I think this calls for a Rod Stewart sing-along

16 05 2011

We’re coming upon an interesting, exciting time in the Bronx–summer. It’s fun wherever you go, but in the lower-income, multi-problem areas known colloquially as “the ghetto,” it’s time to wild out.

The warm weather does something to people. Especially after a long, harsh winter like the one we just had. Talking about it, I start to sound like a pioneer wife who neglected the canning the previous autumn. Once the temperatures heat up, people are outside more, drinking on stoops, playing basketball in the street, wearing less clothing.

All in all, it’s a fun time. But there’s one thing that brings me down.

Street harassment.

For people who don’t deal with it in their day to day lives, it tends to sound kind of funny. People say ridiculous things to you, in some lame attempt at a hook up, or any reaction, really. For those of us who do deal with it all the time, it’s decidedly less amusing.

I don’t flatter myself into thinking that this is because I’m so distractingly hot. (I mean, I am, but I don’t think that’s the main factor at play here.) I’m very often the only white person on the street. I stand out. I’m also usually dressed (somewhat) professionally. People assume I’m a social worker, teacher, something like that. I’m young, and I look even younger. There are also a lot of unemployed guys in the neighborhood where I work, who have nothing better to do than stand outside and annoy passing women.

The combined factors of my race, age, and perceived profession seems to make people think I’ll be easily intimidated.

Take a moment to guffaw at that one.

Part of my job is being out in the community. I am always walking to people’s homes, or going to see kids at schools. Being familiar with the community, and being a part of it, is an important part of social work.

So I get lots of comments. They’re often some variation on “lookin’ beautiful, mami,” “hey, white girl,” “baby, you can’t stop and talk to me?”

If I may quote the great Ms. Jackson, my name ain’t baby. I do not know you sir. I have my headphones on, I’m walking with a purpose and clearly on my way somewhere. There is no way that you have misinterpreted my body language to mean, “I’m walking the streets of the Bronx, looking for a date or perhaps a random sexual encounter. I hope a strange man on the sidewalk will approach me with a backhanded compliment!”

Men have a difficult time understanding why women feel offended or afraid of this kind of behavior. “If I couldn’t walk down the street without someone telling me how good I look, I’d take it as a compliment!”

I’m sorry, but someone leaning into my space and saying, “Hey snowflake, you look sexy, you lost?” is not a compliment. It’s an attempt at intimidation, and at making me feel out of place. It’s a way of a man asserting his superiority through sexual aggression.

I mean, that’s how I take it.

There’s no consensus on the best way to respond. Some friends and I were discussing this recently. They said that sometimes they felt that just saying hello made people leave them alone.

My feeling is, you can’t win. If you ignore the guy, you’re a bitch, and he’ll let you know. Often, in one of the great mysteries of the universe, you’ll be called a slut for not dropping everything to blow this stranger in public. If you say hello, that’s rarely satisfactory. Then we need to have a conversation. This guy will feel at liberty to follow me. When I walk away, again, I’m a bitch.

You might not believe this, but sometimes I think a snarky response is in order.

Recently, I was doing a home visit and had to walk through a crowd of young men standing in front of the building. I had my headphones on, as always, and said “excuse me.” They let me pass, but one asshole always has to ruin it. He leaned over, asking where I was going, why wouldn’t I stop to talk to him, all that nonsense. I just walked by and ignored him.

Of course, guys like this tend not to have a ton of social engagements to attend to, so he was still there when I walked out. He tried saying hello to me again, and ignored my polite attempts at letting him know I was not available for conversation. I was putting my headphones on, and he asked, “What kind of music you listening to, snowflake?”

He had nothing to say when I replied, “Lesbian folk rock.”

What an idiot. I was actually listening to mind altering indie.

Did my sarcastic retort change this man? I’m sure not. But it shut him up for a minute. I don’t like the idea that I should play nice with someone who makes me uncomfortable, because that’s the best way to stay safe. I’m not generally in the mood to smile demurely and say “thank you” when strangers comment on my physical appearance. Whatever gets you through these kinds of encounters, and makes you feel better, I say go for it.

I don’t owe anyone anything, not even a hello, just because I’m walking down the street. This is my neighborhood too. If I feel like talking to someone, I’ll let them know. By talking to them. Guys can talk about how they think they’re just being nice, but I’m quite sure that they know exactly what they’re doing.

