Girly Thoughts

April 13, 2008

Thinking out a personal experience

Filed under: Gender,sexual assault — judgesnineteen @ 9:58 pm

On Friday I was walking through the metro station with my sister, and my parents were a little further behind us. We walked through a crowded area and a guy leaned in towards me and my sister, I think more her but I was right there too, and said “Beautiful baby”. It sounds awkward because it was; he was clearly not a native speaker of English. I’m assuming French because it would upset me more if a guy felt like he owned the world enough to do that in a country he didn’t even live in. Anyway. White guy, in case you get any ideas.

I know it doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world to say to someone. But it came off kind of taunting, and the way he leaned in at us…I don’t know what it was, actually, I can’t tell you for the life of me what was going through my head, all I know is that I looked him in the eye and said “Fuck you.”

Then I kept walking and he started to yell something at me that was still like, in line with what he had said before, and then changed his mind and said “Fuck you” and kept yelling but I haven’t the faintest idea what he said. It was just starting to dawn on me that I had said the F word in front of my family and they were going to be terrified of me using the metro now…

My mom caught up to me and started lecturing me on how you never say anything back, and he’s still behind us, he’s getting on this train, quick get in, and when we got off, look, he’s back there, quick let’s leave. Ok, so maybe I didn’t think that through. Chances of getting hurt in the middle of a crowd in the hall of the metro station are slim; chances of getting followed by a pissed off misogynist and raped in an alley, perhaps not so slim. Fortunately there were no more run-ins.

But I started thinking. First, about why I reacted that way to such a seemingly harmless thing. I didn’t have the impression he was going to do anything else. I had been on the receiving end of this sort of thing twice earlier that day and not been overly offended. I didn’t like it, but those two times, it was from two members of a capoeira group, and I was smiling at them to say “good job”, not knowing how to say that in Portuguese, or really in French, for that matter. One of them did a kiss thing at me. Another one said “beautiful” when he walked by me. Maybe this is unfeminist, but I forgave them for it on the grounds that they probably thought my smile invited it. I found them…entitled, let’s say. Like they assumed I would take their approval as a welcome compliment; like they thought it was totally fair for them to try to trap women into being sexual in some way with them (this I gathered from watching them grab a couple of female spectators and dance with them during a routine a little later; the girls were very reluctant, but they were smiling, it gave you the impression they were just embarrassed. I don’t know).

But then the guy in the metro…maybe three’s my limit for one day? Maybe I was subconsciously worried for my sister more than myself? Maybe he just came off more harass-y about it than the guys before did. I think that last one is true, but the others are still possibilities.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is whether my reaction was so wrong. And what it means if it is. My boyfriend said it’s normal, welcome to the life of European women. (He was kind of relieved since he thinks I’m generally way too nice to guys who hit on me.) My parents think it was absolutely horrible, because it puts me in danger. I personally think “fuck you” was not the best choice. But I’m kinda glad I said something. One thing I was thinking about afterwards was about an idea I had, an unresearched one, while thinking about street harassment. The idea is that a lot of guys seem to think 1) these are welcome compliments, we’re just dying for male approval of our appearance at all times, and 2) you can pick up women this way. I don’t think that’s the whole story of street harassment, I think a lot of it is about exerting power through sexuality, not unlike rape, but still…I thought maybe some of it, anyway, was based on the myth that we like it. So maybe that was subconsciously going on in my head and I decided to show this guy that actually, we don’t. (I read an article about bottom-smacking in Italy, which can now get you sent to jail [hooray], and most of the guys interviewed said it wasn’t a big deal, socially acceptable, while all of the women interviewed said it was a bad thing. Not at all a representative sample, but it made me think, anyway.)

What concerned me the most was what my mom said. Basically the idea is to be silent and never stand up for yourself – to accept verbal harassment – because the threat of physical harassment is behind it. This may well be the smartest thing to do, and I certainly would not fault anyone for doing so. But it’s pretty telling, isn’t it? This is about the threat of rape being hung over women’s heads to keep them in their place, to keep them silent and submissive, to remind them that they are there to be seen and judged by men rather than to act. I’m not trying to make a big deal out of this one incident, I’m saying if this is the rule for how to handle all incidents of street harassment – and it gets way worse than this in some places – that’s the kind of society it makes. Which is something I already knew, but I guess it didn’t really make sense to me until Friday. And I can feel that it won’t make sense to a lot of other people, if people who don’t already get it happen to read this.

Then again, you could look at it the way she did, which was that you don’t respond to bullies because that’s just what they want.  There’s something to that…but I don’t think that’s enough.  Because nobody is telling these guys they’re not supposed to act this way.  And there are always kids who get beaten up even without talking back to the bully.  Not that I think every woman needs to decide to talk back, I just think society needs to start saying street harassment is not ok.

