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There's a game my friends and I play called "Your Funniest Catcall."
It almost always starts the same. I'll be walking with a group of my ladyfriends, chatting about politics or kittens or whatever, when a guy we pass will say something to us. "Hey, baby," he'll say, almost like a reflex, "Nice ass."
There will be an immediate, inevitable silence. In my experience, everyone in the group will be thinking of the clever things they could have said in response -- things like, "Thanks, I sit on it," or, "It's busy right now." Nonsensical things, but anything to show a stranger that his sidewalk courtship is at all a two-way street.
Instead, silence. And then, to dissolve the tension, someone will inevitably crack, "You think that's weird, some dude last week told me I was in 'my prime.'"
Everyone will laugh gratefully. "Yeah, well, I was eating a burrito the other day and some white dudes asked me whether I liked a little Mexican in my mouth," someone else'll say. "Racism and sexism! SO HOT!"
"When my best friend and I were in Puerto Vallarta, we knew we weren't in the gay part of town anymore because people started asking us if we had boyfriends," someone else will chime in. "We used to say, 'Yes, we have ALL THE BOYFRIENDS!' just to screw with them."
The men in these stories aren't threatening. They're harmless caricatures of themselves, reduced to a punch line in an effort to hold them at arm's length. During these conversations, I don't talk about the way my throat closed up when I was on the last train home and the guy across the aisle from me in an empty train car told me I've got a pretty mouth. I don't mention the slimy feeling I got when an older man grabbed my arm during a run and breathed into my face, "You're an eight now, but you'll be a ten by December if you keep that up!"
Sometimes I've told boyfriends and dude friends about these incidents. I always get the sense, though, that they don't quite believe me. It's not that they think I'm lying, exactly, but it's hard to know the weight of someone's look on your body until you feel it firsthand.
I grew up learning that the only way to deal with bullies was to ignore them, the sort of I'm-rubber-you're-glue rhetoric that conflict-avoiders love. To acknowledge a fear of catcalling strangers, even among friends, feels a bit like letting the bullies win.
Instead, we laugh it off, because that feels like a choice the way sitting and stewing never does. It's a technique comedians have used for years: laughing at people "better" than them to forcibly bring them to their own level. Of course, that very act elevates our catcallers to mocking level in the first place.
Maybe I'm the weenie here. Maybe I'm just projecting, and my friends really do feel nothing but amusement when people catcall them. It's not as if I have to suck my lower lip into my mouth with anxiety every time my neighbor tells me my outfit makes my legs look good.
But I do get scared even when I'm in no perceptible danger. I'm tired of pretending like I can shake everything off like lukewarm water. When I'm walking to the CalTrain at 7:30 in the morning and men have said good morning to me, I've occasionally taken off running for no reason except that there's no one around and I am suddenly painfully aware of the space I take up. For me, laughing it off is no longer working.
Even writing this here feels like a betrayal of the active group fantasy of thick-skinnedness, like to admit hurt and fear is to admit our weaknesses, which then invites the question of why we don't become stronger to make ourselves impervious. Every self-defense tip I've ever heard begins with, "Walk confidently; don't appear to be a victim." I think I've internalized that advice to the degree that even voicing my discomfort among friends seems to be revealing myself as a possible target.
This kind of facade extends to outside of my friend circle, too. I find myself wanting to protect other people from the truth of my fear, particularly people who haven't ever experienced it. When my old neighbor messages me on Facebook, begging me to be careful in the city, I send back, "Don't worry, Tanya! My neighborhood is totally safe -- and I have pepper spray just in case!"
And maybe on a one-on-one basis, this half-manufactured flippancy is the only solution. The iHollaback movement, of course, has begun an active take-back-the-night kind of revolution, but it's hard to remember to make myself the aggressor when I'm alone on a train platform with a stranger who won't stop circling closer, humming along to his headphones and watching me through half-open eyes.
Every time I start to feel threatened, I repeat these compromises like a good-luck charm:
Walk tall, but not tall enough to seem overconfident.
Wear one headphone in, but listen to no music.
Make eye contact, but only glancingly. Keep one hand on your pocket like you brought your mace, even though you know you left it on your bookshelf.
And smile like you don't give a shit.
The negotiation between resisting my own victimization and protecting my safety is constantly shifting, and sometimes it's just easier to duck my head, wear my grin like a shield, and hope that's enough to defuse the situation.
Even that negotiation fails, though. Last week in San Francisco, a woman was stabbed for "rebuffing a man's advances," which is something I didn't know I'd been afraid of until it actually happened in my city. In my own neighborhood, participants at a recent march for solidarity urged people not to numb themselves to dangerous situations after an attempted rape of a woman a mile from my house.
A few weeks ago, a guy screamed at me from his car window, drove around the block to get between me and my front door, and then slowly drove past the house several times after I'd avoided him by ducking into a convenience store. Words are just words, but they can escalate so quickly into something infinitely more dangerous.
If there is a silver lining to any of this, though, it's that people around me are starting to talk about the fine line between harassment and violence. When I made it home the night that dude followed me and I told my housemates what was wrong, my first instinct was to make a joke out of it. "He was probably just looking for directions," I think I said, or something like that.
My housemates flocked around me, touching my arms and shoulders. "Call the non-emergency number and report him," one of them said. "What if this happens to someone else?"
"That's terrifying," said another one. "God, this city sometimes." Pessimistic, yeah, but it was exactly what I'd needed to hear.
I'd like to be angry or funny or clever at these situations, to feel like I'm taking back control of them. Some people use these emotions way more productively than I do. If that's your jam, consider me admiring and envious.
But I'm starting to realize that fear is a powerful weapon, too, in that it can unite people against a common enemy. And when that common enemy is violence against women, maybe the shared public acknowledgement of fear can be just as authentic and empowering as humor.
Kate is on Twitter: @katchatters.