To the Man Who Asked Me If I Swallow

Skylar Liberty Rose - Ann Voskamp

A few days ago, as I was walking from the subway to my apartment, I was stopped by a man who began speaking to me. I had my headphones in but I heard him say “Excuse me” so I took them out and waited for him to continue talking.

I thought he may be about to ask for directions but then he said “You know, you’re beautiful… your hair“.   This was said at normal volume but then he followed up with a whisper “Do you swallow?

After a second of stunned silence from me I realized that I was giving him exactly the reaction he wanted. His face in that second told me everything. He wanted to shock me, to intimidate me. He wanted to speak to me in any way he wanted and I was supposed to stand there and take it.  

Nope. Wrong woman. Actually, right woman, wrong man. Literally, wrong man.

I shouted very loudly that what he had just said to me was vile street harassment. The street was quite busy. People looked. He quickly exclaimed that all he had done was tell me I was beautiful.

I shouted back AT THE TOP OF MY VOICE informing him, and everyone else, that he hadn’t only said that. I told the street (and the next two streets, probably) exactly what he’d said.

Now he was embarrassed. Said he had to get to work. He quickly walked away and I followed him. I continued shouting telling everyone what he’d said to me. I took the very same words that he had attempted to shame me with and I used them as a way of standing tall in my own power.

He ran off. I don’t know where. I wanted to take his picture and hold him accountable. If you sexually harass someone, your right to privacy is no longer your right.

Street harassment continues to be something that (mostly) women have to fight back against every damn day. I am done with it. Done.  

I wish this was an isolated incident. The first time I was subjected to indecent behavior on the street was when a man decided it was appropriate to show me his penis as he walked past me and smiled. I was 11 years old.

When I shared this, my most recent experience of sexual harassment on social media, I was flooded with messages and comments. Almost all of them detailed similar experiences. And every time I read another “Me too” my heart broke a little more.

Enough. We cannot continue this way. We have to understand how deep the disconnect is.

If we can’t recognize the links between ANY kind of sexual harassment and more grave sexual assault then there is a disconnect.

If you think Brock Turner’s behavior is despicable but you see no issue with “harmless catcalls” then there is a disconnect.  

Is every man that catcalls a woman in the street a potential rapist? No. But every man that catcalls a woman is demonstrating a belief that women exist for men’s viewing pleasure, that they are fair game for foul comments.

And that line of thinking is dangerous.

When we shrug off street harassment and sexual innuendo, when we minimize indecent behavior and sexist jibes we are advocating for a world where women are oppressed and objectified.

As Ann Voskamp said, “When the prevailing thinking is that boys will be boys – girls will be garbage”.

We owe it to ourselves as women to stand up and speak out. Remember, silence is often misconstrued as acquiescence.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault work on the same premise: I will say/take what I want without your consent. It is my right to do this.

Actually, no. It’s not. It’s not your right and it’s not ok. It never was and it never will be.

It wasn’t ok when I was walking in the street and a man tried to accost me and push me down some basement steps. It wasn’t ok that I had to walk into oncoming traffic to try and get away from him.

It wasn’t ok when I was in a crowded bar (numerous locations, numerous times) and I had my ass groped.

It wasn’t ok when, thinking that I couldn’t hear him, a teenage boy laughingly told the group of friends he was standing with how he was going to “fuck me good”.  

It’s not ok that the bile will never fully leave my throat because in a few short months Brock Turner will be able to party again.

I am fully, and regretfully, aware that when I walk in the street with my husband I am not approached by men paying me “compliments”. I am also full of frustration because I should not need a male companion in order to feel comfortable in public.

So, to the man who asked me “Do you swallow?” and to every other man who has used their sex as a weapon in an attempt to reduce me, know this:  

It is my entitlement (and yours) to walk in the street without being harassed. Without having anyone comment on my appearance. Without being told to smile. I am not here for your entertainment. Nor am I seeking your approval.

It does not interest me what your opinion is on my outfit or my body shape. I am going about my day. Go about yours.

I am not obligated to engage in conversation with you. If you try to talk to me and I do not respond – leave it there. Right there. Seriously, right there.

Your unsolicited remarks on how I look do not feel like a “compliment” to me and when you follow up with cries of “You just can’t take a compliment, bitch” that doesn’t feel like a compliment either.

I am a shame slayer. If you try to blame me or shame me for YOUR indecency then I will slay you. I will not be meek or mild or be concerned about the fact that maybe you’ve suffered some kind of raw deal in life. I will come back at you. I will stand my ground and defend myself.  

I do not need to explain to you why I don’t wish to talk to you. I have no interest whether the other women that you’ve complimented “are fine with it”. My boundaries are mine. I am speaking for myself.

Men of the world, there are so many of you that are incredible. So many. I am married to one such man. But the amount of harassment that any one woman receives in her lifetime is often unimaginable. That’s why we armor up at times. Because we’ve known what it can feel like when we’re exposed to unwelcome and unwarranted attention.

If you want to sincerely compliment a woman, be it in the street, on the subway, in the park, wherever, then let her freely go about her business without causing her to feel threatened, intimidated or violated. Do your part to create a world where a woman doesn’t need to do a risk assessment of every street she walks down.

That’s the kind of compliment we love.

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