Understanding Each Other

May 31, 2008

I want to say this carefully, because I don’t want to be misunderstood.

Most important, it is my opinion that in a civilized society, no one should harass anyone else. This is particularly important when we’re talking about a group that is more powerful, both physically and in other ways (in this discussion, that would be men), harassing a group that is less powerful (in this discussion, women). There is no excuse.

I would like to suggest, however, that if we limit our discussion to those individuals (women and men) who are willing to invest some thought and some empathy, perhaps we could eliminate at least some of the street harassment—and other harassment as well—perpetrated by men on women. There’s a big difference between males who whistle and cat-call at females in public settings and males who prey on vulnerability and commit violence.

A few years ago, a television series that had an extremely short run chronicled the lives of about four teenaged boys (I think they were sixteen years old), and it based its plot on the fact that normally-developing boys of this age think about sex every few seconds. I watched one or two episodes and confess I got bored with the repetition of the theme and the absence of anything I considered substantive. Shortly afterward I read a female reviewer’s take on the show, and (paraphrasing) she said that it should be taken off the air because no teenaged girl should be subjected to this subject matter.

I beg to differ with her. It seems to me that at least one episode of this show should be compulsory for teenaged girls, right along with the shorts I was shown in junior high about menstruation. And it should be shown in the absence of boys and followed with a discussion led by a female counselor. What do the girls need to know? It’s very possible for a teenaged boy to be so in thrall to his sexual development that even if he says “I love you,” and even if he thinks he means it, he might really be screaming, “I WANT SEX, NOW!” This does not mean these boys are necessarily bad. It means they have a lot to learn about their own bodies. And girls have a lot to learn about boys.

Similarly, the boys should be treated to something that helps them understand that when a girl agrees to make out with them in their car, it’s possible that she’s doing that because she doesn’t want him to think she’s prissy, because she wants the affection, because she wants him to be her boyfriend, because all kinds of possible reasons that have nothing to do with sex. Which is not the same as saying girls don’t want sex. They just seldom want it the same way boys do.

It’s said that women generally approach sex (exceptions always present) from the head down. They want romance, or at least mood lighting, and then they’ll progress down to the pleasure center if all things seem to work out. The complement to that is that men, while they are also capable of romance and spiritual connection, can and often do experience sex that begins and ends below the belt and doesn’t need to travel much further than however many inches he can lay claim to. Women need to understand this. So that when their boyfriend or husband is unfaithful and says, “But honey, it meant nothing to me!”, while she still has every right to be furious and to expect contrition or whatever she needs to feel better, she won’t think it means nothing when he has sex with her, but that he wasn’t lying about that unfaithful situation. This protest seems reasonable to him, and he might have said it to make her feel better. It probably doesn’t make sense to her.

If both sexes had a deeper understanding of each other’s approach to this intimate part of our nature, perhaps there would be less harassment. Women might have a better understanding of just what affect they have when they wear revealing or suggestive clothing; it might make them feel sexy or feminine, and it makes lots of men feel SEX. Big difference. A better understanding might also help women feel less threatened if the harassment is limited to whistles and/or comments that come from a safe distance—which is sometimes the case.

And men need to understand that just because a woman is dressed in a certain way doesn’t mean that sex means nothing to her, or that she necessarily wants a cat-call. It might also help them understand that it can make a woman feel threatened and afraid instead of complimented.

Have I ever been on the receiving end of unwanted comments from men? Sure. Did I like it? Not at all; it made me feel creepy. Was I dressed in a revealing way? Never; it’s not my style. Why did I think it happened? Maybe the guy(s) were bored. Maybe they were trying to look macho to their buddies. Were they thinking about me as a person? Probably not. Should they? Absolutely.

I say let’s approach this from both sides. If we can identify the people who are willing to understand and get them out of the harassment picture (by getting them to stop), then we can take appropriate action against those who are still behaving like Neanderthals. They’re the ones who are truly dangerous. They’re the ones we should fear.

