Understanding Each Other

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

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