I was 19 years-old the first time I ever said the F-word. I remember it distinctly. I was sitting on the bleachers at the ball park not far from my home thinking about a boy who had kissed me, on that very spot a week earlier. I was writing in my journal when two guys, a bit younger than I, started harassing me.
“Nice tits,” the slighty chubby one yelled. “Yeah,” his side-kick mimicked, “Nice tits.” I was and remain to this day a very modest person. I don’t enjoy being somewhat well endowed. I wanted to be flat chested my entire life drawing absolutely no attention to any part of my body whatsoever. My dream was always that people would like me for my sizable brain and witty banter. My breasts were the last thing I cared about. In fact, they betrayed me. Women with breasts were naturally thought of as stupid, whereas flat chested women were smart. But I had just graduated from high school with a 92% average. It had to be because I hid my breasts constantly behind sweaters, jumpers, blazers.
“Come suck my dick,” one boy yelled at me. I tried to ignore them, but they kept at it obviously enjoying their efforts to denigrate me.
“What’s the matter? Your tits too big for your brain?” one of them asked while the other one snickered. And that was when the f-word came out of my mouth. It came out without thought and without apology. It sounded like artillery in my mouth and it did the trick. They F-d off and I was once again left alone, stewing. The moment for writing was lost. My reverie had been completely destroyed. I was livid. Never in a million years would I or any of my girlfriends have tried to humiliate a boy the way I had just been humiliated. It simply wouldn’t happen. And the more I thought about it, the more I hated the way I looked, and the way they had made me feel.
A month later I was living in New York, attending theatre school in midtown Manhattan and enjoying my first taste of independence. I had a modest amount of money inherited from my mother’s insurance after her death four years earlier, and I parceled it out carefully for my studies. New Yorkers, I soon discovered, had no problem using the f-word as a noun, an adjective, a verb and an adverb. In a month’s time I heard it used often and to great effect. Cab drivers, cyclists, even men at food carts. In acting class, there was hardly an improv that didn’t end with a good F-you! By the time I returned home for Thanksgiving it was part of my regular vocabulary. While happily enjoying the dinner, my father had lovingly prepared, I nonchalantly said, “Pass the f-ing turkey, please and thank you.” Thus, assuring my father that all his fears of my going to New York were completely founded. That was the first and last time I ever swore in front of my him, with the exception of possibly blurting out something when I’d hit my thumb accidentally with a hammer or burned myself while cooking.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that most men don’t like women who swear. In particular, older men feel as though a curse word coming from the mouth of a woman is demeaning. But even younger men, I’ve noticed, can get pretty pissy when women level the playing field by swearing. I recently re-read Terrence McNally’s play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. When Frankie tells Johnny he’s full of shit after he professes his love during a one-night stand, he responds: “Hey, come on, don’t. One of the things I like about you, Frankie, is that you talk nice.”
She responds by using the F-word six times. I might have used it seven.
When I think of the times I’m most likely to swear, it’s usually around men. I feel like a junk yard dog warning anyone who crosses the line that I mean business. It’s not something I resort to naturally. It’s usually reserved for the guy on the subway whose legs are so wide he’s taking up two seats and rubbing his thigh up against me. The man on the bus who won’t take his eyes off my breasts. The one who says, “Smile. You look so much better when you smile.” I hate when I get driven to the point of expletive no return. I was raised to be polite. My parents grew up with the reasonable expectation that people would be mutually respectful of one and other. Sometimes when men cross the line they cover it up by saying things like, “Lighten up. I’m just joking,” or worse, accuse me of taking things too seriously. I once told an actor to F-off when he wouldn’t stop poking me in rehearsal. I asked politely. I asked again. And then I just didn’t care. No way was I going to perform that one scene for two months on the road with him poking me every F-ing day.
There have been times when I didn’t use the word and I wished I had. Once in New York on a lunch break I went to a park to learn lines and a wealthy older man sat down by me and thought it was perfectly okay to regale me on the virtues of wearing high heels instead of running shoes (which at the time was kind of my signature look.) He was creepy and his comments were intrusive. No one asked him. Men who think it’s perfectly okay to give unsolicited fashion advice to women deserve to be told off.
