The story begins on the main boulevard of Angers. I’m walking to the train station after a long day of work, and a couple of salty-looking French men are walking my way. They stop, they ooh and ahh, and deliver some uncouth pickup lines. Standard catcalling fare, the kind that women are very familiar with.
T’es bonne! (You’re sexy!)
Oh, là là là, salut ma chérie! (Hey, sweetheart!)
C’est quoi tes origines, là? (Where’re you from?)
Their use of tu is what struck me. In French, the informal tu and the polite vous are clear ways to express distance or familiarity to the person with whom you speak.
I understand; scratching your nuts and grunting at a woman isn’t exactly the time for politeness. But the way these men referred to me as tu indicates a familiarity with which I didn’t ask for, and certainly didn’t need or deserve. Women know this feeling all too well. The way men like this invite themselves into your space, then feel you owe them something while they’re there… How egregious!
Of course, not responding to these terribly suave pickup lines can then invite an alternate ending: some men just have to have the last word, and my ears sting as they throw me one last insult to injury, for the road: Bitch. Conne. Salope.
Now, imagine the presumptuousness of someone stomping onto your front porch and demanding a cup of tea, then insulting you when you don’t comply. The trouble is, we never know if that guy will slither away and retreat, or if he’ll try to break the door down to get some tea. The majority fall into the first category; the rare times you meet someone from the second are those that burn into your memory.
This kind of discussion often comes back to female culpability. The question isn’t “What the fuck is wrong with that creepy guy?” No, the question is “What were you wearing?” In other words, what did you do to invite this onto yourself?
It brings me back to being in middle and high school, right back to those good ol’ days where my bullies understood my silence as tacit consent. Interfering in my space was considered a right, and I had no say about it.
At home, the response I got was “Well, don’t let them do it!” But as a girl, I didn’t understand how not to let them do it; it felt like I was doing something wrong, that maybe it was my fault. I allowed it to happen, so therefore I was the guilty party. The bullying later evolved into sexual harassment, and I learned that my words were ineffective. Others had words that could hurt, but mine were worthless.
I learned that boys were bad. That male attention could hurt. That, given the chance, they’d stomp into your house, drag mud all over the carpet, then blame you for leaving the front door unlocked.
As women, we learn from these lessons and start locking the door. For me, I tried locking the door, barricading it, and pretending to be invisible behind. I couldn’t answer the door to anyone, and I eyed the potential burglar with the same suspicion as the puppy salesman.
With this charming backstory in my pocket, I grew into a woman and started getting the standard societal messages: male attention is GOOD! Male attention is affirmation of your worth as a woman! I was supposed to yearn for male approval while inwardly understanding that they are cunning and untrustworthy. We’re screwed with them or without them when we view things like this in black-and-white.
Fortunately, life brings about the good to balance the bad, and by fostering relationships with the good guys, things become less black-and-white. It’s here in France where I have more hetero male friends than I’d ever had before. It’s through these respectful, trusting friendships that I learned it wasn’t always necessary to blockade the door.
So when some jerkoff on the street invites himself into my space, the 30-year-old Me is simultaneously insulted and annoyed, but also feels a twinge of sadness for those 12, 14, 16, 19, 22, 24, 25-year-old Mes who were silent.
The difference is, I’ve got words now.