The first time I saw a man masturbating, I was eight years old. I was in Central Park with my third grade class, and we were there to sketch. I’d wandered a little away from the group and found a perfect tree and I was busily trying to sketch onto my pad what I was seeing in front of me. I’d study the tree, then draw on my pad. The third or fourth time I looked up, there was a man under the tree with his pants down, furiously moving his hand up and down his penis while staring at me. I had no idea why he was doing this, but I felt scared and knew immediately it wasn’t something I should be seeing. I looked up at him and we made eye contact for a second, and I went running to my teacher, crying. By the time she came back to where I’d been sitting, he was gone. I have no idea if she told anyone at school, if my parents were informed, or if anything else came of it, I only remember the man, the tree, and the sketch I never finished.
When I was twelve, my best friend and I took my little brother and his friend sledding in Riverside Park. When we got back to my building, we were flushed both from the cold, and the exertion of pulling two little boys along on sleds. I picked up my brother and my friend picked up his little friend, and we hoisted them and the sleds into the exterior lobby of my building. As it happened, a man was just arriving, and he held the door open for us and then went to the building directory. I pulled out my keys and opened the door to the inner lobby, and although I noticed no one had buzzed him in, the man again held the door for us, and I thought it would be impolite to ask him who he was going to see. (Note: we teach our girls to be polite.) The same thing happened as he held the elevator door open and stepped in after us. I pushed the button for the second floor, he pushed the button for the third. No sooner had the doors closed, than he pulled down his pants and started masturbating in front of us. I shielded my brother’s little face by burying it in my shoulder, and my friend and I started screaming and crying. When the doors opened on the second floor, we tumbled out, sleds, toddlers and hysteria, and pounded on the front door of my mom’s house. The guy flew out of the elevator behind us and ran down the back stairs. My mother came running to the door in her socks and raced after him, and though she saw him leaving the lobby and running down the street, there was no way she could catch him without shoes.
The next year, as I was heading into my ballet class on Broadway and 83rd, a man entered ahead of me. I had a bad feeling, so I started running up the steep staircase to get ahead of him, but he grabbed me from behind, one hand between my legs, and the other over my mouth. “Just don’’t move, okay?” he asked me, and started unzipping his pants. I became all animal. I bit his hand and flailed my elbow into his side and managed to break free and turn myself around, so I was crawling backwards up the stairs facing him, once again screaming and crying. I do remember that he looked as terrified as I felt, his eyes wild before he turned and raced down the stairs and back into the city. By the time I got into the dance studio office and managed to blurt out what had happened between sobs, he was long gone.
It didn’t even occur to me to scream or cry or do anything a year later when a man went by in his car as I was crossing the street, cutting me off and driving slowly while masturbating. When I went to the park to sunbathe with my friends and a guy started playing with himself under a tree nearby, we just got up and moved. I’d learned that these things happened and no one did anything. I’d learned that a man can show you his penis if he feels like it, whether you want to see it or not. A man can use you as part of his sexual fantasy, whether you want to participate or not. When I was fifteen, my mother chastised me on the street one day for not wearing a bra. She said if my breasts bounced, men would get hard. She spat that at me like it was my fault and my responsibility, and I didn’t realize for years that her disgust was aimed at them and not me.
I won’t talk here about my worst and most confusing experience, that’s going in the memoir I’m currently writing, but I will share one last story. When I was about twenty, I went on a casting call for a spin-off of the Victoria’s Secret Catalog. This was supposed to be a line for athletic bodies, and although I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of being photographed in underwear, I was in a disastrous relationship with a man twenty years my senior, I had no money of my own, and this job meant six weeks in Italy and a $30,000 paycheck. I arrived at the call which was at an incredible duplex in Gramercy Park. There were about sixty women there, along with a female casting director, the guy who was one of the partners in the catalog spinoff, and a young guy who was running around making sure everyone had signed in properly. It was like a thousand other casting calls I’d been on. Later that day my agent called and said they wanted to see me the next day, and that it was down to ten of us. I was excited, mostly about the prospect of having a way to get myself out of an abusive relationship, and also, Italy. When I went back the second time, the partner in this catalog endeavor asked if I could lose ten pounds in a week. I didn’t have ten pounds to lose, but I said yes. The female casting director looked pained, but said nothing as she brought me into the next room where there was a scale waiting. She marked down my weight, and said they’d see me in a week. My agent called later that day to say that she really did not want me to starve myself, but it was down to six of us and they were picking four to go to Italy. I barely ate that week, and when the casting director called me the day before my scheduled call-back and asked me to come a couple hours earlier, I thought nothing of it.
