I remember the first time I was catcalled. I was a late bloomer, and my tits barely grew at all, so I never received the same level of attention that some of my friends did. I spent much of my middle school and first year of high school convinced that I would remain a virgin, because no one would ever be interested in me and my tiny tits. Ah, how naïve I was!
On this occasion, I was walking to high school, fourteen years old. It was a mile-long trek on one bustling street that connected several towns along the Long Island Sound. The man on the far right of the truck whistled at me and stuck his tongue out in a circular motion. I looked behind me, convinced that he could not be pointing that attention at me, but I was a lone pedestrian. In the first moment, I felt shock. In the second, I felt disgust. In the third, I felt excited. And in the fourth, I felt fear.
I am a very lucky woman. I grew up in suburbia, rarely took public transportation, and did not develop an objectively “hot” body until well into my college years, where I finally figured out how to exercise, and how not to be so gangly. I was sheltered from a fair amount of unwanted male attention during my most formative years. I think this is partially how I developed such a “sex positive” outlook – although living in New York City as a social worker is a continuous abuse to this attitude. This walk to school, and the countless instances that followed, were a rude awakening. I couldn’t deny the thrill I got from becoming a sexualized being – but the more it happened, the less exciting it was, and the more afraid I became.
Being seen as a sex object can feel supremely empowering – when that person also cares for other aspects of you. But these men on the street don’t know a thing about me. All they know is that I am a woman, and all they believe is that I am walking by them solely for their entertainment. Their lewd gestures and repulsive words are less an appreciation of my body than an assertion of dominance – a constant reminder that I am being studied, that my female body is not safe. It does not matter what we wear or how we walk, we are sex objects.
As I began to engage in more and more sexual relationships with men, I started to notice that there is a fine line between feeling appreciated as a person and as an object – and I often cannot tell the difference. Sometimes love feels like objectification. And sometimes objectification can feel like love.
I used to commend myself, internally, for never having experienced the typical “one night stand” scenario. Not once have I been ghosted or dumped by a man that I was interested in. But while I may not have experienced the blatant objectification of being “used” for a night and then discarded, I have still been a sex object to those who appreciate other aspects of me.
There are men who have loved me because I represented something to them: an escape, a taboo, a mistress. To them, I am an object, a mirage; I embody what they need, I am merely their projection. Until very recently, I didn’t mind playing those roles. It felt fulfilling, because I was also using men – for validation, for sex, for novelty, for intimacy. But as my need for novelty and validation wane, I’ve found that achieving intimacy while playing an inauthentic role is impossible. And as the reality of misogyny, the leers on New York City streets, and the barrage of messages on OkCupid finally set in, I have begun to resent being a sex object – even for the men who care about more than my body.
It has become exceedingly difficult for me to separate my ‘anger at the patriarchy’ from the individual men in my life. I struggle with conflicting feelings of immense love and gratitude versus frustration, disgust, and resentment. Determining exactly when I am being objectified, and how I should feel about it each time, feels like an insurmountable task, and it’s completely fucking exhausting. And yet, to not do so seems unthinkable. Feminism today is using humor and optimism to undo the damage that sexism has caused. And while this is a useful and worthy tool, ignoring the reality of our combined experiences, and the impact these experiences have had on our mental, physical, and emotional well-being does not heal our wounds. “We laugh with Amy Schumer, listen to Beyoncé tell us that girls run the world or Sheryl Sandberg when she tells us to lean in…But maybe we’re doing ourselves a disservice by working so hard to move past what sexism has done to us rather than observe it for a while. Maybe it’s okay if we don’t want to be inspirational just this once.”
Similarly, laughing off the men who treat me like their own personal sex fantasy feels like acquiescence – not humor – and I am quickly running out of chuckles. But, importantly, these are not just the men on the streets or anonymous online messages. These are also the very same men that I love, or fuck, or have loved, or have fucked. These are the men that love me, the very same men who commend me on my intelligence and humor. These are also the men that I adore for their generosity and kindness. These are the men that I want to gratify, because I care for them, and because it pleases me to do so. How can I love someone for their sweetness, and simultaneously feel objectified by them? Where is the line between feeling used and feeling special? And how do I balance my adoration with my frustration?