street life

I’ve been beautiful since I was nine years old

I’ve been beautiful since I was nine years old
Written by Cathoel Jorss,

Being shoved up against the train windows by a much older man whose friends looked on and hooted. Waking up as the blankets were stripped off my upper bunk and the passport controller’s flashlight swept up and down my body. Having to leap from a moving car on a back road after accepting a lift with a girlfriend from two seemingly friendly, laid-back university students we had been chatting with for some time. Having a man grab and wrench my breast as I passed. Innumerable insultingly degrading sexual suggestions, often from immaculate men in suits. Erections pressed up against me by hairdressers, fellow commuters, shoppers. Being lifted out of the way every time the manager at the place I waitressed needed to pass. I was fifteen. Being called sunshine, baby, darlin, hot lips, sweet mamma, etc etc. Being called “that.” Being spoken of and numerically rated by men who address their friends rather than me. Having various uncles slide their hands up my leg and one of them tell me, “You are so beautiful I can see how uncles might have Funny Feelings about their nieces.” Being told this year by a male gynaecologist he finds me “too erotic.” Facedown in underwear after a massage feeling an elderly, frail physiotherapist recommended by a trusted (male) friend plant a kiss on my outer butt cheek and then crow to himself, “I’m allowed to do that, because I’m your Uncle So and So.”

Being grabbed between the legs from behind as I walked off a dance floor, by a man I’d not even had eye contact with. Being followed. Being crowded in doorways. Being told “Ohhh, I love your eyes,” by a man staring at my breasts. Being asked a thousand times, in injured tones, “Hey, where you going?” Being wolf-whistled, cat-called, followed in slow cars. Having my drink spiked at a nightclub, fighting off the swarming feeling of faintness, and later hearing from a friend that she had woken up in the alleyway behind the club. Being attacked whenever I speak up against misogyny and called frigid, ugly, a bitch, a lesbian bitch, accused of man-hating. I am a shy but fairly outspoken person and am protected, to some extent, by my tallness. My experience is not I think particularly unusual and has spread across my entire life since I was 12 or 13. I have responded in a wide range of ways: ignoring, pouring their beer over their head, reporting to the bouncer, telling them where to get off. Most times they seemed gleeful to have gotten a response; sometimes the lack of a response seems to invite further harassment.

If you are a man, picture to yourself how intimidating any one of these experiences might feel. Now picture a barrage of them, week in week out, regardless of what you wear or of how you conduct yourself. The only way you can escape this treatment is by sticking close to another man. Still feeling safe?

25 comments on “I’ve been beautiful since I was nine years old

  1. My classic rememberance is of a car load of young men “gorilla hooting”… or is it chimpanzees that make that sound… out of a car as they drove slowly past me, banging on the outside of the car doors as they hung out of the windows. I was walking my two youngest children (aged 5 and 7) to schoo, two little boys who wanted to know why they were yelling at us. It was hard to explain.

    Jane Alcorn November 1, 2014 at 11:02 am
  2. Good god, Jane, that would be terrifying. Especially when you have your babies to protect. I feel so angry on your behalf! Years later!

    And isn’t it telling how those men displayed what they themselves surely think of their own behaviour: they recognise they are behaving like ‘animals’, though most other animals have in fact rules of behaviour that as free-willed human beings we persistently flout. Ugh.

    Cathoel Jorss November 1, 2014 at 11:06 am
  3. When I try to tell male friends, who have never experienced anything like this, that look of distrust crosses their faces (even though I know they trust my word). When I tell them that all of the close girlfriends I have, that not a single one of them has escaped without experiencing some sort of sexual violence, it’s incomprehensible to them.

    Recently, I had a big blow-up at my boyfriend because we were talking about sexual violence in universities, and about how it is not common practice to separate the victim and the suspect, and we were talking about innocence until guilt was proven. I was so angry that he sided with the idea that the victim would have to see their abuser again and again in class, to relive the frightening and destructive events, and how he couldn’t see how that was wrong.

    I once saw a man that had molested me out in the small town I lived in and I was terrified and physically revulsed. Because I was young, distressed, and that day, a little suicidal, I didn’t follow up the complaint. And the police never followed up with me. And this is the culture that means almost no one gets convicted, and if they do, they spend a paltry time behind bars. The culture that excuses physical intimidation and assault as boys being boys. What I think is worse is that people consistently say there is nothing wrong with society as it is.

    Smoph November 1, 2014 at 11:17 am
  4. This topic always brings up the hurt and the anger; I apologise for ranting.
    I’m sorry that people felt entitled to your body and that you experienced what many people deny exists. I’m sorry that it continues this way and so many use their ignorance and fear and stand in the path of growth and improvement of the world.

    Smoph November 1, 2014 at 11:20 am
  5. Smoph, please don’t apologise. This is a safe space where no one will be blamed for anyone else’s actions. I am disgusted to hear you have also had such a crushing barrage, I keep calling it a barrage, of frightening attacks and feel particularly disturbed that the people who ought most to have protected you and listened to you have signally let you down. I’m sorry too that this hidden war simmers every day on the streets and too frequently in our homes and I was always be sorry about that and I will never, ever apologise. Don’t you apologise, either. You deserve to be heard and believed. I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry.

    Cathoel Jorss November 1, 2014 at 11:37 am
  6. And some men, and women, still slag off at feminism…

    Alison Lambert November 1, 2014 at 4:38 pm
  7. Thanks Cathoel. I love your writing but I must say that it is hard to read this post (and some of the very powerful comments). I’m so sorry that we all have to go through these fucked experiences, every single day.

