On Telegraph, further from campus but still in sight of the Campanile, there is a flower shop selling roses and tulips, with a bench out front for people to sit and relax if they are willing to face the rushing cars. This spring, I was walking hand in hand with my partner in search of an apartment, when a man shouted from the flower shop bench: “Damn, if you two ever make a porno, I’ll be your first customer.” This, along with some slurs and obscenities, continued for two blistering blocks, as we rushed away from the roses with hot faces and stinging eyes. For anybody who’s ever been catcalled, the feeling of wanting to collapse inward in order to escape your own body is especially memorable; seemingly, it is one that never gets much easier. It’s been a few months, and I haven’t seen that man since, but catcalling has nonetheless become an unfortunately ingrained piece of the everyday.
It is a steadfast reality that among women, there are many unspoken and implicit understandings — carry your keys between your fingers, always walk your friend to the door, turn on location tracking before going on a date. These covert operations are a form of defense against the opposition, a way to ensure survival and to protect one another from the dangers lurking outside. Call me a cynic, but any woman in Berkeley will tell you the same. Catcalling is not solely a part of my experience, but rather a collective burden that women are forced to shoulder; some, more than others.
For me and my partner, there are several strikes against us, all of which leave us vulnerable the moment our feet hit the sidewalk. We are queer, femme and in an interracial relationship. Going, going, gone. Any one of these things would make us more perceived, more threatening, more enticing to enact violence upon. Combined, it leaves us scared to leave the house past 5 p.m. In reality, we most often don’t. Since moving here, we have begun a steady retreat inside of ourselves, and into our small, studio apartment.
For my partner, a Vietnamese woman, coming to Berkeley has resulted in a steady and rapid increase in anxiety. Because she works from home, she more often than not chooses to stay there. Groceries are ordered to the front door, errands are confined to the early hours of the day and sometimes even going to the farmers market causes her breathing to become shallow, and her hands to get clammy. This is not an overreaction, rather, it is a valid trauma response.
Alternatively, as a working student, I’m forced outside daily. I cannot escape walks across campus, or to my job, and I cannot escape the perception that comes along with that. But despite that, I am doing my damndest. I don’t do my makeup, I don’t wear low-cut tops and I never show my legs. Since arriving in the Bay, I’ve begun to wonder about my gender presentation and my own identity, questioning why I feel the need to look so different, and ultimately, to look so masculine. It’s not that I feel any different, but rather, that acting out my femininity feels like an invitation to be harassed. The power I once felt from a fake lash and a smack of lipgloss now feels like little more than a glaring vulnerability.
Since moving here, the changes my partner and I have faced have undoubtedly affected our sex life and our relationship to home. Often, there was a nagging feeling of vulnerability that we couldn’t get out of our heads, even in the shared comfort of our bed. Yes, I attribute this to life’s normal stresses, but I also blame it on the very real trauma that near-constant harassment has had on our psyches and our sense of self when it comes to wholly embracing our sexuality. I didn’t want to feel soft, tender or exposed. I struggled to surrender myself to my femininity; without realizing it, I was bringing the defensiveness I met the outside world with into our studio.
Perhaps in protest, I’m now doing my best to see our apartment as a shared space wherein we can truly be ourselves, our full selves, without fear and constraint. I devote tenderness and care to our space, radically love my partner in ways I often cannot outside and most of all remind myself that sex shouldn’t be an adherence to the societal expectation to shrink and hide, but a revolutionary act of defiant softness. Home is where I strive to always feel safe and where I’m committed to loving without restraint. For now, I water my plants, make breakfast for my partner, enjoy the softness of sex in the morning and look forward to a day where we can step outside in makeup and shorts, to smell the roses and the tulips and face the rushing cars.