The toxic 2016 election caused many women to relive the trauma of harassment and sexual abuse that they have endured both on the streets and behind closed doors. In “Keep Walking,” Lauren Eggert-Crowe, without directly mentioning the president-elect once, shares an essay about what it means to learn to be a woman.
I was 11 years old the first time I was catcalled. I was walking in pink Keds and white socks along a rural road paralleling a river to meet friends at a swimming hole. My skinny, unshaven, suntanned, bug-bitten legs stuck out of baggy cotton shorts with seashells printed on them. A tie-dyed T-shirt covered me like a tent. As I walked along the gravel shoulder, a car approaching from behind slowed down just a little. The driver, a bearded middle-aged man, shouted, “Hey, my son likes you!” The emphasis on the word likes was said in an almost accusatory tone. Then his 12- or 13-year-old son leaned out the back window and shouted, “Give me a kiss, baybeeeeeee!” — his voice trailed off as the car sped away, in the direction I was walking.
I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, a pre-teen girl habit I had already learned. Startled and ashamed, but flattered that someone liked me, I gave a reflexive smile to nobody and kept walking. It did not occur to me to be angry, only grateful that I’d been noticed. It is obvious to me now that, even then, I was already learning what it meant to be a woman.
When I reached the small dirt parking lot beside the river, the man and his son were standing by their car. I could feel the son’s eyes on me as I walked by, trying not to look at them. My face was hot. “Just keeeeeep walking,” the boy drawled. I pointed my finger at my ear and twirled it in a circle, the universal sign for crazy among fifth graders in the mid-1990s. It was the only comeback I could muster.
Since then, I’ve been wolf-whistled and catcalled, honked and hollered at, countless times. Men have bellowed and leered at me from behind the safety of their revving engines. A group of boys in my freshman dorm called me Butt Girl and snickered behind me whenever we walked to the dining hall together. Now, when I get harassed, I let my fury fly, and watch “Hey honey” quickly devolve into “Fuck you, bitch!” One man slapped my ass at a Los Angeles bar and I screamed in his face, “Don’t fucking touch me again.” He stammered and looked utterly confused. Whenever I can react fast enough, I roar back at them; I try to grow a foot taller and an octave lower. But sometimes, I falter, or I second-guess the egregiousness of the offense, and let it go. One January night in Berkeley, I briskly walked down Shattuck in a red pea coat, arms folded against the cold. A man on the sidewalk leered, “Little Red Riding Hood, ha ha ha.” “Yeah,” I responded in my flattest monotone as I rushed by, hoping my lack of cheer would be read as defiance.
For a long time I was naïve enough to believe my disdain would save me. I told myself that if any man even tried to hurt me, I’d summon my inner Buffy Summers and beat the shit out of him.
But that’s never been true about me. Sure, I can turn on a dime and fire off a string of obscenities at street harassers, and I’m stellar at rejecting men I don’t care about. But I falter in the face of men I like, men I’ve convinced myself I need.
I could tell you about the first date who undressed me without bothering to ask permission, or the new partners who penetrated me without warning, or yanked my hair, or pushed boundaries because it turned them on to be edgy and risky. I could tell you about the boyfriend who repeatedly spanked me no matter how many times I asked him not to, who would try to initiate sex in the middle of the night by grabbing my pussy while I slept. The one time I hesitantly told him that his behavior put me on edge and made me lose sleep, I saw the moodiness storming up his eyes, and I spent the rest of the day managing my anxiety and guilt. There was the morning when I had to ask him four times to stop biting me, only to hear him say no in a voice he thought was cute. I could tell you about the Silicon Valley office crush I finally slept with after three years of flirting, who cajoled my consent for “just one second” inside of me unprotected, then scoffed when I pushed him out and told him to put a condom on. “God, just relax, you’re ruining the moment,” he said. And I could tell you how I kicked none of these men out of my bed. How I got smaller. Embarrassed for ruining the moment. Paper cuts I allowed as the price of companionship.
Admitting this makes me feel like I’ve failed all my feminist foremothers. I’ve had a lifetime of faltering. If I have a crush on you, come at me with your best bullshit and I will absorb it gracefully. Violate my boundaries, and I will retroactively redraw them, because I desperately want to believe the best in you. Haughty as I am, my superiority crumbles when validation is on the line.