So if you need a witty, mildly obnoxious comeback, you know where to find me.


Our bodies, Ourselves (Also, our snacks)

3 02 2011

Last night, we packed up the scented candles and snacks (my goodness, my girls love ranch dressing) one last time. It was our final teen girls’ group.

SocialJerk, you said you weren’t going to cry.

OK, I’m back.

We did the things you usually do when terminating (my, that word sounds kind of harsh) with a group. The girls did evaluations. We reminisced. We talked about what went well, what could have gone better. And we asked the girls what they learned.

They had a lot to say. A lot about confidence, and self-esteem, and making friends. But one thing stuck out to me.

“I learned that I can say ‘no.’ Like, that people should listen to it.”

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, I know. And this girl had definitely heard before that she has a right to her boundaries, and that people should respect them.

But still. This was something important, that she credited group in helping her with.

Weeks earlier, we had a rather memorable sex ed chat with the girls, which was spread over two sessions. A lot of the second week was spent talking about the right to say no. Is “no” ever not enough? Can you ever sacrifice that right?

Some of the girls thought that you can. Quite easily.

We asked the question, “If a girl is wearing something sexy, and she’s assaulted, does she have the right to go to the police?”

Why was I so naive to think that this wouldn’t be a debate?

Almost all of the girls thought that a girl dressed “too sexy” was at least partly to blame for her assault. My co-leader and I challenged this assumption. We talked about self-control. Why are we constantly degrading men, acting like they’re dogs who can’t help but hump anything that will hold still for long enough? It seemed like these girls legitimately thought that a man could not be expected to have any restraint if he saw a woman showing too much skin.

I then pointed out how subjective “too sexy” is. Have you ever seen footage from Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia? They would be scandalized by you showing your arms, your ankles, your neck. Does your grandma ever think your clothes are too revealing, when you know they’re exactly what everyone else is wearing? OK, so how could one possibly regulate this?

“Well, maybe the guy AND the girl should go to jail.”

Oh, dear.

One girl (there’s always one) looked at the rest like they were crazy. “I don’t show off my body, but no one has a right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”

Thank God for you!

The other girls came around a bit. And I think they will continue to. I’m glad they were exposed to some different ideas. It’s important to challenge those immediate assumptions, because people really just don’t realize how silly the knee-jerk reaction is. Oprah showed us all when she interviewed Trisha Meili, “the Central Park jogger,” who was raped while out jogging. She asked her what she was doing in the park at that hour, alone?

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have thought it. “It’s terrible what happened, don’t get me wrong. But what was she doing in that area/out at that hour/walking alone/going home with that guy/drinking that much/dressing like that?”

Um, she was probably looking for someone to assault her horribly. I mean, obvi.

We need to teach girls that they have control over their own bodies. That they have rights, and are entitled to their boundaries. That their bodies are not on loan.

A lot of us have been hearing about HR 3, a charming bit of legislation that would make it more difficult for low-income women to have Medicaid pay for their abortions in cases of rape.

Stay classy, Republicans (and one Democrat.)

They want to limit Medicaid funded abortions to cases of “forcible rape.” You attorneys out there will recognize the term “forcible rape” from your second year law class, “Legal Terms That Do Not Exist and In Fact Make No Sense.”

All rape is forcible. What they’re saying here is, you weren’t really raped. Unless a stranger jumped out of the bushes and assaulted you while you were walking to the library in a safe neighborhood at a reasonable hour, preferably while you were wearing a nun’s habit, it simply doesn’t count. Saying “no” isn’t enough. You are not in charge of your own body.

I don’t delude myself into thinking that my girls are C-Span junkies, hanging on John Boehner’s every word. But they are getting this message. It’s a part of our culture.

And let’s bear in mind, in our work, that this is something we need to challenge. Making sure that women are aware that they have agency over their lives and bodies is crucial to what we’re trying to do. The idea that one of these girls, my girls, could be victimized in the future, or think of how they’ve been victimized in the past, and see it as something they brought on themselves, breaks my heart.

Which is enough to get me preparing for our next group already. I’ll get the ranch dressing.

What was his name-o, again?

10 08 2010

That’s right, we’re talking bingo today. It’s not just for stereotypical old people anymore.

