Hello’s Can Feel Like Harassment Too

Yesterday afternoon was unseasonably warm, so in a short sleeved shirt I walked over two miles in downtown Washington, DC, (where I work) to do an errand at lunch time. A lot of men said “hello” or “how are you doing” to me. I said hello or nodded and smiled back at nearly all of them because I’m polite. Several of them stared at my chest. Several men who did not say anything to me stared at my chest. In the reflection of glass buildings I caught two of the men who had said hello to me turn and watch me walk away from them. One other man looked like he would have tried to say more than hello to me if I responded to him at all, so I ignored his hello and turned my head as I passed.

By the end of the walk, I felt dirty, objectified, shameful, and provocative. I wore my coat during my commute home despite the warm weather and once I was home, I changed into a shapeless, huge t-shirt. I’ve been upset by what happened ever since (hence a post) and I have been thinking a lot about why.

  1. If it only had been a few hello’s they probably wouldn’t have bothered me, but the sheer volume became obnoxious and made me feel like I had a sign on my forehead saying “pay attention to me.” Plus several men were oogling me as they said hello so then it was no longer a simple hello but also objectification.
  2. No women said hello to me. Before too long I got the impression that the sudden desire of so many men to say hi to me and inquire how I was doing as I passed them on the sidewalk was not benign and coincidental. I felt it was the result of an evaluation of how I looked. I started to feel disrespected and objectified. From hello’s.
  3. Once I became bothered by the hello’s, I pondered what I could do. It just didn’t seem appropriate to yell “don’t harass women” at a man who was saying hello. Could I say “don’t stare at my breasts” as I passed by? I wasn’t standing on a bus or subway with them where it would be more apparent that they were staring at chest or butt. I was passing by so it would be hard to say with 100% certainty that they were doing that. And it is a free country right? We can look where we want? If I don’t want to be looked at I should cover up and wear a burka and stay inside unless accompanied by a man, right? Many older women say they hate being invisible in the streets so I should be glad that men are oogling me, right? Hey, I’m still young enough to be sexually desirable to them so I am graced by their hello’s and stares. Wheee! Lucky me. Excuse me while I go listen to No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl!” on repeat for the next hour…

No one openly commented on how I looked, no one touched me, no one followed me. I never felt unsafe. But a day later my hello-filled walk is still very much on my mind. I see it as part of a larger context of disrespect and the objectification of women and it boggles my mind to try to figure out how to change that culture when it’s so pervasive.

7 Responses to Hello’s Can Feel Like Harassment Too

  1. Alek Novy says:

    Hey, I love that website is respectful to and appreciates men’s education as well! You do a good job at being constructive and effective at the same time.

    I point men to the main website (the dot com), as you have a great explanation there.

    Most (other) sexual harassment campaign sites leave men confused. They leave men with a feeling that the campaigns are telling them to never talk to women. I know it seems silly, but most men can’t tell the subtlety.

    Your website however manages to communicate the message clearly.

    —————–

    About the hellos. The problem has 2 sides. Let me know your opinion on this.

    1) Men are expected to initiate first contact. Sadly, we haven’t yet liberated women to the point where women engage enough first moves to be noticed. Both studies and experience shows us that the average man will go an entire lifetime without ever being approached or asked out by a woman. So to the average man, the choices are between A) remaining alone for life, and never meeting a companion or B) Initiating communication with women first

    —-> Ok, so as we know, the problem is obviously not with the actual act of a man initiating communication.

    THEN, its obvious, its about

    2) The way the communication is initiated (how, when, where, how much). With the scenario above, I think there are several elements:

    A) Physical Lust (what)- Women size up men sexually (objectify), as many times a day as do Men. So the actual lust is not a problem. Its about the way its done… i.e.

    B) Objectification (how)- As I said, women size up as many strangers sexually as men do, but they are very subtle, and do so in a manner where no one is offended.

    C) Ratio/Frequency (why) As you said yourself. When women get older and no longer receive any sexual attention of any kind… they miss it (as do we all as humans). So obviously its not just the “how” but also the “how much”. The problem isn’t only in how its done, but also that its done too much?

    Am I getting it right? Or? I’d love your opinion.

  2. Hi Alek –
    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate them. I’m glad you like the website. I have talked about street harassment with a lot of males and two of my biggest supporters of anti-street harassment activities are my father and my male partner. They had no idea women got regularly harassed until I told them and had other women we know (including my mom and sister) tell them. Now they get upset whenever they hear about or see harassment occurring and they give me hope that informing the good guys about what is upsetting to women and why can help end street harassment. It seems like guys look to each other for approval and so it can really help if guys call each other out on engaging in disrespectful/inappropriate behavior.

