“What actually happened was that he was urinating”.
These were the words that were said by the male NYPD officer standing in front of me. I stared back at him for a long moment.
We were standing by the entrance of a kid’s play area. I had called the police an hour before when I’d been walking a dog and had seen a man standing in a phone booth jerking off.
I wasn’t the only person who saw him. The street was busy with pedestrians. It was late afternoon on a bright summer day in busy midtown Manhattan. As I walked past this guy it was immediately clear what he was doing. It couldn’t have been more obvious. I had no need of further clarification, but I got it anyway from the horrified expressions of the other people walking past.
He was jerking off in a phone booth.
When I saw him, there was a moment of me thinking “I don’t want to have to deal with this”. And I really didn’t want to. I wanted to join all the others who weren’t breaking their stride and were just heading on home for dinner.
But the loudest voice in my head told me that, just as it wasn’t ok for him to do this, it also wasn’t ok for me to ignore it.
I called 911 and reported what I’d just seen. By this time the guy had left the phone booth and had now walked into the kid’s play area. He laid down on a bench.
The 911 operator had told me they’d dispatch someone and that I didn’t need to stay at the scene if I didn’t want to. But I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t risk him doing the same thing he’d just done, this time in front of kids. I stood outside the play area and didn’t take my eyes off of him until the police arrived.
And then an hour later I wondered how it was that a male police officer, who hadn’t witnessed what I had seen, was able to look into my eyes and tell me what had “actually happened”.
What actually happened was that I was 11 years old wearing a school uniform when I was flashed at in the street.
What actually happened was that, from that age onwards, I was to know what it is to be sexualized, objectified, harassed and assaulted. Time and time and time again. And I would see this happen to the other women in my life. Time and time and time again.
What actually happened was that I would very quickly learn there were a different set of rules for the beneficiaries of a patriarchal society that was intentionally built to best serve, to only serve, a very specific demographic.
They say you never forget the first time you fall in love. Well you never forget the first time you are violated, either. Words. Hands. Gestures. Invasions. Every form of every force. It all rains down on you like the storm you can’t seem to seek shelter from.
There are too many sodden stories. There are too many suffocated truths. There are too many silent screams.
What actually happened was that jerking off phone booth guy got to walk away.
I am fucking tired.
So. What actually happens now?
Photo credit: Leon Cato Photography