When I arrived for my weigh-in, I found the partner alone at his Gramercy Park home. I wasn’t expecting that and found it uncomfortable, but he was officious and mentioned the casting agent had just run out for coffee. He said the weigh-in was a formality, anyway, and that I looked great. He asked me if I was excited about the job, if it was something I wanted to do, and being young, I shared that I was not only excited but relieved at the prospect, because I was in a bad relationship and needed a way out. He said the other girls were great, and we were going to share two hotel rooms and have a wonderful time, and that he was excited for us. Then he said he had a call he had to make, and we’d have to get this weigh-in going, he couldn’t wait anymore. He said he’d forgotten to bring the scale downstairs, and I should follow him. Up the stairs I went, feeling nervous but talking myself out of that feeling. He motioned to a room to the left, said the scale was through the room and in the bathroom, and that he was going to go postpone that call. He went hustling down the hallway and closed a door behind him, and I went into the room where he’d directed me, to discover that it was a bedroom.
I went into the bathroom and found the scale, and had this odd moment of wondering how this was going to work. Was it the honor system? Was I supposed to get on the scale and tell him what I weighed, or was he coming into the bathroom, or what, exactly, was I supposed to do? I didn’t have to wonder long, because there was a short knock on the door, and then he opened it, standing in an open robe and nothing else. I stared at him for what felt like days but might have been only a second, and he put his hands in the air and said, “This is what it is. Give me the best blow job of my life, and the gig is yours.” He said this unapologetically, with a glint in his eye. I felt a mixture of many things at once — revulsion, shock, shame, rage, and an intense desire to strangle him. I’d starved myself for a week. This man had the gall to stand there and tell me I could have the job and the money and the way out of a bad situation if I’d turn myself into a prostitute. I shoved past him, crying and cursing and went flying down the stairs. He called after me and said this is what it took, and they wouldn’t be calling me again. My last words to him were, “Go f&ck yourself.”
I haven’t thought about any of this for quite a long time. Every woman I know who’s been harassed, assaulted, and demeaned just puts those experiences in a file because up until now, no one has cared. No one has said or done a thing that makes any kind of difference. I hope the story is shifting. I hope like hell my daughter is inheriting a world where things like this just don’t happen anymore, because I can’t be in every park, on every field trip, on every corner she crosses, in every professor’s office, or yoga class where an “adjustment” goes wrong (yes, this happens in the yoga world, too, it happens everywhere). I can’t be there to block the catcalls, the idiots telling her to smile like she’s an object that exists on this earth for their gratification, even though in reality, she is a universe unto herself. I can’t be everywhere, all the time. It enrages me when there are films and television shows directed at children, and girls and women are described as “hot”, I want to scream at the writers. If you think it isn’t insidious, this objectification of girls and women, you aren’t paying attention. Waiters comment when my daughter cleans her plate, but not my son. People comment on her looks and his achievements. All I can do is teach them myself that a woman’s worth is not based on how she looks, but who she is. I talk to both of my children about this, because I want my daughter to grow into a woman who stands up for herself, and feels safe in this world, but I want her not just to feel safe, but to be safe. I want my son to be the kind of man who would never, in any way demean or objectify a woman, I want him to be the guy who celebrates, respects and sees a woman as a human being with a history all her own and gorgeous gifts to share. The thing is, I’m just one person. That’s how all women feel, we are just in this thing alone unless everyone starts to think about his or her own contribution.
I googled the catalog guy the other night. He goes by a few variations of his last name. He’s living in Boca Raton now. He’s a millionaire. He sold that apartment in Gramercy Park. There are other public complaints against him, he’s been doing that same scam for twenty years. I’m tired of keeping it in the file. For all the girls and women who have their own stories and haven’t known what to do with them, maybe now’s the time to let them out. There are so many great men in the world, and most of them have no idea how rampant this is. When you hear your idiot buddies making stupid f&cking jokes at the bar, shut it down. When you hear locker room talk, shut it down. When the guy running for the highest office in the land talks about “grabbing pussies” don’t f&cking vote for him. Don’t teach your sons to categorize women by numbers, like 10, or 8 or 4. It affects your mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, friends. It isn’t something anyone should have to accept or tolerate. It’s not just Hollywood, it’s everywhere. Feels good to open the file and light it on fire. None of us need your sympathy, we’ve all learned how to be tough. What we need is your support in changing things.
Much love to all the girls and women out there who have their own stories, and much gratitude to all the wonderful, kind, insightful men,
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