a quick post to note that I'm letting my .com domain expire. If you still somehow care about having this blog in your feedreader, you should adjust accordingly. :-) P.S. Yeah, it's because I'm a grad student now and thus really broke.

The Urge to Declare, and Changes

Obviously, I haven't been blogging. I just wrote a post, and it's because I really wanted to. I had a thought that I just had to share.

I think that urge to write publicly comes most often when I feel like I've figured something out or when I've made a decision. When I feel relatively sure of something, I want to say it to the world.

When I go through periods when I'm feeling less sure, I have much less desire to write. One of the things I've been trying to do in the last couple of years, since I moved to NYC, is embrace a beginner's mindset. I want to be new, to have wonder, to know that I have everything to learn and to exist in that somewhat uncomfortable place of not knowing everything.

It's been much harder to write.

I'm going to graduate school in August, which is the start of a different period in my life. It's one in which I'll have a more specific goal, and in which I hope to construct an identity for myself that encompasses more of who I am. I want to still be a sexual deviant, but I suspect that will fade in importance in favor of being a student, scholar, teacher, friend, romantic, and aspiring mother.

I'm also entering a professional atmosphere where it will be important to keep my students from reading everything about my sex life.

I'm planning to start a new blog. I'm not going to link to it from here, but those of you who know me in real life will be able to find it easily. I'm going to migrate all the posts from this blog which have to do with scholarship, culture, feminism, politics, etc. Then I'll delete them here. I'll leave behind the things about my personal life.

I may still blog here, when I have the irresistible urge to declare myself to the universe. It will be separated, though, from my professional life.

I'm hoping that blogging can become an outlet for the learning I'll be doing, for a voice I might not be able to let loose in academia. I'm hoping it'll be a professional tool for networking and making friends. It may still, on this site, be an outlet for a type of expression that's often taboo. That's been less necessary for a while, and I suspect that will continue.

I appreciate everyone who's read and commented here through my sporadic episodes of writing over the years. I think that's all I have to say, for now.

On Knowing Someone First

I think I'm going to stop having sex with people I don't know well. Or, well, I'm going to stop having sex with people I don't specifically and individually desire a lot at a given moment. I finally recognize that this desire happens more often once I know someone.

There's a person I've met several times at a big kink and sex event. We had mutual friends, one of whom recommended me to him as a play partner. He's something of a big, scary dom and sadist, which appeals to me generally, so when he proposed that we set up a play date I said yes. We talked about the specifics: he suggested using a gas mask, evil stick, cattle prod, and a few other painful things I don't remember the details of. We set the time and place. Then, when that time rolled around, I just didn't feel like it. I basically chickened out, and told him I wasn't up for it.

This happened twice.

Last week, this guy messaged me to suggest that, rather than trying to set up a play date, we plan to get together during the next event to just hang out and talk and/or cuddle and get to know each other. He said he still thought we "might have some heat," but that we might need to get acquainted to really create friction.

I felt so relieved, and then I felt surprised at how strong the relief was. I hadn't realized how uncomfortable I'd been at the thought of playing, particularly as a bottom, with someone I didn't know well or feel generally comfortable with. He's reasonably attractive, yes, and he has a solid reputation. I didn't feel unsafe with him or repulsed by him. Neither, though, did I feel especially attracted to him or comfortable with him. I'd initially decided to play with him because, "why not." I didn't think to ask, "why him."

Now, I do badly want to bottom more. I miss that in my life. I've felt that way for a long time, and yet I still haven't been doing it. I know lots of people who are good tops, who have good reputations and who I think are cool people. What's been missing is that feeling of "I want you."

I've had sex with men before who clearly were more interested in having sex with someone than in having sex with me. This didn't feel good. I've known that for a long time, but I hadn't really applied it to my own behavior.

The reality is that I almost always to some degree want sex and/or BDSM play. At any moment. If I'm on a date with someone new and it's clear that I could have sex with them, the predominant part of me has so far thought, "Well, I like sex. I could have sex with them. Might as well do it." This, I think, has been a repeated mistake. I've had a lot of mediocre (and bad) sex because of it.

I've decided I'm done with that. Sure, I do like sex, but I'm also uncomfortable having it with people I don't know and want for who they are and how they make me feel. I don't need to ignore the latter in service of the former. It's just unnecessary. It's easy enough for me to have sex with my boyfriend or one of my established lovers, anyway.

I guess what this means is I'm becoming a two or three date girl, rather than the usual first date sex seeker I've been forever. It feels weird, like I'm somehow submitting to The Rules, but I think it's better. I'm honoring my feelings and what I actually want, and that's what's important.


When I was in college, I was extremely active in extracurricular activities. Basically, I had two jobs. The main one was supposed to be getting all my school work done well and on time, but I spent a whole shitload of time leading student groups and writing a column for the school paper and performing in The Vagina Monologues and writing my blog and doing research assistantships and, you know, having a social life. I didn't sleep enough. My grades were pretty good, but they weren't stellar. I don't think I understood at the time what the opportunity costs were of these millions of activities.

Now I work at an awesome sex and BDSM shop. My boss is generous and clearly values me as an employee. My coworkers are great, and I've made lots of good friends here. I get to do buying for the store, and I spend lots of time working to make it better. I have agency and responsibility. As jobs go, it's pretty great.

But it's still retail. It's not my life's passion or magnum opus. It's a high energy service job with random lulls in between activity. While there are no customers in the store I can theoretically work on, say, this blog or my PhD applications or my insurance claims. However, I'll always have to drop whatever it is on a millisecond's notice if a customer walks in. This makes it hard to concentrate on outside projects during my work day, and I'm tired after my week of 40+ hours.

