I’ll Smile When You’re Sterilized

By Helle Bent

Note from the Underworld: I wrote this years ago before I joined TST. Since March is the month lots of folks pretend to care about women and our contributions to society and our overall well-being, I thought I’d revisit this subject, as it pertains heavily to TST’s first four tenets: compassion, justice, autonomy, and freedom. Hail Satan, Hail Lilith, Hail Thyselves.

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It was a passing comment about something unrelated that got my attention. Years ago on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, our beloved host mentioned that he had no idea the “catcalling” epidemic (yes it’s an epidemic) was so prevalent until he saw Hollaback!’s viral video 10 Hours Walking In NYC As a Woman.

Because it doesn’t happen to them, most men were unable to believe it was an accurate portrayal of life as a woman in New York City. I promise you, it is.

In one week (not a comprehensive list) –

– A drunk broseph-type nearly tackled me during rush hour, slurring “hey there sssshexy.”

– W. 26th Street (quiet, tree-lined, residential), weekday, lunchtime. I began to cross the street. He crossed the street too. Ok here we go… I stood behind a parked van, debating if I should cross back over and risk offending him, while he stood on the other side of the van waiting for me not caring if he risked offending me at all. I crossed back over. He yelled obscenities at me.

Weekday, lunchtime. A pungent, indigent male approached me and noisily blew me a wet kiss less than a foot from my face. My attempt to avoid him was unsuccessful. He followed me. It takes some time for that adrenaline to fade.

– While on my run one muggy Saturday morning, a male getting into his car grinned and softly said “run, run” not caring if I heard him over my headphones, which actually made it creepier. This happens A LOT. Women are not allowed to exercise in peace. (Someone once slowed his car to yell “can I race you? … HEY, I SAID ‘CAN I RACE YOU!!!?’” I had to about-face and run the other way. HE STOPPED HIS CAR. I jetted around the corner on to a busier street.)

– Summer in NYC, 150% humidity. The bricks were sweating. After a run in the park, I dunked my head under a water fountain. Jogging home, I saw two males sitting outside a store. I knew what was coming. I was right. Thank you kind sirs. I am aware of my current state but I appreciate the adjectives at that volume.

– I visited my friend in Brooklyn on a particularly hot, humid day. I complimented her outfit. “Thanks. It’s just so hot out, I don’t usually wear shorts this short because … well, you know.” And I did know.

Whether or not the “men” we encounter on the street, at the gym, on the train, at the store, will attempt to interact with us is almost irrelevant; each one is a potential threat. It’s part of the everyday existence of ALL women – cis, trans, enby, young, old, gay, straight, black, white, brown – to constantly evaluate our surroundings like a video game. Situational awareness, we’re told. Because it’s on us to not get raped or killed. We’re always on guard. We keep our heads down while assessing the path of least harassment – do we continue on and risk, at the very least, invasion of personal space, or cross the street and risk reprimand?

Men get so easily offended by women’s reactions that we have to take that into account as well, in case our “unwarranted fear” sparks retaliation. “Why you gotta be a bitch?” and “it’s a compliment! I’m just trying to talk to you!” Well, we’re just trying to not get raped, killed, or both, but we get yelled at for that too. It’s perfectly reasonable for second amendment advocates to have the “Be prepared! Protect yourself!” mentality, but for women, it’s considered by the very people who threaten us to be a hysterical overreaction. We aren’t free to live with the same reasonable expectation of safety that men have when simply going outside.

On our way to a restaurant one evening, my then-boyfriend (a miserable and selfish narcissist) took my hand and asked why I was so tense. We were about to cut right through a group of five males who were talking in the middle of the sidewalk, an action to which he didn’t give a second thought (must be nice). “Instinct” I replied. “Can’t help it.” It mystified me that I had to explain this to him. I took for granted that men knew about this. But why would he, a dude who has not once been on the receiving end of this harassment, have any idea why I was bracing myself?

