It was one of those headlines that makes you spit out your morning coffee: “Man Is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger.” The man in question, a 28-year-old filmmaker, claimed it had begun harmlessly. He was outside a Greenwich Village movie theater in when he saw a group of women walking toward him. The way he told police, he liked the way one of the women “wore her hair,” and said to her innocently, “Hey, how're you doing?” In response, he said, another of the women insulted his shoes, and in the ensuing melee all eight women attacked him and he ended up nicked in the abdomen by a kitchen knife.
When this story appeared in the New York Times last summer, it caused no small amount of comment - ok, hooting -- around our house. My daughter Cait gave it a dramatic reading at the breakfast table. We didn't exactly say, 'you, go, girls!' but almost.
Of course, this guy didn't deserve to be attacked, no matter what he actually said, and indeed the women’s trial for assault and attempted murder is now underway. The New York papers are all over it and so are we. Under oath, the alleged victim backpedaled on his claim of having said nothing more than “a simple hello,” and admitted to calling one woman an elephant and telling another she looked like a man. These remarks, said the prosecutor, triggered the women’s “vicious and unprovoked attack.”
According to the defense lawyer, the women were merely trying to counter “unwanted sexual advances.” The man was enraged at being rebuffed when the women told him they were gay. After boasting that he could convert them to heterosexuality through his sexual prowess (in the Times's decorous paraphrase), he tried to choke one of them. “These young ladies defended themselves,” the defense lawyer said. “They fought back. They didn't acquiesce, they didn't cower.”
Cait speculates that the women simply snapped. “Perhaps they were sick of the constant sexual harassment (oops -- admiration) that happens on the streets every day,” she wrote in an essay about the incident. “Perhaps for once, they had enough power in numbers to exact punishment, so they did.”
My daughter could relate. So could I. It's old news that street insults are an endless source of humiliation for young women. The carload of teenagers who made obscene catcalls at me have been replaced by the young man who looked Cait up and down and pronounced her, “Nice meat.” The specific comments may have changed, but the feelings of anger and powerlessness have not. It's no surprise we a twinge of satisfaction when the tables were turned.
It's up to the jury to weigh the truth of the conflicting allegations.
But beyond its eventual outcome, the case raises questions about how our society views unsolicited sexual comments on the street. Do they constitute provocation? Or are they essentially harmless?
I know what I think.