As I’ve mentioned once or twice, we spend a lot of time out in the field. Being “out in the field” sounds much nicer than it is. It actually means that we’re walking the streets of the Bronx, not romping in a meadow. All that walking gives a social worker time to think, plan, and get sweaty on the way to a visit. It also gives us all time to notice certain patterns in our beloved Bronx.

This brings us to “Ghetto Bingo.” It works just like regular bingo- get a full line across, up and down, or diagonal checked off, and you win!

But this is a special edition. No “B6” for us. Instead, we at the office compiled a list of things you’re likely to see in the neighborhood, that will earn you a square.

Get honked at by a gypsy cab? That’s one space. A painfully obvious drug deal going on between a guy on the corner and a stopped car? That’s another one. You can also mark down that open fire hydrant, but only once. Checking it off on every block just wouldn’t be fair.

A pit bull on a chain is another available square. A pit bull off a chain means you should start running. (Another option is to push a friend in the path of the oncoming dog. I was once the one being pushed, so I assure you it really does work, though it won’t earn you any good karma.)

Of course, any kind of sexual harrassment is also worth a square. We’re considering a rule that would make it worth two for men. Getting stuck in an elevator in a NYCHA building will not only give you time to mark down everything you’ve seen, but is also a space on your bingo card.

Spotting anyone drinking a 40 before noon is a space. (When I first started working here, there were so many people lined up outside of one store at 7:30 am, I thought that Apple had released a new product. Turns out they were waiting for the liquor store to open. I have since nicknamed them “The Fanboys of 40 oz.”)

The daytime hooker, the rarest of all the prostitute breeds (popularized by “My Name is Earl”) has her own, richly deserved, square on our bingo cards. Lost, frightened tourists desperately seeking out the Bronx Zoo also get a space. Gang fights have their own as well, but have a similar clause to the pit bull square- when gun shots are heard, it’s time to run.

Disclaimer: Bingo cards available by emailing SocialJerk. Play “Ghetto Bingo” at your own risk. Please maintain a sense of humor during play, remembering that this game was developed by people with a deep love and respect for this neighborhood. Also, wear comfortable shoes.

I enjoy being a girl…?

6 07 2010

It’s that time of year. When it’s hot and sweaty outside, the fire hydrants are open, and women’s clothing gets a bit more revealing. I’m quite happy not to be Amish at this time of year. We all try to look professional, but when it’s 100 degrees out and the air conditioner is busted, they should be thanking me for coming to work at all, no matter how short my skirt is.

This does pose a bit of a problem, though. You wouldn’t know this simply from reading, but I am stunningly good looking. Men are completely unable to resist me. Actually, all of the women in my office have the same affliction.

That sounds conceited, I know. But it’s the only conclusion I’ve been able to draw from the reactions we get walking around the neighborhood.

The men in the Bronx are rather excited to see all of us, it would seem. If it wasn’t for the fact that almost all of my female clients are pregnant, I would assume that none of these guys had gotten laid in years.

I once had a man yell to me from a third story window. That is disorienting, let me tell you. He kept yelling to me until I finally looked up, at which point he smiled. I stared awkwardly. What was I expected to do? “Hold on, I’m coming up the fire escape! I must have you NOW!”

The names are usually interesting. Mami is most common (which allows me to assure them that I am not, in fact, their mommy), and honey and sweetie are thrown around quite a bit as well. The simple, direct, ‘hey white girl’ was a favorite of mine, for obvious reasons.

One male co-worker asked what we do to provoke these men. You know, because grown men are incapable of controlling themselves. I told him that I tend to walk to all of my home visits topless, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.

The best way to deal with this attention is a common debate in the office. It can be funny, but it can also be scary. A large man with homemade neck tattoos leering at me and telling me to say ‘thank you’ because he was kind enough to tell me I look ‘gooooood’ is slightly intimidating. My most common technique it to keep my headphones on and act like I can’t hear anything. Just smile and walk on, even if that iPod battery is dead.

The worst part is the effect this kind of thing can have on your day. It can freak you out, make you feel bad about yourself, make you question yourself. Or it can give you a laugh. There is the occasional relief brought on by walking past a group of aggressive looking men who don’t give you a second glance.

Followed by the immediate question: do I not look good today?