I am fascinated by male attention. I am fascinated by its omnipresence, the way it hides in pockets all over my body and lurks around every corner. I am fascinated by the way it lingers even when I’m alone, when I look in the mirror and stare at my breasts, my hips, my ass, eyes roaming and judging. It’s there every time I get dressed and especially when I get undressed. Even when I close my eyes I can feel it.
From the time I moved to Boston for school two years ago, I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve walked home alone and not been harassed. Some days I get on the train and a man tries to catch my eye, and for twelve stops I avoid his gaze in fear. Or I’m turning the corner to my building and someone says behind me, “Look at the thighs on you.” Then I’m walking back from class and a man grabs my arm, gets in my face, and says, “Let me talk to you, baby.”
The attention used to terrify me. I walked home with headphones on and music playing at the lowest volume, passed through crowds with my arms wrapped around my body so that I could be as small as possible. Every harsh word stuck in my head. I thought every hand laid on my shoulder was going to pull me into a dark and unknown corner.
“Boston’s pretty safe,” I was told by a student orientation leader the week I moved in. “Just stay aware of what’s going on around you. You’ll be able to tell when a situation’s shady. Oh, and don’t walk through the Common at night.”
After a while, I realized I wasn’t in any real physical danger most of the time, and that the harassment was something I would have to put up with as long as I lived in the city. It became part of my daily routine, a cold gray thing that steeled my gaze and pressed my mouth into a hard straight line when I walked alone.
Before I left to study abroad in Europe, I was told all over again to be careful. It’s not safe for girls to travel alone. Always look like you know where you’re going. If you get a bad vibe from someone, get away. Hearing this frustrated me. How could it be any worse than what I had already dealt with? And the bigger question, why was it my responsibility not to get attacked?
But after a few weeks in Europe, I understood the warnings. My female friends and I wore vulnerability like an accessory, dangling behind our overstuffed backpacks. Traveling throughout multiple countries meant that we didn’t always know the language or our way around. We spent nights in bars and clubs, and slept in mixed-bed hostels, and wandered around brand new cities with maps in our hands.
We were targets. “Come here girls, we can make your pussy wet,” a man called out to us on our first weekend traveling in Amsterdam. The actions of these men became something we had to treat as a joke, recounting episodes of harassment between stories of the beautiful monuments and landscapes we had seen—oh, the Eiffel Tower really does look bigger in person, and a man followed me all the way from there back to the Metro! It felt as if yet again, there was nothing to do but get used to it. One weekend, I was at a club with three of my friends, and we were drinking and ready to have some fun. Clubbing in Europe was a highly sexualized environment. Dancing meant groping, and groping meant that someone was going to try to take it further. Beyond sick of this treatment, we decided to spend the night flirting with groups of men, using fake names and coming on as strong as we could, and then ditching them when we got bored. This was a cruel game, but one born out of our increasing frustration with the harassment we’d faced on a daily basis. After scouting the club for a good-sized group, we approached a group of Englishmen from Liverpool and started chatting.
Three of them were tall, dark-haired, and looked to be in their late twenties. One hanging around the back of the group was significantly shorter and had a swoop of ginger hair and thick-framed glasses. Intimidated by the others, I approached the shortest one. I asked him his name, and he said “Joe” in an accent so thick that I made him repeat himself three times.
I smiled, I giggled, I playfully plucked his glasses off and put them on myself. He told me he was the apprentice to a butcher. I told him I was studying finance. We pulled the men into the next room and begged them to dance until they agreed. The room was small, dark, and packed, and the music was more of a pounding feeling than a sound.
Joe handed me a beer, and we were dancing. I circled him, traced my fingers from his chest to his shoulder, swept his hair from his eyes, put his glasses back on his face. Every time he put a hand on my body, I moved away. I kept my eyes on his, level and half-closed. I leaned in as if to whisper in his ear and then pulled away.
He seemed nice, a lot nicer than the men my friends were talking to. He smiled earnestly but nervously, hesitant with every motion. I started feeling bad, but then I looked towards my friends and the other men who were dancing near Joe and me. His friends were exchanging glances and words, looking at us with sly smiles. I felt the rush of anger come back and craved the end of the game.
And just like that, my friend said, “Now!” and we all ran away, away from Joe-the-butcher’s-apprentice, away from the other Englishmen. As I wove through the crowd, I felt hands grabbing at my waist, pulling me back in. I brushed them off and kept walking. Right as I got to the edge an arm wrapped around my chest, and I nearly tripped. I struck back with my fist and tried to move faster, further away, out of the dark room and keep pace with my friends.
We got back to the bar and ordered drinks, laughing about what we had just done. It was exciting and validating, and we felt giddy knowing that we had the power to manipulate men like that. The four of us made a toast to our night.