–  Robin Reardon

Street Harassment: A Male Perspective

May 28, 2008

One aspect of street harassment is that it seems to be most offensive, and therefore most pathological, when a male is harassing a female. Why is this, and what can be done about it? These questions raise the general issue of intergender power dynamics. I can say with confidence that my recent experience in the workplace (as a curriculum developer, then an editor for an international education-oriented publishing house) was actually one of female domination, at least on the level of middle management. Both of my bosses were female, their boss was female, and their boss’s boss was female. Above that level, yes, there were definitely men in power.

The reason why I mention this is, while I do agree that above the so-called “glass ceiling,” the world seems to be dominated by an old-boy club of (white) men, I must also confess from personal experience that women are much more powerful than men in myriad other ways, though these ways are much more subtle and often misleading. For healthy men—at least men such as myself—a good woman is a prize that only the worthy man may obtain. To quote the protagonist of the film Scarface, “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”

To an unhealthy male, attention from women can appear to be a very attractive source of power. Believe me, I’ve been there.

As a single young adult male, I can say with confidence that most guys who are anything like me don’t have a clue what to do when they see a beautiful woman walking down the street. And when I say “anything like me,” I mean without power. (I happen to be on a relatively powerless life trajectory at the moment, which is OK with me.) Such guys have no business seeking the attention of beautiful, intelligent women. That’s my opinion, but I believe it deeply.

Men, in general, want to “be something”—to make their mark. That’s good and perfect, and it’s what men should do. The problem is when we try to make the wrong kind of mark, on the wrong kind of canvas. And frankly, excellent women are, in my mind, analogous to canvases that should be touched only nicely, with smooth strokes, using proper brushes and some damn fine paint—with their permission, of course.
And fine paint takes an investment, one that is not necessarily directly aimed at getting women. It’s like that movie Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come. Me personally, I’m not currently approaching women on the street; it’s not because I don’t feel attracted to them—Lordy no. I’m not sure whether or not women understand how physically painful it can be for a guy to see a daughter of Eve, arrayed with splendor, walk by, if the dude feels she is “out of his league.” I’ve literally gone into convulsions—well, definitely doubled over as if with a severe stomach cramp, sticking my fist into my mouth—upon seeing what I considered to be an unobtainable goddess.

This reaction, from what I understand about my fellow man, is completely normal. The issue, then, is what we do next. If I feel, despite my initial butterfly reaction (or “thunderbolt”), that I may indeed have a legitimately pleasurable experience to offer this holy sister, then I initiate eye contact with her. If she returns the eye contact, I may give a little smile and subtly roll off, gently placing my attention elsewhere to communicate that although she did pique my interest, I am multidimensional and not obsessive. I then slowly spiral back into her frame of attention and initiate conversation. If she doesn’t meet my first glance, then my roll off is actually into another part of my world, not hers, and we both continue on our (presumably) merry ways. No harm, no foul.

So, for me, the litmus test is whether she reciprocates eye contact. I can’t see that possibly turning into harassment, unless I’m staring at her fixedly, which I don’t because my body language is that of rolling, spinning, gracefully wandering, exploring, beautifying, and generally loving the transcendence of all that is. Or something to that effect. Basically, I’m busy. To give her undue attention would be to neglect something else in my life. Once in conversation and, eventually, a relationship, there are other boundaries to consider, but for any guys reading this, I would say that a safe guideline is: If she doesn’t look back at your eyes, don’t speak to her, touch her, follow her, or give her any more of your attention whatsoever. In fact, she may want you to pay “too much” attention to her for her own indulgent reasons, so she can “complain” later to her girlfriends about how guys won’t leave her alone (’cuz she’s sooooooooo hot).

No offense, ladies, but you know you love attention, in general . . . actually, we humans all do. It’s just . . . we want nice attention and appropriate amounts of it, in appropriate environments.

