In my first year of living in Los Angeles, I noticed the peculiar way that LAPD officers rolled their patrol cars to a stop at intersections during a red light. They always left a noticeable gap, sometimes more than a full car length, between their patrol car and the vehicle in front of them. I quickly realized this was because the cops always had to be ready to pull a quick U-turn or maneuver into the oncoming lane if they suddenly had to respond to an emergency call.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized I had taken a cue from the LAPD and fallen into the exact same habit. I sometimes leave a gap between my car and the vehicle in front of me when stopping at red lights. You see, Los Angeles is a driving town with beautiful weather, and I prefer the windows open. Better yet, I prefer the top down, and every so often, I also need a little extra room to maneuver.
For those of you who live in pedestrian cities, a woman driving a convertible with the top down through Los Angeles traffic is roughly the equivalent of a woman walking down a busy sidewalk in a bikini. You are on display. You attract attention whether you want it or not. Every douchebag with a line of sight considers it an open invitation to oogle and gawk, and if you’re a woman who happens to be driving by herself, you become a magnet for a distinctive brand of West Coast car-based catcalling.
That’s why I started leaving myself room at red lights.
And this isn’t just a problem for me. Today Stop Street Harassment, an organization whose mission seems pretty self explanatory, released the largest survey ever about street harassment in the U.S. It found that 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men had experienced some type of street harassment, though anecdotal evidence suggests it might be even higher for women and gay men.
But that I’m not alone is no comfort. Every time I approach an intersection with the top down, I scan the surrounding vehicles for their douche potential — lift kits, rims, custom paint — pretty much any aftermarket modification that might indicate a certain kind of gaudy machismo. Shit like that is always a red flag. Open windows? Thumping bass? Decals indicating brand allegiance that involve Calvin peeing on something? I’m definitely pulling up in those dudes’ blind spots. No fucking way am I making it easy for them.
This isn’t something I do out of fear. I’m not skittish. I can handle myself when necks start to crane from the sidewalk or windows start to roll down around me. Most of the time, they don’t even say anything. They just cock their heads at me and stroke what is inevitably some form of decorative facial hair. All they want is my attention, some glimmer of acknowledgement, even if it’s my visible discomfort. If that’s the case, I never give it.
Sometimes, though, they don’t just feel entitled to stare. They feel entitled to engage me in some form of conversation, even if it’s just an exchange of rude gestures. Nothing sends shivers down my spine quite like a Vanilla Ice doppelganger wearing a Tapout tank top leaning out his window and lifting his wrap-around Oakleys so he can smack his lips and toss a string of duck-faced air kisses in my general direction.
Ugh. It’s so disgusting, and despite my mother’s voice in my head to “just ignore them,” sometimes I can’t help myself. I glare back. It’s never in anger or frustration, even though I’m feeling it. I prefer icy disdain. I hit them with unflinching eye contact and as much indifference as I can muster. I keep a “fuck off” ready to fly if necessary, and you should see how hot my freshly manicured middle finger looks when I jam it into the air. Then again, that never ends well.
I’ve been called a stuck-up bitch, a cunt, and a dumb whore more times than I care to remember. I’ve been informed that I’m not as hot as I think I am. My sexual orientation is often called into question. I’ve even been spat on. (Well, to be honest, his spit didn’t actually land on me, but he did get a little on my windshield before speeding off to what I can only imagine was his alcoholic mother’s shitbox apartment in the Valley where he masturbates himself to sleep every night on a crusty old sofa, occasionally using his own tears as lube. But I digress.)
Honestly, what the fuck do these idiots expect is going to happen? What’s in it for them? Do they really expect me to swoon? Is there some fantasy in their heads where I’m so flattered by their sexual advances that we pull over to the side of the road and get to know each other? Or am I the crazy one to think that they even consider me an actual human being with thoughts and feelings of my own instead of some rolling sex object tasked with the street-level obligation to dispense flirty giggles and maybe — since they asked so politely — flash them my tits?
It still baffles me every time it happens. As they speed away in a cloud of exhaust fumes and ignorant male privilege, I’m often gripped with the bizarre urge to chase them down. I imagine running them off the road. I imagine them trapped in a fiery wreck of twisted metal. I imagine what it would be like to look down at them and scream, “WHAT IN THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY THINK IT’S OKAY TO TREAT WOMEN LIKE THIS?”
Then I realize I’m just angry that I let some mouthy neanderthal get to me. I feel defeated for not ignoring him, and then I feel even worse for blaming myself. Eventually I end up smoking a rage cigarette in the desperate hope that it will calm me down long enough to keep a 10 second interaction with a piece of human garbage from ruining my entire day.
It really is infuriating, but what’s even more upsetting is that I’m already anticipating certain types of comments from certain types of people — the ones who think I’m overreacting, the ones who think I somehow deserve it, and the ones who think I shouldn’t complain. I’ve heard the same bullshit from some of my guy friends:
“What’s the big deal?”
“Maybe he was just trying to be nice.”
“You should be flattered.”
“What do you expect driving around in that outfit?”
My guts tie themselves in knots just thinking about these kinds of reactions. If that’s your instinct, if you’re one of those people who shrug your shoulders when you see or hear stories of a woman being catcalled, please take a hot minute and pause for some self-reflection, because you are part of the problem.
Street harassment is an ugly side effect of a culture steeped in toxic levels of misogyny and patriarchal entitlement. It is a big deal. They aren’t just trying to be nice. It isn’t flattering, and we should all expect better behavior from men.
Image via Carrie Sloan