I will eventually delve into the wonderful parts of Paris, the parts that I love, which are robust and many; but it's important that I tell this story first, to get it out of the way, and because it's important in the context of what it means to be a woman in a foreign city.
The men here are different than in New York. Whereas if a New York man worked up the courage to ask for your phone number and then called you, and you never called back, he would give up and move on to the next woman. Here, it is different. If you make the mistake of giving your phone number to a person you don't intend on ever seeing again, you should know that you'll probably be receiving phone calls from them for weeks afterwards. I drunkenly gave my number to some guy who bought me drinks on the first night I was in Paris, and even though I've never returned his calls or texts, he continued to call me until today when my friend Victoria actually answered the phone and told him to essentially fuck off and leave me alone, since he was clearly not getting the (quite obvious) hint.
I can deal with persistence; in fact, it can be flattering and refreshing considering the head games American men are somewhat notorious for engaging in. It's nice to be chased, and catcalls in French sound a lot sexier. But it's the aggressive twinge that permeates these catcalls that has literally made me nervous to simply walk down the street. If you ignore someone, they continue to bother you, especially if they realize you're American. I don't know why - perhaps it's our reputation for being slutty - but French guys love American girls. Hearing us speak English is apparently an immediate turn on for them. It would be perfect, considering my history of being a tad boy crazy, but instead I constantly feel like I'm having to fend off potential rapists.
Of course not all French guys are like this, and there are many guys in America who are aggressive catcallers. But the men here take it to a whole new level. One guy came up to me and kept telling me he loved me, asking me to kiss him, until finally my friend had to threaten to burn him with her cigarette because he literally would not leave me alone, despite our pleas.
During orientation, one of the women who works at the NYU in Paris center, who happens to be French, warned us against girls wearing short skirts. At the time I thought it was ludicrous. The feminist in me got all uppity and offended: why should I change my behavior and refuse to wear outfits that I like just because men can't control themselves? I should be able to wear a minidress or a knee-length skirt without feeling like I can't leave my apartment for fear of being harassed.
But the woman was right. Here, if you go out in slightly revealing outfits, you are asking to be harassed: it is the sad, fucked up truth. I'm assuming it's why many French women opt for jeans and a sweater: guys are less likely to fuck with you if you're not dressed in little skirts and tops. But the thing is, it's not that much less likely. I've seen poor girls get hit on in sweatpants. And mercilessly hit on, with guys lagging behind them, practically begging. And if you speak in English, you are asking to not only get stared at, but to get hit on constantly.
I guess all this brings me to my story: last night I was on the Metro coming home from my friend's apartment in Montmartre. It wasn't very late - around midnight - and the train was fairly crowded, with most of the seats taken up. I was listening to my iPod, a little teary because I had just sprained my ankle (OF COURSE, I've now sprained it in PA, NY, CA, London and Paris - go me!) and it hurt really badly. So I'm listening to a sad Iron and Wine song, in pain, feeling a little homesick. All the sudden I look up at the guy across from me and he has his dick sticking out of his pants and he's jerking off while staring at me.
I've never encountered something like this before in my life. It's one of those horror stories you hear from girls alone on the subway very late at night in furthest Brooklyn, but you never think it's going to happen to you. It was entirely degrading, humiliating and sickening. I immediately got up and moved to another part of the train - which was pretty crowded! - and started crying hysterically. I was in a foreign city where I was already nervous to go out because of the tension I feel walking around alone as a woman, and here was this guy looking at my tear stained face and jerking off to it in a very public place. Now the idea of anything sexual - things I do frequently like watch porn or even think about sex - makes me literally feel nauseous. I'm sure this will taper, but right now I feel as virginal as the day I was born, mostly because I can't get the image of his dick out of my head. It was like something out of "Little Children."
I ran back to my apartment and was in hysterics for an hour when my roommate finally calmed me down with herbal tea and the promise that we'd try to switch apartments. We're currently in the 13th district and very far out - almost at the end of the Metro line. The place is cheap - a 2 bedroom for 650 Euro/month with washer/dryer, wireless, free local calling and it's pretty big. We're in Chinatown, which I initially thought would be comforting since that's where I live in New York, but instead I find it frustrating because I came here to be immersed in the Parisian lifestyle and instead when I look out my window it totally resembles what I saw from my apartment on Broome and Centre. The biggest problem is that it's entirely unsafe to get here, and it's impractical for my roommate and I to be together all the time. Even though I have an unlimited Metrocard, I took a cab home from the Marais tonight for $13 Euros because I was too afraid to get on the Metro again by myself.
This whole incident is obviously highly personal but I wanted to share it because it speaks to a larger issue of being a woman in a city with different cultural attitudes towards women and sex. Perhaps it is accepted and normal for men to catcall here, to be aggressive, and sure, the Metro incident could have happened in New York as well. But it contributed to a general anxiety I had already been experiencing about my safety alone as an American woman in a city overrun with men who seem to be consistently unable to control their sexual and romantic behavior. This is a grand generalization of course, but my experiences so far have made me wary about venturing away from my apartment when it's dark out. I am not afraid of the typical things one might fear in urban areas: I'm not afraid of being shot or accidentally encountering a drug deal or getting into a fight with someone. Right now, I am nervous to leave my apartment simply because I am a woman, and that is one fucked up reason to be afraid.
P.S. I'm going to find some place to buy pepper spray, which I believe will make me feel like less of a victim, because I definitely feel like one right now, which is not a good thing in any way.