Photo Credit: Hannah Provisor
Cats Calling Back
If my life were a movie, I’d always have the ultimate response to the nasty older man on the street, hurling a “hey baby” or an “I’d fuck that” in my direction. Maybe I’d offer up a fearless “fuck you” and a hair flip back. Or, maybe, I’d launch into a perfectly articulated, witty, snap back of a speech on the meaning of catcalling and why his actions only serve to make it clear that he’s ignorant and small– and getting nowhere near me or my genitals. Then the camera would follow me as I walk off, his jaw wide open in the background. He’d slowly fade into a blur and my eyes would stay fierce and fixed on what’s in front of me, unaffected, unmoved, unscathed.
But 9 times out of 10 I’m not proud of my responses to the men who say vulgar, intrusive things to me as I traverse the city. They’re either jumbled, don’t come with the kind of slick timing I’d imagine could really make my delivery top notch, or I trip over my words. Sometimes I just give them a death stare that I’m not sure they can even make out. Other times I pick up my speed and just try to sidle away as quietly as possible.
“Cats calling back” began as a way for me and others to safely respond to our harassers. Essentially, people send me their stories, we talk about them and commiserate, and then if they feel it would be beneficial to their healing process, I come up with an illustration to go with their commentary. The idea was to create space for the healing from trauma and the internalization of the male gaze, street harassment, sexual harassment, sexual assault– every and any possible cocktail composed of the ingredients of patriarchy. My last article for The Only Space went into greater detail on how and why this project began, but I’d like to focus now on how it has changed, grown, and affected me personally.
I Notice A Disturbing Theme
The first influx of messages came at a pace I could never have been prepared for. Some were from people who were anxious to get pain off their chests, looking for someone to listen. Some were hoping to offer support and wisdom to other women who have or would experience similar situations. Some wished their stories would be a lesson. One theme I’ve been struck with again and again over the course of this project is the idea that attraction and violence (and in turn, a lack of care for anything other than the physical body) are, regrettably, linked– and just how scary a show of attraction can be for women in the world. We have seen many attractions turn into physical violence– we see this in the number of men murdering women they’ve been involved with, raping their significant others or just people who have shown them interest in a bar. So yes, even “just a whistle” can be scary, within the larger context we live in. This kind of violence brings up another more subtle form of brutality: the violence of not being seen, of being diminished, of being objectified. And I’d guess that this type must exist before the physical violence is to take place. Doing this project has made me think about this link in my daily life, and though I spend my time taking on other women’s stories, it is sometimes hard for me to acknowledge and take on my own. I know I have to practice what I preach, and that means taking the time to be vulnerable and share my own roadblocks in healing, my own stories, because I in no way have this all figured out.
Practicing What I Preach
The way this link has taken an effect on my life is in my own backwards belief that a person being attracted to me is a personal attack. An attack on my brains, my personhood, and the qualities that make me who I am– the things a person who eyes me on the street could never see. It is unfortunate that this tends to translate into my relationships as well, and I consistently find myself having to calm my nerves: they like you for you, not because of the way you look. The way you look is a bonus to them. Them being attracted to you does not mean they don’t care about you.
This has been going on for me for years now, but only recently have I begun to unpack it and attempt to uncover its origins. A conversation with my therapist allowed me to reframe what I was judging as a backwards belief as actually my unique perceptiveness of our society. She reminded me of something philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” I also realized there was no way I was the only one internalizing our sick society in such a way, which brings me to another quote I’ve been thinking about lately from Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. She says, “I write – and read – to assure myself that other people have felt what I’m feeling too, that it isn’t just me, that this is real, and valid, and true.” With this in mind, I’ve begun to lean into my insecurities, anxieties, and negative trains of thought around this notion of mine.
Photo Credit: Hannah Provisor
Manifestation of the Sex/Violence Link In My Own Life
My fears go somewhat like this: I have this worry that people will forget me the moment they become attracted to me, or the moment they act on that attraction. I define me, as all of the things that make up the way I think about myself, the qualities I love in myself, the faults I have accepted, the struggles I face and the things I draw power from. My definition of self contains the aspects of my experience another person must open themselves up to seeing– the parts of me they have to observe, listen for, discover (if they are ever to really know me). I also know that I am fairly conventionally attractive, and I’m very lucky to feel pretty much at home in my body most of the time. It is not lost on me that it is easier for me to love my body because it is portrayed as desirable in our patriarchal society and media. As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to learn the terrifying power of sex and attraction. Sex is something that can be wielded, sex can be power, a driving force. And this is where it gets scary for me.
My Sexuality Becomes My Undoing
My sexuality is a bomb strapped tightly to my rib cage, and at any moment, it could be my undoing. In my utmost state of unbridled panic, I believe that someone could forget me, and just see my outward appearance, my curves, my thin waist, my desirable long legs, the things that make up my bomb and they will set it off. We see this narrative of forgetting the other in almost every instance of rape or sexual assault. The perpetrator puts their physical desires, their lust for power, above the emotional needs, the humanity, and many times even the clear cut spoken words of their victim. So in some ways, my internalization of this link makes sense to me. It has been fed and watered by society. Who is to say that “good guys” are not capable of this forgetting? Though I have never been raped, I definitely have felt forgotten under the weight of another man’s desire. So, while I can assure myself that my internalization of a common and scary narrative makes logical sense, I cannot say that knowing this makes it any easier to live with.
And so, this line of thought has at times taken a toll on my romantic and sexual relationships. My sense is that there is a blurry line you have to get very comfortable with in order to even be in a sexual relationship with someone at this time in our history, amidst the constantly misleading portrayal of sex in movies, shows, porn, as well as the rise of women speaking out, naming shared traumas and events you otherwise wouldn’t have even realized weren’t okay. We all want that passion, that burning romance, the kind where they grab you and force you down onto a bed and rip your clothes off. We, as a society, have come to value this. But what a confusing message to receive when there are people experiencing this very same thing in a very unsafe situation. It is hard, at least for me, to not have those thoughts, even when I am perfectly safe with someone I love. When I see the fire burning in their eyes, their need for my body, it can be really scary for me and I find myself back in my head again saying: they like you for you. They love that you’re intelligent. They love your quirks. They love your mind and your soul. Sometimes, I just need it to stop.
Is It Just Me?
It has been suggested to me that I have the qualities of an Empath, and perhaps it is this that makes it so hard for me to not think this way. In writing this, and you reading it, I hope that I’m not the only one who has felt this, or who is setting out on a journey to uncover what to do with it. The link between sex and violence is very real, and I know that I have internalized it in a big way, which causes these thought patterns and makes intimacy difficult at times. I am hoping that in my vulnerability, others will be able to realize their own internalizations and pathologizing of this phenomenon. I can’t be the only one! And if you thought you were, well now you know, you’re not alone.
The Writer Behind the Writing
Hannah Michelle Provisor is a 23-year-old artist who was raised in Los Angeles, California, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to illustration, she loves to act, sing, dance, and write. You can often find her listening to jazz or eating an entire baguette, or if she’s lucky, doing both simultaneously. Her current focus is illustration, and you can find her work on her Instagram, or by visiting her brand new online shop!