I was in college the first time I ever saw someone masturbating in public. This happened, not surprisingly, in New York City. I don't say that to stereotype New Yorkers, mind you. And I can't promise that you'll see a public masturbator if you take a trip to NYC. But if you really, really wanted to see someone masturbating in public, being in New York, specifically on the subway, specifically at 3 a.m., affords you a better chance than, say, a trip to Omaha.
Some of my friends and I were on a cultural trip sponsored by our dorm. We snuck out of our youth hostel late at night to go to a club, and saw him on our way back. He was sort of nondescript looking, except he was carrying a sign that read 'Please excuse me for masturbating in public. I'm basically harmless, it's just that there's too many girls around.' He held the sign in his left hand. You can most likely guess where his right hand was.
Like most exhibitionists, his intent was probably to shock and upset the people around him. He got his wish'we were appalled. In retrospect, though, it's clear he wasn't even particularly aroused. It was probably the end of a long night masturbating on the subway, and he seemed pretty tired. I'm sure he was looking forward to knocking off and relaxing in front of the TV like anyone else.
He listlessly fondled himself for a little while and let off a few quiet groans for our horrified entertainment, but you could tell his heart was no longer in it. He got off at the next stop.
Once we got over the initial shock, we were actually none the worse for the experience. We had a good story, and in terms of New York's cultural experiences we had definitely gotten our segregated fees' worth. Looking back on it now though, it has gotten me thinking about the way that sex, when expressed in certain ways, has a real power to make other people feel bad.
This seems especially significant to me now, considering that, when it comes to being subjected to street harassment, Madison seems to be holding its own against our nation's larger urban centers. Hell, I can't seem to walk outside my house, let alone down State Street, without being subjected to some 18-year-old half-wit inviting me to 'suck his cock' from the passenger side window of his best friend's mom's old Audi station wagon as they both roar by. As if that were even possible. As if, on the odd chance that I was just dying to suck me some half-wit dick, I could ever hope to catch him as he speeds away.
Exhibitionists and sexual harassers both know that their targets, usually women, will react with shame and embarrassment, and as a consequence will often refuse to stand up for themselves. But I wonder why. When a man walks up and pulls out his penis, or yells some twisted comment at us on the street, why the hell are we the ones who get embarrassed? And what do they get out of it anyway? Why is making someone else uncomfortable so much damn fun?
I imagine if the subway masturbator had had the experience of having his jaw broken by one of his 'girls' or had simply been treated with disinterested amusement instead of horror and shock, suddenly playing with himself in public wouldn't have seemed like nearly such a good idea... Well, what do you think? Write in to firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts and stories on the topic of street harassment. I'd be interested in hearing about your experiences, your thoughts and also the strategies you've found useful in dealing with lewd comments.