I hadn’t noticed the accumulation of paper cuts until now. All those moments when I gave a man something he wanted. I carry around these memories like a jar of stones that dream of shattering windows. I am romantically lonely, but I don’t trust the motives of anyone who wants to sleep with me. We are socialized to see women as vending machines into which men insert coins of validation in exchange for a sexual snack. Yes, all women are expected to manage that economy delicately and cheerfully. I know no other way to fight back than to become a fist of no, even toward the least consequential of targets. The full-throttle rage I direct at harassers is directly proportional to the submissiveness I’ve offered some of my lovers. It’s a start. Hopefully, someday, I can work my way up to telling someone I like to back the fuck off.
One night in my mid-20s, I found myself in a late-night emotional talk with a man over whom I’d been heartbroken for months. The severance of our fraught, mercurial affair had left me untethered and panicking with loneliness. Now, months later, I tried to convince myself I could stamp out the pain and be his friend again. I could accept that he didn’t love me the way I loved him. But then, in the middle of this circular heart-to-heart, he told me he wanted to kiss me.
I had a speech planned for just such a moment, one I rehearsed in my car and in the shower and at the stove. I said I didn’t want him to kiss me if it was only going to make him wish he were really kissing the girl who had recently dumped him, the girl he had dumped me for. I said I didn’t want to give in to this temptation if he was going to treat me differently afterward. I said all of this with ambivalence as we lay on his bed, my no and maybe oscillating on a pendulum that slammed inside my ribs, my body wavering and hoping and silently asking, Please say you still love me.
I had power in this moment. I had something he wanted. For months I had wondered if this man I’d loved and longed for even cared about me anymore. And now I was stunned by his confession — validated into shakiness by my sudden power to bestow or deny. I was so young. I can’t even tell you how young I was. Still, I was wise enough to know that my power would evaporate if I said yes. So I tried to say no.
But I lost my words when he propped himself up on his elbow to hover over me, tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear and said, “God, you have the most beautiful eyes. I’d forgotten.” I got very still. I closed my eyes. I stopped breathing. I let him kiss me. It turns out it’s a lot easier to practice saying no to your steering wheel or a frying pan than it is to really say it into the eyes of a man who broke your heart. Because I still loved him. Because I thought I had won. Then I drew up a flinty, flippant exterior around my heart, and slept with him, all the while convincing myself this was a victory.
I was of course wrong to convince myself of this. I thought I’d been holding all the cards. But the house always wins. That’s the thing about a devil’s bargain. Going into it, you think you’re getting the better deal. But he had something I wanted more. And now the scales of power were flipped back to where they had been a few hours earlier. The affection was replaced with terseness; the beauty of my eyes was now irrelevant. After some perfunctory spooning, he told me I shouldn’t stay the night “because otherwise it will be a whole thing in the morning, and not just something that happened.” I hadn’t planned to spend the night at his house anyway. So at 2 a.m., I hugged him goodbye and left.
Walking home, I told myself I could move on. I had won. I even tried to strut a little. But the fault lines inside me began to scrape and groan in a shift that would damage my foundation for years. It was not the last physical encounter that would leave me doubting my worth and wondering why I had so easily redrawn my lines in the sand. But each time it happened over the next several years, I took on all of the burden. I would give men what they wanted and blame myself for their changed behavior afterward, because I thought it meant I wasn’t being a woman correctly. It never occurred to me to be angry about what had been extracted from me.
A few minutes into my walk home, two men called out to me from the doorway of a closed bar.
“Hey girl, can I walk you home?” said the first one.
“No thanks, I’m good,” I replied, in my most superior nasal monotone, facing dead ahead.
“It’s not safe for a girl to be alone,” the other one said.
I kept walking.
Lauren Eggert-Crowe is the author of four poetry chapbooks. Her most recent collection, Bitches of the Drought, was selected by Staci R. Schoenfeld as a finalist in Sundress Publications 2016 Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Ghost Proposal, Witch Craft Magazine and Tupelo Quarterly, among others. She serves as Reviews Editor for Terrain.org and is on the leadership team for Women Who Submit.
Photo: “Dark Walker” by Eric Vondy