"Can I at Least Get a Smile?"

April 13th, 2017

Content Warning(s): Rape Culture, Rape, Violence, Survivorship Under Age 18

Day thirteen! April is Sexual Assault Survivor Month! This post will contain sensitive material; please exercise caution if you see a topic that could be upsetting to you. A final caveat: these are written from my limited perspective as a bi woman who was raped. I don't have all the answers and I'm still working through my own journey. There are many other kinds of sexual assault and abuse that are relevant this month. Take time to consider the needs of your diverse fellow survivors. Speak up for them when they can't speak up for themselves, but don't speak over them. Thank you!

Somewhere in 2012, I tried to pick up my Wendy's drive-thru order in my own neighborhood. And if you know me, even though I LOVE Wendy's, usually when I purchase it, I'm not in the best of moods. I don't remember anything else about that day except that the young man working the window asked this of me when I reached out to grab my food, and I scowled further, and drove off angrily. While this wasn't the epitome of a catcall, it stands out in my mind because it delineates so well the rape culture that allows "nice guys" to expect women to smile when they're supposed to be the ones providing customer service. If I could go back in time, I'd park my car right there in the drive-thru line and demand to speak to the manager. As minor an offense as that was to me, I, a paying customer, deserve to be treated with respect and being treated as though I were a potential date was presumptuous, rude, and worthy of consequence. However, being the survivor that I am, I know that even if I had gotten a hold of the manager, consequence might not follow; in fact, I might be laughed about behind closed windows for "overreacting." All I know is that it wouldn't have been overreacting, and that no, he didn't deserve a "smile" (or in his mind, a reward) in return for handing me the food I paid for, which was literally his job.

On to catcalling. There's a video that circulated last year about a woman who wore a camera and walked the streets of New York City to document the level of catcalling she experienced simply by walking (Read more here. The results were harrowing: 108 instances of harassment of some kind. And as I'm sure most female or female-presenting people in the United States know, it seems almost an inevitability that we'll be catcalled at some point in our lives. I remember when I'd go to the mall with my mother, she'd comment, "That guy was looking at you," which brought my attention to the fact that even as a young teenager, she wanted me to know that I needed to be aware of the guys who would "look" at me.

While response videos to the above project attempt to show that culture and region greatly influence the probability of being catcalled, this does nothing to assuage those of us who live in cities or regions that DO have a problem with catcalling. Not to mention, no aspect of this project addressed what catcalling can be like in specific communities, like the "nerd" and cosplay communities we know and love.

Ah, and here we get into the nitty-gritty of why I established the CSSN in the first place. At Matsuricon 2016, I chose to last-minute create and wear the "summer DLC" outfit for Velvet Crowe from Tales of Berseria. I had already had a brief outdoor photo shoot in the outfit. Unfortunately, it was at a corner where "normies" were frequently walking by, and I had already had a few shout-outs and wolf-whistles at my tummy- and leg-baring outfit. I'm sad to say my disappointment shows in the photos; I haven't uploaded them anywhere because I feel that they show my discomfort MUCH more than they show the outfit. I chalked this catcalling up to the fact that Columbus residents and visitors don't often see or understand the kind of cosplay I was exhibiting. I left the shoot and went about my schedule.

Here's where it gets interesting. Tomoyo was attending a gathering outside to show off her lovingly-made Madoka tutu; none of the rest of my group had Madoka outfits, but we went to support and take photos because that's just what our cosfamily does. I took pictures on my phone while Niho and Anne were taking pictures of each other in their heartbreaking sibling cosplay, so they were a distance away from me when this happened. There was a group of younger cosplayers (lol, not hard to do, I'm starting to feel the age gap at cons) at the shoot taking photos or resting from the heat as well.

Out of nowhere, a bicyclist stops his bike where he can see the shoot, but also where he can see me. I figured, "Eh, this is an unusual and unexpected hobby, he might be about to ask what's going on," because usually when strangers stop, they like to say, "What's this?" (I like to pretend they're about to become Jack Skellington and adopt cosplay as a hobby themselves, but it's mostly just a game I play to keep sane when the questions keep going.) But instead, he said nothing, just looked. I turned back to the photo shoot. Then I heard whistling. My first thought was, "Blegh, I've already been through this today." My second thought was, "I'm gonna shout back at this asshole." So, I said something like, "Move along, this isn't your show" - really wish I'd had a better line, and if anyone can help arm me better for the, heaven forbid, next time this happens, please help me erase the shame I still hold from having said this - which prompted him to say something like, "Hell, yeah, it is," and look me up and down. It became clear that he had been looking exclusively at me.

I was uncomfortable because I'd been through that already that day, but moreso because I realized that this was happening in front of a group of kids, who were starting to look over at what was happening. I felt rage that they had to witness this, but I think all I said was something to the urgent degree of, "MOVE ALONG, ASSHOLE." Part of me is still upset that I didn't have anything better to say; part of me acknowledges that in the absence of words, I could have instead become violent because of all the pent-up untreated rage, which would not have been a good response as a role model or a person in recovery.

Eventually, Bike Catcaller did ride away without consequence, and I was left teary-eyed in front of the group of teens. I steeled myself, then walked over to them. I asked if they were okay, which prompted them to ask if *I* was okay, to which I said, "Yes, but I know that that wasn't a good thing to witness or experience." We commiserated about catcalls for a bit until I shared the fact that I'm a survivor in recovery and STILL unsure of what to do. One of them spoke up that they were a survivor, too, and shared that they were 16 years old. Sixteen. I hadn't been through the harrowing experience of being raped until I was 25, and here, a child was acknowledging the fact that they'd been through something similar. Something in that moment crystallized; I reached out to them and hugged them, and cried a little bit. I exchanged phone numbers with them and told them that if they ever felt unsafe at local Columbus cons to please text or call me. What I didn't realize at the time was that this was what I wanted to be there for ME in that moment: someone I could have called, some nearby security I could contact to provide consequences for this catcaller (even though technically it wasn't on con property and that catcallers often get away without consequence, it WAS harassment, and it DID upset me). Not only this, but it seemed that nobody watching knew how to intervene to help ME, even though I felt capable of handling it, as an adult over a decade older than most of the people nearby.

When I went home later, I started thinking about how I had been the first one to provide this 16-year-old with survivorship support, and how I'd never seen anything at anime cons I'd been to regarding the handling of survivors other than the previously-discussed, flimsy "Cosplay Is Not Consent." The seed was planted. I'm still learning how to grow the CSSN to accommodate the needs of anyone and everyone with harrowing experiences at conventions but it's interesting to chart its beginnings in the experience of being catcalled and connecting with another survivor immediately thereafter. I know we're not alone.

Thanks for reading, especially since this one's near and dear to my heart! Tomorrow's topic will be about school dress codes.


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