“See? Nothing happened.”

“BECAUSE YOU’RE HERE!!!” I yelled at a completely reasonable volume. Seriously fuck that guy.

The conspiracy theorist in me thinks the men who behave this way are trying to keep this little pastime a secret from less predatory men in order to make women seem delusional and hysterical. Like we are children madly swearing to the existence of an ogre under the bed. Or, more likely, the antiquated social convention of women belonging to the men they’re with is the only deterrent these evolutionarily impeded bipeds can respect.

Generally, I am not one to keep quiet. But women who speak their minds can and do get hurt. I’ve too often experienced the aftermath of telling males to go fuck themselves, so I no longer do it. For my safety. A male once pretended, loudly and with exaggeration, to chase after me as I continued down Bleecker Street. He wanted to make sure I knew my safety was up to him. When I turned around, he stared at me and laughed. His friends laughed. Because I was afraid. This is not an unusual occurrence. Most men are simply unaware because it doesn’t happen to their loved ones in front of them, nor do the women in their lives relay these experiences every single time they happen. It’s just part of life.

ASK THEM. Ask your femme-identifying loved ones if what I’m saying is true.

When these events happen, it’s an act of aggression. It’s blatant, violent misogyny. It’s verbal assault.

Verbal rape.

We feel violated. We tense up.

Adrenaline shoots through our veins because our fight or flight senses involuntarily kick in and we wonder, will he or won’t he? Am I in actual danger this time?

I wish I could scream at him, ask him which of his useless parents taught him to treat human beings this way, ask him why he has to do this, why he thinks it’s ok to yell at me. I’ve done nothing to him. But that would provoke him and literally my life and my body are on the line here.

In that ONE SECOND, we know what we’re being told. We don’t matter, we are objects for his entertainment, not human beings, and we don’t deserve respect.

He’s an asshole with physical power over me and it’s 100% up to him whether he uses it or not. I am at his mercy.

He’s disgusting, sleazy, vile, and now I have an overwhelming need to punch things and cry. I want to rip out his eyes so he can’t look at another woman like that, but I’m powerless because in a physical altercation he will win.

Will this be the one time I don’t get to walk away?

I have to keep my mouth shut. I HATE that I have to keep my mouth shut.

Oh and now he’s calling me a bitch! He just said he wanted to get with me!

It’s frustrating, being silenced through the threat of physical violence by someone who isn’t worth a damn and thinks women are merely his dick receptacles.

All of these thoughts go through our heads in the one second we become aware that we might have to cross the street. Every. Day. It’s exhausting.

So don’t fucking tell us to smile.

I wrote these words down so that men know. So that women don’t have to try to verbalize this every time someone tells us we’re being too sensitive. Yes, it’s been said, but it needs to be said over and over and over because it’s not stopping (I was told I’d miss it when it stops). We need to keep the spotlight on patriarchal rape culture and refuse to dim it just because men are sick of hearing about it. I promise women are sick of it too. But for women it doesn’t go away when we stop talking about it. Ideally, society will evolve away from these disgusting, toxic behaviors, but for now, honestly, I’d be happy with “men” just keeping their wordholes shut when I walk by. Please just let me exist in peace.

Miscarriages of justice like rapist Brock Turner and his laughably short sentence plainly and painfully show that it’s not a priority to hold people accountable (especially if they’re white) for their actions against women (especially women of color and gender non-conforming women).

So, #NOTALLMEN, hear me:

If you truly want to reveal yourselves as the good guys, understand how we feel, how we live, and keep your eyes open for those in your gender group who betray you. It’s often not obvious to women which assholes are all talk and which will get violent. So we disengage and simply keep quiet. We keep walking. Understand this, do not selfishly and ignorantly get offended by this, and know women are just trying to stay alive. If this offends you, or if you do nothing to correct this behavior, you’re not the “goody guy” you think you are, and you, too, may go fuck yourself.

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