I was living in Los Angeles for a summer when I had the worst pain in my pelvis. It was sudden and debilitating, and it hurt so bad I could hardly pee. I took to the internet and found that many of my symptoms suggested that I had a UTI, something I’d never had before but was somewhat familiar with due to many women in my life being open about the commonality of the infection.
At the time, I didn’t have a car, and my roommate wasn’t around to help me out. It felt too urgent for me to sit around and wait for her, so I grabbed my keys, my phone and my sneakers, and headed out on what would be a disappointing and frustrating adventure — and not just because I felt like my vagina was literally going to tear itself out of my body.
I’ve always liked walking, but I’ve never enjoyed the major downfall of being a woman walking alone in public: catcallers. For basically my entire life, I’ve dealt with them: men who stand on street corners and make it their job to remind us that our bodies aren’t ours, not really, but instead belong to those who watch us. The male gaze is alive and well on any street in the country, and it makes itself known in the variety of hoots, hollers and comments women and feminine folk hear on a daily basis.
So, of course, this day was no different. In between my walk from the first to the second clinic in search of a doctor who would accept my insurance, a man probably a few years older than I was at the time approached me and started walking right alongside me like we’d met somewhere before. At first, I ignored him. It’s my go-to when some weirdo won’t leave me alone. But he was persistent.
I said, simply, “No.”
“No?” he said, sort of laughing in my face. “You don’t even know what I want.”
“I’m not selling anything,” he said. “Why do you have to be so mean?”
Dealing with this man was worse than usual because I just was not in the mood. If there’s a time you don’t want to keep asking a woman why she doesn’t want to talk to you, the day she has a raging UTI is probably that day. The pain was real, and it took over any fear I normally feel when approached by strange men who think my body belongs to them.
I should have torn into him. To this day, I wish I’d shouted that my vagina felt like it was grinding its way out of my body with each fallopian tube holding a tiny knife. Instead, I said, “Bad day.”
With that, he looked like his world shifted a little, like it hadn’t even occurred to him that my day was mine, and that I hadn’t materialized out of nowhere to entertain him. I was a person, with a past, and a present, and emotions, and the last thing I wanted was his attention. “I’m not interested.”
“Well,” he said, “Thanks for not leading me on.”
All I could do was laugh as he headed across the street, undoubtedly back on his way to his original destination. As I kept walking around the city, going from one clinic to the next, I just kept thinking about that man, and about all of the men who assumed I was just a character in their story. Just someone created by the universe to please them for the moment until they decided they were done with me.
But to that man and every man who has ever harassed me on the street: You have no idea who you’re messing with. When you approach and bother and shout at a woman who you’ve literally never met, you are meeting a real, live human, a person with feelings and experiences that make this a threatening and downright awful experience.
I find it impossible to believe, though, that men who catcall don’t already know this. While some, like the man I interacted with that day, just haven’t thought it over, many just don’t care. They crave power and they want to steal it in bits and pieces from the women they meet on the street by reminding us that the street corners, roads, public spaces, aren’t ours. We are there as decoration, meant to be commented on.
But screw that, and screw them. We deserve to claim space that should have been equally ours from the get-go, whether we have the bravery of a raging UTI to spur us on or not. It’s not our job to talk down men who harass us, and it’s honestly so dangerous to even try. It’s up to them to call each other out and control their own behaviors, because they’re leaving us with two choices: to never leave the house, or to find our own ways to feel brave in public spaces.
And I can promise them that the second option, the likely option, won’t work in their favor.