    Yet, men seem to find it shocking and hard to comprehend that unwelcome attention from men is threatening. It is an expression of male entitlement to women’s bodies and objectification to satisfy the male gaze. I often find myself playing the role of Nice Feminist in order to cut through the defensive and denial that many men exhibit. Other times I can’t keep it together and have a rage blackout.

    Like you, Cathoel, I am a world traveller; a strongly independent woman who is fearless 99% of the time. I have lived on my own for years, walk lots and do long drives by myself often. I have lived and worked around the world in places that people warned me were ‘the worst place to be a woman’ (like downtown Johannesburg). I never want to feel unsafe or curb my behaviour because of the threat or experiences of street harassment or sexual violence.

    Kara November 1, 2014 at 5:30 pm
  8. I look at my female friends, and not a single one of us has escaped some form of harassment, abuse, assault, or worse. The saddest thing is that, mostly, we keep it to ourselves. We don’t tell. We don’t tell the police, we don’t tell our partners. Often, we don’t even tell our friends. And we don’t because we don’t think we’ll be believed. We know, from experience, that it is probable our distress, our pain, rage, upset, even our bruises will be minimised, bargained down, treated lightly, brushed off. We know, from experience, that in all probability someone will ask us what we did to encourage or provoke it. We are judged by speaking out. We are treated as unreliable witnesses to our own distress, to the violation of our selves.

    I don’t have an answer. But here’s one thing that gives me some hope. I’ve worked in an overwhelmingly male industry for the best part of 15 years. I’m often the only woman in the workplace. And, unlike the world outside of my little industry cocoon, not once have I been belittled, harassed, or treated as anything other than an equal. If that measure of respect can be the norm for a woman who works overwhelmingly in the company of men? Then it can – and by god it should – happen in wider society.

    Anth November 2, 2014 at 1:58 am
  9. Cathoel,
    Unfortunately, what you describe is not all that unusual. I am glad that you are speaking out about it.

    I remember when men first started to catcall, when I was about 12-13 and my mother said, “They like you.” I wasn’t happy about that, as that didn’t seem like “like” to me.

    A few incidents stand out: braiding a friend’s hair on a boat in Greece. A crowd of men surrounded us and we ended up spending the rest of the voyage locked in a bathroom. (This same friend had been date-raped just a few months earlier. She was too ashamed to tell anyone because they would wonder what she was doing with a guy at midnight down by the lake, where he pulled her under a rowboat.)

    For two years, I worked in a “man’s job” and the amount of harassment there was actually life-threatening, as the boss sent me up on an icy slanted roof with a pickax (and no ropes to keep me from falling off.) He also sent me out to drive down a hill in a machine that had no brake. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to put it in first gear. Every day, one of my co-workers would hit me on the head with his gloves. Finally, after months of this, I hit him on the head (and then went to the restroom to cry.)

    Cynthia Clavell November 2, 2014 at 4:55 am
  10. One even hears certain men saying, lip-smackingly, how much they would love to be “appreciated” by women more overtly. A sure and certain indication that the male in question has never taken the time to feel his way into such a disempowering situation nor to open his empathy. It angers me how keen some men seem to dismiss women’s experience as trivial, undangerous, flattering. It is very heartening to hear particular men who have evolved past this point of automatic and reflexive dismissal contributing their awareness, their avowals, and their rage.

    Cathoel Jorss November 2, 2014 at 3:11 pm
  11. Thank you, Sue. It is a beautiful feeling to know you are reading my work. I hope your poetry book brings you much joy as well.

    Cathoel Jorss November 3, 2014 at 10:40 am
  12. And the women sometimes don’t give you an easy time either ….. x

    Sophia November 3, 2014 at 10:45 am
  13. It’s true, Sophia, our culture encourages competitiveness among women. I think of it as similar to all the hardworking employed people who are set up by media etc to despise ‘dole bludgers’, or to think pensions should be cut or that Indigenous communities get an easy ride or that asylum seekers cost Australia money. It rarely occurs to people grafting for a living that the wealthiest community members pay very little tax or remove their incomes offshore. And I think that suits our lawmakers and persons of influence (i.e., our patriarchy) just fine. Cx

    Cathoel Jorss November 3, 2014 at 4:42 pm
  14. So confronting to read and reflect I how widespread abhorrent male behaviours clearly are. Whilst males have “mating urges” , most of us also have mothers, daughters or sisters in our lives . It’s a challenge to understand how and why so many males are unable to reflect on the likely effects of their predatory displays on their fellow human beans. Whilst it’s painful to read of your and others experiences Cathoel , thank you for the insights into your lived experience. On behalf of my gender I feel ashamed!

    Mark November 4, 2014 at 10:32 am
  15. Dreadful. My experience is less horrendous. I remember being wolf-whistled by a group of Egyptian girls in Cairo thirty years ago, badgered on the phone by young women in Riyadh and wolf-whistled once in a restaurant in Beauchamp Place in London. I was once felt up by a paedophile when i was thirteen and propositioned by gay men. The teenage experience was frightening and both the wolf-whistling and propositioning were intimidating. I felt sorry for the Arab girls who pestered me on the phone and annyed that I couldn’t change my phone number.

    James Sutherland-Smith November 4, 2014 at 9:28 pm

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