I’m gonna give one more stab at an explanation of what’s wrong with street harassment. Because I know if anyone who doesn’t already get it reads this they’ll think I’m against all flirtation and feminists hate sex blah blah blah never mind the fact that I blog a fair amount about how consensual sex of all types should be more accepted than it is.

I am not walking down this street or this hall in the metro station to display my body for you. I happen not to dress very “provocatively” – which is a shitty victim-blaming term anyway – but even if I did, it wouldn’t be for the sake of some guy who crossed my path for a second on my way somewhere more important. Get over yourself.

I am not here, on the earth, for you to judge me. I’m not waiting to see what number you hold up. If you think you get to judge me, my appearance or anything else about me, and you don’t even know me, and I haven’t entered any competitions, you are a self-centered entitled asshole. If you think I will appreciate your display of assholery just because this time it confirms that I win in the context of patriarchy, which still means losing because patriarchy treats me as less than human, you’re steeped in male privilege and clearly think too little of me to be mistaken for someone who would give me a worthwhile compliment.

You are welcome to approach me if you would like to offer me the opportunity to engage with you. But it needs to be an offer, not something you yell and back up with threats so that I have no choice in the matter, so that you can show me how you have power over me, so you can intimidate me, so you can force your desires or your judgment on me. You need to not corner me, you need to not follow me when I walk away from you. You need to not tell me I’m mean when I say no, because you are not so universally desirable that the only reason a person would want to leave you would be for the sake of being mean, and because you know perfectly well that when you say that you’re trying to manipulate me into staying, and my opinion matters, it shouldn’t be about trapping me into doing what you want.

And it needs to be about a dialogue, meaning two-way, meaning you treat me as a human being with thoughts and feelings and agency. You don’t have to go Oprah on me, you just have to talk me like a person you’d like to get to know (or even if you just want sex – which you’re not going to get, but you can’t know that ahead of time – you still have to treat me like a person that gets ASKED for consent, that has an opinion that is valid, a whole person who is about more than sex even if that is the only part of me you’re personally interested in), a person who you want to hear something back from after you’re done expressing interest.

The “male gaze” is one of the things I’ve learned about sexism that bothers me the most, at least from among the things that affects me personally. To those guys, a woman is an object, not only in the sense of objectification-women-are-pieces-of-meat, but in the sense of the object of the verb. Not the subject. The gaze only goes one way. The judgment, the desire, the decision, are only relevant in the male. I know it’s real and not just an academic feminist concept because it explains why I see myself from the point of view of men so much, instead of from the point of view of myself. That’s a pretty shitty feeling, when you can’t even get away from the sexism in your own head. I’m working on it though.

I hope that makes things a little more clear.

Also: check out Female and Breathing on my blogroll, and she has links to Holla Back NYC and other sites that deal with this issue.



  1. I think we all struggle with this issue on a regular basis – you feel like you should say something, yet you don’t want to provoke someone who could be dangerous or unstable, despite the fact that they are taunting you. Because that is what it is, taunting – not complimenting. I do understand that other countries have different ideas of what is acceptable, and I think you read all the situations you describe pretty accurately. A waiter might call you beautiful as a pleasantry, but the man passing in the street was trying to provoke a reaction in you. I don’t believe that men think they can actually pick-up women this way – no one expects you to stop and say “Really? You think I’m a beautiful baby? Would you like to go over to that cafe with me and chat?” It isn’t going to happen. No, he is trying to provoke a reaction – it is a way of asserting power. He is trying to make you feel uncomfortable, so it is fair game to make him feel uncomfortable back. You mom, though, is your mom – and is going to worry about you. She might be recommending that you be far more cautious than she would be in a similar situation, that is how my mother is.

    Comment by pobre habladora — April 14, 2008 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah, I agree on all points. Especially when I think about other encounters I’ve had in the metro station. Other times, men I didn’t know have come up to me and tried to start a conversation/ask me out. One of them was inappropriate in that I kept trying to walk away from him and he kept following me (but just when we were waiting for the metro, not like following me to my destination). But in all of those cases, the men tried to have a polite conversation, and didn’t get mean or anything when I either parted ways or said sorry, I have a boyfriend. (Of course, I didn’t say fuck you to them either…but still.) So that makes the side of me that thinks I’m overreacting feel better.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — April 14, 2008 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

  3. My boyfriend said it’s normal, welcome to the life of European women. … My parents think it was absolutely horrible, because it puts me in danger. I personally think “fuck you” was not the best choice. But I’m kinda glad I said something. … The idea is that a lot of guys seem to think 1) these are welcome compliments, we’re just dying for male approval of our appearance at all times, and 2) you can pick up women this way. I don’t think that’s the whole story of street harassment, I think a lot of it is about exerting power through sexuality, not unlike rape, but still…I thought maybe some of it, anyway, was based on the myth that we like it. So maybe that was subconsciously going on in my head and I decided to show this guy that actually, we don’t.