According to scientists, swearing appears to be a feature of language that an articulate speaker can use in order to communicate with maximum effectiveness. A collection of studies concluded that there is more to swearing than simply causing offence, or a lack of verbal hygiene. Language is a sophisticated toolkit, and swearing is a part of it. Once, it may well have saved my life.
I was still in New York enjoying my first real relationship with a guy who was a playwright at the Julliard School when, for some reason, a conversation about a play we had seen turned sour and the next thing I knew I was storming out of the apartment. On this particular occasion, I thought a walk along the beach at Coney Island would be just the thing to clear my head. I’d been there a few times to see the beloved Beluga’s and I always came back the better for having come in contact with nature. I boarded the F train at Washington Square and took it all the way to the 8th Street New York City Aquarium stop. It was late afternoon, and just beginning to get dark. I reasoned that I had at least an hour’s worth of light to walk around in before I’d need to return home. It didn’t faze me that I was the only person on the subway at that point. And it didn’t bother me that I was alone as I passed through the turnstile and out onto walkway towards the beach. As I took in a deep breath of salty air I began to feel better. I was smiling to myself, thinking about the argument with my boyfriend and realizing how ridiculous I had been when I suddenly became aware of a man walking behind me. I was irritated. Here was a whole bridge for the two of us to share, and this jerk was crowding me. “Why doesn’t he pass,” I thought, “and leave me alone?” I kept walking. He kept walking. I moved to the other side of the bridge. He moved to the other side of the bridge. Completely unaware of his intentions I muttered under my breath something about spatial awareness when I suddenly realized that he was getting closer. I could almost feel his breath on the back of my neck. “That’s it,” I said to myself, “Enough is enough!” I turned around to confront him and saw to my shock that he had his pants down. Somewhere in the back of my mind two things became crystal clear. One was that I was probably seconds from being raped, and the other was that while his pants were around his ankles he wouldn’t be able to run. A voice somewhere in my head told me not to let him see that I was afraid and so, as he stood there about to move towards me I said, “F-off!” I said it like I belonged. I said it with as much power as I could muster. I said it with attitude and gumption. It was a bullet and it hit my target squarely between the eyes because for a moment, he stopped, stepped half an inch back and fell. It was just enough time for me to walk past him and return to the subway. Just enough time to get about a 20 ft. head start while he pulled his pants up and started in pursuit. I began to run. He began to run. I could see the subway entrance up ahead. I knew there was an attendant inside the toll booth. Just a few feet more. He was gaining on me and then, suddenly out of nowhere, a policeman showed up and the man turned around and ran away. I’m sure the officer meant well but the first thing he did was yell at me. “What are you doing here?” He shouted. “You shouldn’t be here alone. What are you thinking? You’re lucky to be alive.” I felt ashamed, and relieved, and terrified all at the same time. He ushered me back to the station where he waited with me on the platform until the train arrived and I was safely shoved on board.
I sat on the subway car going over what had just happened and then I started to laugh hysterically for nearly ten minutes. To this day I have no recollection of what the man on the bridge looked like except that he had long black hair, and was wearing blue jeans with gray underwear. I’ve never have been able to identify a single thing about him, except that.
For nearly a month afterwards I found myself completely at a loss whenever any man was within two inches of me. On subways I cowered in corners and was afraid to be alone in public. If a man startled me coming around a corner, my pulse raced, my breath quickened and I wanted to run. I never told anyone what had happened. The police officer had made me feel so ashamed at myself for being so stupid that I thought people would think less of me if I told them how careless I had been. I don’t know exactly when I stopped feeling fully responsible for the predicament I had found myself in, but somewhere in my late 30’s I started to shift my thinking. It’s true, there are places that aren’t safe for women to be at alone, and in hindsight, Coney Island at dusk was one of them, but at the same time a woman should be able to go for a walk a night without fear of being attacked. A woman should be able to walk home alone from a movie, a play, a concert. She shouldn’t be afraid in a parking lot, or worry about being followed from the subway station. People are always telling me to be safe as if I have any control over the matter. I don’t want men to be the hero or the villain of my story. I want to be able to go out alone, travel by myself, stay up late and not have to spend money on a cab to get home. Freedom of movement is a right for all people, and being afraid that you will be attacked at night jogging or walking to your house from a library because you’re female is…well…fucked.