It was hard enough finding a job just after graduating college, let alone in 2003– a post-9/11 economy– in New York City. I had had no experience and was so desperate to continue living in New York that I was willing to take a job wherever I could find it. A common practice small companies in New York do is to “try you out” for a few days after interviewing you and then make a final decision whether or not to hire you. An independent pet store in Brooklyn did just that for me. I worked there for two or three days feeding the animals and cleaning their cages. I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty– even if it meant cleaning up dog poop– because I have a great love for animals, especially dogs and cats. The “trial” seemed to be going very well and I hoped that I would be offered the job.
Two weeks passed and I did not receive a call back. I called the pet store myself. The manager said, “You did well, but I can’t take a chance with you.” When I asked him why, he said, “You got upset at me for calling you ‘honey’. I don’t feel like having to deal with a sexual harassment lawsuit.” I was shocked. The manager had called me “honey” once, it’s true. I had said, “Could you please not call me that?” He had then apologized profusely, and I remember thinking he seemed to be apologizing in a way more extreme than warranted.
The manager continued, telling me that recently he had posed in a photo with a woman for a some kind of promotion for the pet store. He put his hand on her hip and for this she sued him for sexual harassment for $10,000– and won. I said, “I would never sue anybody for something so stupid. I didn’t think you were harassing me. I just had that reaction because every day when I walk down the street creepy men call me ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart’ or ‘baby.’ It was a just a knee-jerk reaction. It was no big deal, and at worst it made me feel a little uncomfortable. Don’t worry about it. I have better things to do than to sue people for stupid reasons.” The manager said, “Well, I don’t want you to feel a even a little uncomfortable.” And that was that. It’s a shame, because I really liked this guy.
Both the pet store manager and I had a “once bitten, twice shy” moment. I already explained why the manager was so gun shy about getting sued (I’ll talk more about him later). But what about me? Why did I say anything in response to him calling me “honey”? What did it even enter my consciousness? Let’s look at the background on that.
When I first graduated college, I moved into a cramped apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the worst areas in Brooklyn. Every day without fail, from the moment I left my apartment I was catcalled by drunk men, usually while walking along Fulton Street towards the subway. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought my name was “Baby”, “Sweetheart”, “Sexy”, or “Honey”. But it was more than idiotic name calling. Sometimes it was an invasion of personal space. One day when while I was walking home, a man jumped in front of me and shouted, “Hey, pretty girl!” I stepped out of the way and continued walking. The man jumped in front of me again, shouting, “You’re so pretty!” Another time, a drunk man who looked about ninety put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Hi, baby. How are you?” “Uh, fine,” I said, stepping away. Lots of other guys would shout, “Hey, honey, let’s fuck!” or “Hey, baby, show me your tits!” or something to that effect. The worst thing that happened was when I was walking along DeKalb Avenue and heard some strange noises. I looked around, trying to figure out where it was coming from. I turned around to see a guy stopped at a red light in his truck, making vigorous humping motions and orgasm noises at me. The previous encounters had been obnoxious, but this one was downright humiliating. I threw him the finger. What else could I do? It eventually reached the point that I was so fed up with ignoring these assholes, as people had advised me to do for the sake of my own safety, that I began talking back to them and calling them names. That made me feel at least a little empowered.
I couldn’t understand why this was happening. It hadn’t happened to me at all while I was in college, possibly because I had always traveled in groups (these friends had since moved to Los Angeles). I began to wonder if this was what it meant to be a woman living in a city, that your personhood would not be respected and that most men would just see you as a penis-receptacle, that they would feel entitled to act in such a degrading way towards you. Fortunately, I learned that this was not the case, as I left Bedford-Stuyvesant after a few months and moved to southern Brooklyn where I remained for several years. I can count on my fingers the number of catcalls I received after the move. However, the fact that it only took four months for me to want to get out of Bedford-Stuyvesant is a testament to how uncomfortable these scumbags made me feel.
I was still living in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time that I “tried out” at the pet store. In the split second that the manager called me “honey”, all of these frustrating experiences that I had been dealing with on a regular basis cascaded into my brain and made me cringe. Once bitten, twice shy. Had this happened after my move I might not have given it a second thought. After all, women call each other “honey” as well. I think the manager was just being warm. Although “honey” can have “catcalling” connotations, it doesn’t have the same patronizing tone as something like “baby”.
But it’s easy to see why, given my experiences, I would get annoyed if someone called me “honey”. It’s also to see why someone with similar experiences would feel uncomfortable in an elevator being asked back to a stranger’s hotel room for coffee at 4 AM. In and of themselves, the “triggering” incidents are harmless, but they are a catalyst after several serious infractions. In my case, I thought to myself, “Why do men insist on calling me these stupid little names?”
Now, back to the manager. He had had a “once bitten, twice shy” moment as well. It only took one incident to make him afraid. After all, he was out $10,000. The woman who sued him might have had a “once bitten, twice shy” reaction when she decided she needed to sue him (ie perhaps she lived in a bad neighborhood where she was harassed on a regular basis), but I strongly suspect her motive was to get money out of him. I do question the man’s judgment, but I honestly don’t think he meant any harm. He probably wasn’t even thinking about where he was putting his hand, as it is common to pose with a hand on the other person’s hip in a picture. Had I been in that situation, I would have simply taken his hand and put it on my shoulder, or asked him to move his hand.
I consider myself a feminist, but I know that there are some feminists who would immediately shoot down my assertion that this woman might have been overreacting and taking advantage of a law designed to help those who are victims of harassment. I know that some of them will say that nobody ever overreacts and that nobody ever makes false accusations. I understand why they have that reflexive reaction– after decades of women’s concerns being brushed off, they are afraid of it happening again. The easiest thing to do is assume that life is black and white, that if someone says that they are a victim, they are a victim, and that if anybody says otherwise then he or she is an apologist for rape. However, it is important to note that if a woman does overreact to something– as this woman certainly did– it’s not because she’s a “hysterical” woman. It’s because she’s a person, and sometimes people overreact. And overreactions– from women and men– can and do ruin people’s lives.
What this comes back to is what I have been saying in a two recent blog posts: we need to stop falling into the “us versus them” mentality. It may be comforting but it is also damaging. We need to stop screaming at people and we need to sit down and have a discussion. Men need to listen to the concerns women have about harassment. Likewise, women need to listen to the concerns men have about being falsely accused which does happen. Otherwise, the conflict will go on and on. Women will continue to shout “patriarchy” and men will continue to shout “professional victim”, when what both are are terms to simplify complex situations.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: We need to have a discussion.
Also, I urge you to watch this video, which further elaborates my points.