I understand now what it's like to do a job that takes up all your energy, one that distracts from any other job you might want to do. I only do laundry about every 3 or 4 months. My room is often messy. I mostly only read books on the subway, and I've been (very) slow at writing on here. It's been a long time since I performed or did anything which would let me call myself an activist. Do I cook or do the dishes? Nope.

I'm excited now, though, because I'm researching schools where I can get my PhD (in Cultural Studies or American Studies). The prospect of going into a rigorous program and getting to spend the bulk of my attention on something I'm passionate about, something I want to turn into a career, is now very appealing. I'm psyched to take hard classes with lots of reading, and to do big research projects on stuff that fascinates me.

At this point, I don't even want to do any extra curricular stuff. If I get to spend my work time on the work I actually want to do, my free time will actually be free. I'll get to rest, to have fun, and to recharge to keep my main work going. In undergraduate I was really just there to do the next thing and to learn about myself and do a lot of personal growth. The outside activity was good for that, but I wasn't ready for a career or a true work focus. Now I can hardly wait to get to do all those hours of work on something that excites and interests me.

Working full time at regular-joe jobs for a few years has given me that excitement. The relative boredom and energy drain of these jobs has indeed been a distraction, but it's helped me figure out what I want instead. For that, I'm extremely grateful.

That Whole God Thing

I was raised Catholic, but not in the usual way. We went to a very alternative Catholic church in Massachusetts called Community of God’s Love when I was little. We didn’t use gendered pronouns in referring to God. (“God,” for instance, was “Creator.”) Women sometimes gave the sermons or even led the mass, we had a lot of queer congregation members, and the politics of the church were extremely liberal in general.

When we moved to California we found a slightly less radical church where I served as an altar girl and started studying for my Confirmation. When we got a new, more conservative priest who decided that girls could no longer serve at the altar, it was the last straw for my mother. She already felt that the Catholic church unfairly excluded women. If this church wasn’t going to welcome her daughters as full participants, then she wanted no more to do with it.

My whole family left the church when I was 11, and my mom now says she’s an atheist.

I know that at some point in my life I was enthusiastic about the idea of religion. I did, after all, hold up that Bible every week at Mass and carry the crucifix around the church for the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

Since we stopped going to church, though, and through my upbringing in secular coastal cities, I’ve grown very uncomfortable with the idea of the divine.

I don’t regret at all not being Catholic; I think it’s in many ways a screwed up political institution.* My grandfather has been giving me optimistic crucifixes for birthdays and Christmases for years, and I have no compunction in never wearing them. I do miss the presence of some spiritual community, though.

I feel very self conscious about spirituality. I’m drawn to it, particularly to the kinds that embrace women and sex, but I’m also very awkward about the idea of being too New Age or woo-woo or superstitious or whatever. Perhaps I’ve spent a lot of time around people who judged others for believing in much of anything that couldn’t be proven.

I’ve nonetheless had some very powerful experiences which make me believe in some kind of energetic connection that underlies everything and which we as beings can access. I want to write about those in more depth in future entries, but suffice it to say for now that I feel called to explore.

I’m not necessarily excited about the idea of deities, except as metaphors for particular kinds of divine energy, but there’s a lot I can learn. I’d like to consider this post a resolution to give myself permission to go there. I want to not be shy about the pull I feel towards the divine. So I’m coming out as a (novice) spiritual seeker. Here I am, and I’m going somewhere in that direction.

*The Church does a lot of good charitable things, but also a lot of messed up gender and politics things.

Friends Without Benefits

I have a bad habit.

I find it much easier to meet new people through sex and dating than through friendship. Whenever I'm in a new city, the first people I develop new relationships with are people I bang. Sometimes those relationships turn into friendships later (or are just friends with benefits going forward) and that's great. But I have a much harder time pursuing and maintaining friendships without the hang-out motivator of sex.

This means I don't have all that many friends I don't sleep with. If you narrow it to friends I've never even made out with, not to mention people with whom I feel no sexual tension or chemistry, I'm pretty sure that's a number I can count on just one hand. Maybe two.

I would really like to have some of those friendships that aren't about sex at all. I think it's gotten even harder to find since I've been spending most (read: all) off my time in the kink/polyamorous/sex positive community. Sex is a persistent background, even if it's not something I'm having or planning to have with any given person.

Now, this isn't so bad. I have lots of wonderful friends. I just miss the kind of friendship where I could be really intimate with someone, be physically affectionate with them and spend lots of time with them and talk about everything, without having to constantly enforce a boundary that the friendship won't turn sexual. I’d like that boundary to feel a little more natural.

In a lot of the platonic friendships I have now, I feel like not having sex is a line I'm drawing and not something the other person would necessarily choose if I weren't. They might be okay with not fooling around, but they’d also be happy if we did.

I can't quite explain why that's an icky feeling. It's sort of like I'm constantly having to reject people I care about, like I'm constantly being asked for something I don't want to give. Even if the asking is a subtle or sub-conscious, I'm aware of it. I also sometimes start to feel like I'm not valuable except in my sexual attractiveness and skill, which is obviously not much fun.

I would love to have even just one or two friends who are here, in New York City, who are not attracted to me at all. Not one whit. And to whom I am not attracted in the slightest, either.

Perhaps I need to think of this the same way I’d think of dating. It seems normal to me to go on dates and do things one on one when I’m considering a romantic or sexual relationship with someone. I surely can do the same thing, make a point to spend alone time with someone I think I’d like, when I want a sex-free friendship. And maybe do it with someone outside this sex-focused bubble where I spend my time. I guess that’s a plan.

On living, loving, learning, and fucking with the materials I've got at hand.

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