    Props to you for standing up. I went through a similar incident very recently and I think the idea that women shouldn’t object is incredibly ingrained. It’s all about not causing a fuss, not making men feel uncomfortable for being jackasses. The language that people use when they tell you not to fight back, not to speak out, speaks volumes:

    Don’t say anything, they might hurt you — that’s intimidation. The idea is to go along with small instances of harassment, because if you don’t, they might do something so much worse. This idea is used to keep women in line. The problem here is that not saying anything doesn’t stop men from harassing, it just implicitly approves it and lets them keep thinking it’s okay. No one every confronted his or her own privilege by not being called out on it.

    Comment by pizzadiavola — April 14, 2008 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  4. i agree w/ pizza here. i get a lot of grief for speaking my mind (publicly, which i think turned me to blogging in the first place, a safe place to say what is on my mind), and i really honestly believe that i get frowned at more for raising a fuss b/c i am a woman. it seems perceived that i should just smile and nod or move along to avoid a scene, danger, whathaveyou.

    great post. i used to lurk when you were on “human rights badasses”, and had wondered what happened to you. thanks for coming to my site today. i enjoyed your blog before, so glad we crossed paths again.

    Comment by ouyangdan — April 15, 2008 @ 8:54 am | Reply

  5. Yeah, I just can’t keep up with writing about things besides the stuff I already write in my notes when I’m bored in class, haha. But I’m glad you liked it! Hopefully I’ll update over the summer over there.

    I wonder how much of the being frowned at is because it’s actually unsafe, and how much is because it’s just not ladylike…and I wonder what they would tell guys. It could go the other way, too, I guess – stand up for yourself, be a man, when it’s actually dangerous and unnecessary. I’m lucky I don’t have to make the decision every day, I don’t know how some people do it.

    I know what you mean about a safe space. I’m actually kind of hoping for some difficult commenters (so far they’ve all been lovely), but I won’t tell anyone in real life that this is my blog, except my boyfriend. Maybe someday I’ll get brave enough, but right now I just don’t want to handle so many of my friends and family thinking I’m terrible for saying Christians evangelize unethically and sounding like *gasp* a Democrat.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — April 15, 2008 @ 9:47 am | Reply

  6. I found this through feministing. Looks like an awesome blog. Thankfully, I think I haven’t experienced too much street harassment. Unless it’s just so common that I don’t notice sometimes. Actually, the first example that comes to mind is when guys say something “complimentary” or make some noise when they are driving by in a car. I think they feel more “allowed” to do this at night too.
    But yeah, before you said it, I was going to say “third time’s a charm”? This weekend I traveled to Stockholm, met guys in a hostel and met other guys on an overnight cruise ship and by the end of the weekend I thought if a guy makes me see a woman as an object one more time I will scream. It was just so many mostly little things that added up such as how easily people can say rape like it’s nothing, how some men admire aloud the body parts of women they’ve just met, sexist jokes, how men will excuse rape while trying to say they aren’t, how emotion is regarded as lower than rationality, how some guys can make me feel stupid when I talk to them even though I keep reminding them I’ve studied these things and I wonder if they explain so much to men when they discuss, how men grabbing their privates is a sign of something good (?), and the list goes on. All these things exhibited by one or more men in four days. Thankfully I met some nice guys too like one who complimented my looks in a surprisingly sincere and friendly way and wondered why guys can’t just do that. I guess because not all seem sincere and non-intimidating about it like he did.
    Anyway, this is long. But anyway, like you I think I’ve been coming to a better understanding of things because of recent experiences. Lately, the only guys I talk to are my boyfriend and the guys I live with in student housing. My classes are like 90% girls. This all gave me admiration for the first feminists who kind of started from nothing with no supporters. Wow.

    Comment by Lyndsay — April 15, 2008 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks for the comment, Lyndsay. That sounds really awful about those guys. And you’re right, I can’t imagine being a feminist if there wasn’t already so much support (even if it’s so little when I’m out in the real world). My classes are 90% girls too! Haha, it started being that way after I became a feminist, too, and I thought it was funny that I was so gender-conforming in my choice of studies.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — April 15, 2008 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  8. J19, i totally know what you mean.

    i still have many friends who don’t know about this, and family too, b/c, well…i don’t think they get the democrat thing, let alone the progressive angle. also, i am not sure how many people i knew in HS who would understand my being pagan.

    someday, we will be able to out ourselves. 😉

    Comment by ouyangdan — April 21, 2008 @ 3:39 am | Reply

  9. I think it’s interesting how the word pagan has been so demonized. I read a book called Pagan Christ while I was deciding whether to stay Christian or not, and it used the word pagan as a positive thing, which kind of startled me. So yeah, I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t be accepting of paganism, even less than they would be of other minority religions.

    Comment by judgesnineteen — May 3, 2008 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: