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.