The first time I was catcalled was the summer I turned 12. “Loooooove you! In the purple!” the boys called. My reaction was a mix of awkward flattery and disbelief. Were they mocking me? They kept at it, giggling.
The first time I was propositioned was four years later, the summer I turned 16. A classmate at writing camp asked me in a student lounge, without particular warning, whether, hey, I wanted to “go do it now.” I said, “Go do it?” and turned away from him. We weren’t even friends. Lack of teenage nuance aside, the message was disheartening: there were those who cared not at all about what I had to say, my interests or biography or my voice. To some, I was only a body, and a body was something to be used.
I chose to teach my eldest daughter, now 15, that term “catcall” not long ago, when a truckload of men passed us while we walked the dog. I didn’t tell her much more — I didn’t warn her that as a comely young woman, she could expect years of this, or that she should always be mindful of her personal well being. We’ve talked about safety before, but on that street with the truck newly passed and her awareness of the men’s behavior still tending toward innocence, it felt like too much a visit from the adulthood she has not yet fully entered. I numbly kept it as a vocabulary lesson and couldn’t bear much more.
My youngest daughter made it to only first grade before she was viewed in sexual terms by a man, albeit one with criminal psychopathy. She and a friend had stopped at a park drinking fountain, taking a break from their rides on their scooters, when a man dropped his pants in the alcove of the adjacent bathroom. She and her friend were both only six years old.
One might look at me and my daughters, and at the countless similar stories of so many of us women viewed first as objects of sexual interest, and feel sullen or even enraged. We might gauge the low bar we have set for those in the recent public sphere and grow further troubled. Surely, we have work to do.
Amid this clamor, I offer a single hopeful sign that we humans are worthy creatures. There is more to the story of the day my youngest daughter became the victim of a sex crime.
Two young men witnessed the man’s criminal behavior in that alcove. They immediately accosted the offender and ensured he couldn’t flee. They moved him to the nearby lawn, where scores of their friends and family — at the park that day for a large gathering — encircled him.
I was aware of none of this. My daughter had subsequently fallen and skinned her knee. Totally ignorant of what had happened by the drinking fountain, I went to my vehicle to find a bandage and left my daughter with her friend’s mom. When I returned, I observed the group maintaining their angry circle around a lone man, seated helplessly on the grass. Their outrage was obvious. I gradually pieced together what had happened. Without those everyday heroes, the crime would’ve gone unpunished. I would have no idea what had happened to my young child.
Of course I was sickened to realize my little girl was a victim of a crime and that our lives were about to be impacted by a criminal case. Juxtaposed against those strong emotions, however, I couldn’t help but be reassured by the actions of those two young men and their benevolent posse. It was not their children who were victimized. Yet their outrage was certain and their course influential. By intervening, they likely protected future victims. The perpetrator turned out to be a registered sex offender with a lengthy record.
So it was their children who were victimized that afternoon next to that drinking fountain. And their children are mine. With their swift action, those two 22-year-olds – not much past their teen years themselves — introduced me to the justice of community, to a selfless vigilantism that comforts me to this day.
The legal proceedings dragged on for three years as the defendant sought repeated delays. Finally he pleaded guilty. A repeat offender, he will be sentenced in December and could receive up to 14 years in prison.
So it can be an ugly world. It can be an ugly and contentious world, a place dominated by self-interest and greed and the undervaluing of others. I’ve fretted over my child’s innocence lost, mulled restlessly over the unsettling “What if…?” question, and regretted the sad optics of taking my baby to a courtroom to practice serving as a witness in advance of a trial. The world can bring us pain. But two young men rushed to protect two little girls that day, and their tribe became my tribe, and our lives were linked. Our culture might stumble and err, and our media-saturated narrative might seem beyond repair, but there is good out there. There are many who respect the bodies and minds of women and girls. There is connection. We belong to each other. We have to let ourselves believe that, and then live that credo as brave witnesses.