ZOË SULLIVAN-BLUM- This weekend I slapped someone, intentionally, for the first time in my life. Discounting joking smacks, fake theater slaps, or drunken dares (sorry Matt), I had never hit someone with force. I had never actually put my hand in contact with a person’s face out of anger. But, on Saturday night, that changed.
Let me explain. This weekend I went to visit friends from Skidmore in Florence, Italy. I had never been to Italy before, and I was more than a little excited. I was ecstatic at the prospect of eating gelato more than once a day; tasting authentic, homemade pasta; seeing the Duomo and the many famous works of art that Florence houses; seeing my friends; and, of course, experiencing Florentine nightlife (which I was pretty sure was going to be damn fun, at least judging by my friend’s frequent Snapchat Stories). Many things about Florence were just as good, if not better, than I had imagined. The gelato is indescribably decadent, the dinners luxuriously flavorful, and the city itself is beautiful. Friday night was definitely fun, but the real anticipation was reserved for Saturday; my friends were finally going to a club just outside of Florence they had heard about and had wanted to visit all semester.
Now, as you probably know, Madrid has a reputation for clubbing and nightlife in general. Whether or not you agree with the polls ranking it as one of the best “going-out” cities in the world, you have to admit that it’s got a great scene any night of the week. When we entered the club outside of Florence on Saturday—which had a ridiculously expensive entrance fee (that I managed to dodge when the bouncer had his back turned, yes, yes I feel bad), far more than any club in Madrid—I was not overly impressed. Neither, in fact, were my friends. However, we had spent money getting there and (most of us) had spent money getting in, so we decided to stay and try to have fun.
I have heard the stereotypes about Italian men: pushy, aggressive, touchy, sexist, and sans boundaries. Admittedly the catcalling and ass grabbing had been worse than in Madrid, but nothing I wasn’t accustomed to (side note: how is it 2016 and I am saying that it isn’t that bad when a man “only” brushes my butt in a club!?). On Saturday night, I already wasn’t in the best mood, disappointed with the club, getting over a cold, feeling weird about the entrance situation, and already fed up with the smirks and light touches I was receiving. That’s when it happened. I was following my friends through the crowd, minding my own business, when suddenly I felt a hand reach under my dress and between my legs. I wasn’t wearing tights, and the hand was much more invasive than a simple ass-grab (again, why is even a “simple ass-grab” still so normal?). I turned to see a guy leering at me, not showing any sign that he was going to stop his journey under my dress, and, without thinking, I slapped him across the face. It was a hard enough slap that his head turned, and I got the side of his nose in addition to his cheek. The look on his young, handsome, face was one of complete shock. Livid, I found my friends, the music too loud to explain and, honestly, the situation too close to normal to feel the need to.
My friends were having a mediocre night and so we left, waiting outside in the warm night air for our cab to come collect us. I realized I had tears on my face when my friend asked if I was okay. I told her what had happened, my legs actually shaking with rage. We had a good talk about it, about cultural norms in Italy, in Spain, in the States, for men and women in general. Upon discussing it briefly with my Mom when I called her from the airport (I missed my flight home, that’s another story from the weekend), I realized how completely instinctive the slap had been for me, someone who had never slapped anyone like that before, and how completely unexpected it was for the guy. I’ve actually had dreams about trying to slap someone before, my hand always moving through the air as though stuck in molasses, never able to finish the motion with more than a soft pat on the face of whatever adversary I’m facing in that particular dream. And yet, on that night in Italy, I was so fed up with it all, so done with being touched and jeered at like a prize hog, my frustrations escaped me in a single, forceful slap.
My Moms said they were proud of me, that they hoped I broke his nose. But the thing is, I did not feel victorious or powerful. I felt angry and violated and disheartened. Yes, I was proud that I didn’t just take it, that I finally did something, but the fact is that that slap did nothing to stop other men from touching me that night, did nothing to stop me from tugging down my skirt, hugging it to my thighs and wishing wholeheartedly that I was wearing jeans instead. That’s what made me angrier than that single instance of intrusion: the feeling that standing up for myself had accomplished nothing. I returned from Florence feeling grateful for the relatively tame harassment I receive from men in Madrid, even slightly missing the fact that a night out in downtown Saratoga usually lends nothing more than an unsolicited pat on the ass. Although I am grateful for the safety of Madrid, for the reassurance I feel when walking home at 4:00 in the morning, it still makes my hand itch to slap something again that these constant sexist microaggressions are something I will probably always face. And I am a middle-class, able-bodied, white woman. I don’t face half as many acts of –isms as many other people I know.
I am not advocating violence, nor am I suggesting that my experience on Saturday was some monumental moment in my life. However, what does it say about the world we live in that I am nearly 21 years old and definitely not a physically aggressive person, that I tend to feel that violence is never the answer, that I wasn’t raised to believe in violent responses, that I an educated and compassionate person, and yet, somehow, I ended up slapping a strange man while sober at a club on a Saturday night? I think it is important to remember that harassment and microaggressions happen every day, no matter in the world where we are, but also that we are capable of, whether literally or metaphorically, striking back.