A few minutes later, an older man came up to one of my friends and started groping her. She laughed it off, slapped his hand away, but he kept grabbing at her.
“Can you not do that to her?” I shouted.
He stared at me, his dumb drunk eyes struggling to focus on my face. He called me a bitch, and I pushed him backwards, going in for more, but my friends pulled me away, and we left the club. I was enraged by the fact that he was doing that to her, by the fact that he felt entitled to it, by the fact that when men do the same thing to me I ignore and shrug it off too.
Once we had made it back safely, I laid in the dark of the flat we’d rented for the night and wondered if I’d actually been in control at any point during our game. I wondered if I would become a funny story that Joe and his friends told, or if the man I’d pushed would even remember what had happened in the morning. I didn’t know if what I’d had was true agency.
Several weeks later, after I got back to America, I tried to shake these doubts and enjoy myself when I went out again. I continued with my own version of the game we had played, but I took it further for my own pleasure. Every boy seemed like the easiest target in the world.
I was also sporadically seeing a man I’d known before I went abroad. I’d met Jacob at a party, twenty minutes after I turned nineteen. Twenty minutes after that, we were in a cab headed back to his place. He was twenty-five, scruffy, and pursuing a doctoral degree in linguistics. Jacob didn’t have a bed, only a mattress on the floor of a quiet Cambridge apartment. The nails on his right hand were long and smoothly filed because he played classical guitar. He’d lived in India for a year to study music, and then had completed his bachelor’s in Scotland, and he loved to tell stories about his time abroad.
When we first met, I was obsessed with Jacob. He was intelligent, talented, and had a quiet self-assurance that I envied. He spoke softly, and I listened hungrily. Jacob always let me spend the night, and he would keep one hand on my ass even when he was asleep. I wanted more than he was willing to give me, which were late night hookups after long nights of drinking. I wanted him to see everything I had to offer, and I tried to impress him by discussing literature, music, and travel. When I left Boston, I daydreamed about what it would be like to date him.
I had more perspective after I returned, and I was enjoying my freedom. If I was out with my friends and found someone new and exciting, I could ignore his texts, and there would be no questions in the morning. Or if I didn’t find anyone else I liked, I could always go and see Jacob. I felt beautiful, I felt invincible, I felt like none of the bad things men said to me mattered because I had them on reserve. This was the real game and I was coming out on top.
But whenever I let a man’s action against me slide, I started thinking about the man in the club. What I used to see as strong silence began to feel like compliance. I wanted to hit every man like I’d hit the one who had violated my friend, and I could feel the anger surge in my body every time one of them called me out on the street. But I was still clinging to the idea that I was benefiting somehow from the way I was treating men.
The realization hit home a few months after I had returned to America. The last time I saw Jacob taught me that I can’t win the game, that it doesn’t have rules, that I can’t even choose not to play. That I can’t separate myself from my body and exploit one part of myself and expect to reap the benefits without a price. I’m not a pawn, but even if I’m the queen, I’m still only a piece in someone else’s game.
On that last night with Jacob, I’d come over well past midnight after going out to a party with my friends. He kept making comments about my body, about how sexy he thought I was, but for some reason they disgusted instead of excited me. He easily could have been talking to himself.
“You’re so sexy,” he breathed into my ear, hands clumsily sliding up my dress. I traced a line up his back with my nails and turned my head to kiss him, tugging at his collar.
Lost in these actions, I initially didn’t notice his hands moving up my body to close around my throat. I moved away, but his hands continued to grip my neck. They held me tighter and tighter until my breath was shallow and the edges of my vision started fading to black. All I could do was repeat in my head the abuse pamphlet fact that most murders are committed by someone the victim knows.
He released me after a few more seconds, and I fell onto the bed, gasping. Jacob looked confused. “I thought you would like it,” he said. I laughed, my breath shallow. It took me a moment to realize what had actually happened. The choking was for pleasure—his pleasure. He hadn’t been trying to kill me, but he hadn’t asked if he could do that. My whole body felt limp and not just from the choking.
The next morning, I woke up and got dressed in a daze. When I said goodbye, Jacob kissed me hard and tried to pull me back into bed, his hands on my body, pulling off my clothes. I stepped away and lied about having plans. I stumbled down the steps of his building and out onto the icy sidewalk.
If I had died last night, I couldn’t help but think, he would have left my body in one of these snow banks. Jacob might have been important to me, but I wasn’t even a person to him.
I caught my train, and then my transfer, and was heading down the street towards my building. Snow doused me, soaking my clothes and hair with icy water. All I wanted to do was take a hot shower and sleep off the night. A man I walked past saw me and did a double take.
“Look at you, baby,” he called out. “Beautiful.”