For me to live a balanced life, my power must come from my own health and wealth—that is, from myself. (I actually mean my higher self, in an Aquarian sense, in which it is equally true that my power comes from God alone). The cat-callers, the gropers, the stalkers . . . they are seeking a certain kind of power, the kind of power that necessitates the oppression of others. In terms of games, I play win-win games, where everybody can win. The games stalkers play require a loser. In fact, the attitude that for every winner there must be a loser, is at the root of many social ills and dichotomies. Street harassment is a noteworthy (and fixworthy!) special case.

I’ve never been accused of street harassment, but I’ve definitely given out too many (and too touchy-feely) hugs at office parties and been spoken to about it by my higher-ups. I can tell you point blank that the reason I did it was because I didn’t have enough other positive things going for me in my life to feel self-validated, and yet I still felt that I deserved attention from the queens of angels. Of course, looking back as (now) an objective third party, I can see that my false beliefs yielded offensive behavior. But at the time, I was just too young, too dumb, and too full of . . . well, full of conflict, to notice.

I am grateful for the opportunity and the prompt to reflect on this topic. Let all men derive their power and validation from appropriate sources!

Andrew Brett Golay

Fear Remains 36 Years Later

May 27, 2008

I think my first memory of being harassed was when I was 14 years old and was taking a shortcut to school through the fields in Bountiful, Utah. A guy who was a senior and new to our town saw me and ran up to me. I remember I was wearing a new dress and felt so pretty and I was flattered that this older guy wanted to walk with me. He asked me my name, my age, and then he said, “I think you’ll do,” and he wrapped his arms around me and began to unzip my dress. I was horrified and I shoved him away and started to run and run and run. I remember finally looking back when I was at the bottom of the hill of the local Elementary school. He was at the top of the hill, hands on his knees panting.

After that I was afraid to ever be alone with any male my age or older. I was a friendly outgoing girl but I became tongue tied and fearful around males. I guess that’s when my gay radar came to me. I didn’t consciously know my friends were gay, but I seemed to feel safe around gay men and gay teens who didn’t look at me like a side of beef.

I eventually faced my fears and got married, but I have never really gotten over the fear of what a male can do to me. I still will never go to the woods or any place where I am alone to walk. I am fifty years old now, I moved from a small town in Northern VA to NYC last year. Ironically I could never walk through that town in VA without getting honked or whistled at. Now in NYC I actually suffer less, but I get winked at, looked up and down and given the thumbs up sign or comments like “Mama I want to take those tit-ties home and give them some good loving,” about once a week.

Often the whistles and comments come from males half my age. Inside I’m screaming good grief I could be your mother. But still it happens. And I can never quite shake the feeling of the fields in Utah and that morning so long ago. I have never talked back to my harasser. I want to be brave and confront them, but the fear of what they could do to retaliate is still too strong a fear inside of me.

Beckie Weinheimer

Share your story!

May 26, 2008

Have you ever been whistled or honked at, commented on in a sexual way (positively or negatively), leered at, groped, masturbated in front of, followed, or assaulted while in public? If so, please share your story via e-mail and it will be added to this blog as a new entry. Visit the blog to learn more about the kinds of harassment women face and how they deal with it.

Note: In public, we are all susceptible to verbal, physical, and sexual attacks from complete strangers. People who are “different” or less “powerful” are particularly vulnerable to attacks by strangers. However, this site focuses primarily on the experiences of women being harassed in public by men.

In a society where politics and business are still male dominated, men make more money than women, and women are depicted in the media and advertisements simply as sexual objects, women as a category are less powerful than men as a category. Women are also vulnerable to physical or sexual assault by men and have a history of being men’s legal and sexual property. Thus, the dynamics of men harassing women on the street has a different underlying meaning than if a man harasses another man, a woman harasses another woman or a woman harasses a man. Also, the street harassment of women by men is further complicated by the different ways in which women perceive the harassment. Factors like how often they are harassed, the severity of the harassment, the race, class and age of the harasser compared to themselves, and issues of fear and safety all play a role in how women feel about and classify the harassment they receive. While surely no one would like an unknown man to grope, stalk or assault her, the circumstances and personal history of the woman will determine if she finds a man’s whistle or comments to be offensive or complimentary. Feel free to share your views on this blog.

– Administrator