Boys will be Boys
The first time I was catcalled I was 13. It was a Saturday. It was my birthday. I was at the Edison mall with my older sibling, shopping for a dress to wear to my birthday dinner. As we approached a kiosk selling custom phone cases, it happened.
The kiosk worker was a large man wearing a grey cotton t-shirt. He had shoulder-length hair tied back in a loose ponytail. He was sweating. It was clear he had sweat through his shirt, so I looked away, embarrassed for him. When I looked back, he was looking at me with a greasy smile on his face. I looked away again. As we walked past the man and his kiosk, I heard a much deeper voice than I was expecting call after me.
He asked me why I was ignoring him. He told me not to be like that. He called me baby. He was salivating over my just developing curves. I walked faster. Tears stinging my eyes. My sibling grabbed my hand and pulled me faster away from the man, from the kiosk, and from my shame.
I was confused. I was mad. I was scared.
I didn’t know this happened to girls so young. I wasn’t even done going through puberty yet and I had already been looked at as an object of sexual gratification. It wasn’t long before I was catcalled again.
My mom leases office space in the yellow building across the street from my school. Before I could drive, it was my responsibility to walk from school to her work after soccer practice so she could take us home. Not that it matters, but I was wearing black soccer shorts, an athletic tank top, and a neon sports bra. As I passed the button at the College Parkway crosswalk, a man rolled down his window and whistled at me. I looked around, confused, unsure if it was me who was being whistled at. To get my attention, the man yelled a comment about my exposed legs. Our eyes locked. He was grinning. Drooling. His eyes left mine and I could feel his gaze travel all over my body.
I was only thirteen. My body in that weird stage between girl and woman.
I don’t remember the second time or the third time, or the tenth or the twentieth. But I know they happened. Again and again, men took it upon themselves to violate me with words or tell me what they would do to me. Once a construction worker offered me money to perform a sexual act on him and his friends. I was only 15 or 16.
As objectifying as it was, words are just words. I can live with words. But one-day words changed to actions.
Junior year, a Model United Nations conference in Washington D.C. The conference had been going great. I had made friends in committee and was looking forward to hanging out with them at the delegate dance, which was in the same hotel as the conference. At the dance, I was talking with a delegate I had met. I won’t say his name. He was my age. Tall. Blonde hair. Dark blue eyes. Over the loud music, he asked me if I wanted to go talk outside and find some water. I naively said yes. We went outside and found an empty hallway. It started innocently enough. He told me he thought I was smart and funny. He stepped closer. He told me he thought I was pretty. He stepped closer. Sensing my discomfort, he closed the remaining distance between us. He asked me if I wanted to go up to his hotel room with him. My cheeks burned, and I mumbled something about having to get back to the dance. I stepped back. He advanced towards me again, but this time grabbed my arm, moving his hand up my shoulders. I was frozen. I said no. He started to drag me towards the elevator, presumably to take me to his room. I tried to yank my arm away but his grip was iron. With his free hand, he groped my chest, squeezing my breasts over my shirt. Tears poured down my cheeks. I yanked again, much harder this time, and I was free. But I didn’t run. I made up an excuse about having to leave, apologized, and went back to the dance.
I always wanted to believe that if placed in a situation like this, I would be brave. I would scream or run or hit the person, but I didn’t. I apologized.
When I told my teacher a modified version of what happened, excluding him touching my chest, she asked me, “How loudly did you say no?” My cheeks burned. My eyes stung with tears. I hadn’t said no loudly enough. I had mumbled it and apologized for leaving. It must’ve been my fault for leading him on or for sending him mixed signals. I racked my brain and replayed every interaction I had with him. Had I been flirting? I had passed notes with him, joking about stupid things I can’t remember now, but my intentions were never romantic. At that point in my life, I had a boyfriend, but I never wanted to be that girl who out of nowhere announces that she has a boyfriend the second a guy starts talking to her. If I had mentioned that I had a boyfriend, the whole thing probably never would’ve happened. I felt physically sick.
The next day was our last committee session. He was there. He smiled at me and waved. Me, hating myself, smiled and waved back. We pretended that last night hadn’t happened. When committee ended, everyone started saying goodbye and exchanging social medias to stay in touch. I turned around to leave, and there he was. Almost in slow motion, I saw him leaning in for a hug. The voice in my head was screaming at me to run. To back away. To do something.
I hugged him back.
It was only a second, but I had betrayed myself. I never ended up reporting him. I didn’t scream. I didn’t hit him. I hugged him goodbye and apologized for making last night weird.
Fact. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before they turn 18. I am one in four.
Fact. Sexual assault is the most underreported crime in America, 63% of assaults go unreported. I didn’t report him.
I want to live in a world where a 13-year-old girl can cross the street without being objectified. I want to live in a world where things aren’t brushed under the rug because “boys will be boys”. I want to live in a world where people can wear whatever the hell they want without fear or judgment because no outfit is an invitation for comments about their body or an excuse for violence.
Since the MUN incident, I haven’t been the same. I was fundamentally changed that day. I’m much more cautious around unfamiliar men. I used to only be wary of men older than me, but now I feel like I can’t trust guys my age either. This is not okay. If you take anything away from reading this, please let it be that things need to change.
I challenge you to be the change. Speak up if you hear something not okay. Don’t catcall anyone, man, woman, or any other gender. Try to reprogram your brain to not make assumptions about a person based on how much skin they show. Try to be better. We deserve better.