    You are right that men are still socialized to be more forward than women in initiating relationships. As I say on my website, saying hello is probably the safest and most respectful way to engage in a conversation with a woman. That’s in great part why I was struggling with my emotions last week after having been told hello multiple times by men. I’d always believed that was perfectly acceptable, yet by the end of my walk I felt horrible. So a day later this post was my attempt to figure out why. And in that light, I think your A, B, C points are accurate.

    And I would add to it that I’ve become pretty attuned to how often women are portrayed as sex objects by advertisers and in the media to sell products, tv shows, movies, video games etc. That does not promote respect for women in public. So when I feel I am viewed sexually instead of as a human being, it brings to mind how often women are degraded in society and I just feel disgusting. I also think about how women’s looks are portrayed as their #1 asset and while men are allowed to age gracefully and become overweight and still be powerful and revered, women must always look young and attractive. I think if that wasn’t the case, then young and old women would be equally visible in public.

    I’m not sure if I’m making sense. It’s hard to extract all the different layers going on.

    On a side note: I have surveyed and read stories from over 1000 people (including men) about street harassment. For women, the constant theme is that there is an underlying fear of rape or assault. I think that element is missing in any interaction men are the recipients of in public and it’s important for men to understand that in the back of women’s minds that may be what they are thinking about when approached by an unknown man in public, no matter how well-intentioned the man is. Also, there is a time and a place for soliciting dates, etc and so I think women tend to define harassment as attention that happens to them when they are not in that time or place – like when they’re commuting to/from work or school or doing errands or out exercising. Men generally aren’t interrupted constantly by people wishing to say hi or telling them to smile or giving them a compliment or criticism about how they look or touching them or yelling “bitch” or “ugly” or “dyke” if their initial attempt at contact is ignored or rebuked. If you’ve ever been in a place with a lot of panhandlers, think about how annoying that usually is to be solicited for money over and over while you’re just trying to do your thing. That’s how it can feel for women but instead of being asked for money, they’re being asked to give their attention to man after man. So even if it’s just a hello, the man is demanding my attention and reminding me that overall women as a category are subordinate to men overall as a category and therefore they feel they have the right to interrupt my space in public.

  3. Alek Novy says:

    ==========
    You are right that men are still socialized to be more forward than women in initiating relationships. As I say on my website, saying hello is probably the safest and most respectful way to engage in a conversation with a woman. That’s in great part why I was struggling with my emotions last week after having been told hello multiple times by men. I’d always believed that was perfectly acceptable, yet by the end of my walk I felt horrible. So a day later this post was my attempt to figure out why. And in that light, I think your A, B, C points are accurate.
    ==========

    That’s what I love about you. You don’t stop at one layer. You first had the conclusion that “hello is ok”. But then, when you saw that’s not always the case, you went deeper into the issue.

    And that’s I think what we all have to do. Sometimes these issues get stuck, because we make a conclusion (upon the first layer of the issue), and we stick to it. Refusing to look at the other layers.

    =========
    And I would add to it that I’ve become pretty attuned to how often women are portrayed as sex objects by advertisers and in the media to sell products, tv shows, movies, video games etc. That does not promote respect for women in public. So when I feel I am viewed sexually instead of as a human being, it brings to mind how often women are degraded in society and I just feel disgusting. I also think about how women’s looks are portrayed as their #1 asset and while men are allowed to age gracefully and become overweight and still be powerful and revered, women must always look young and attractive. I think if that wasn’t the case, then young and old women would be equally visible in public.
    ==========

    I know exactly what you are talking about. I have been studying gender and feminism for years.

    Let’s focus on this issue specifically. Do you think that if we just removed the “sexual objectification” layer that everything would be alright?

    In other words. I’m trying to separate the layers and which layer does what to contribute to the problem. Because you mentioned a lot of different issues and layers. And this is a complex topic.

    In other words:

    Question 1: If a 100 gay men said hello to you (or any woman) every single day [zero sexual objecitification], would it now be non issue?

    [I’m obviously exaggerating, but its in order for us to try to separate what layer has what effect]

    ============
    Also, there is a time and a place for soliciting dates, etc and so I think women tend to define harassment as attention that happens to them when they are not in that time or place – like when they’re commuting to/from work or school or doing errands or out exercising.
    =============

    Would you agree that women are individuals? By that I mean a “woman” is only a label of one’s physical sex, and not that much more. Everything else about here is an invidividual. The reason I am asking this is.

    Question 2: “That time or place” is different for different women. Wouldn’t you agree?

    The reason I am bringing this up, is that is an angle from which the issue can’t be solved, unless we teach every single woman on the planet to have the exact same values, beliefs, preferences, taste and behaviour [obviously a non-solution :)]. Or to give men “mind-reading” machines that can tell them if a woman is in that place and time [maybe some time in the future]

    My Cousin for example goes to the gym specifically to pickup men (i sometimes join them). Her sister genuinely just wants to get the exercise done, and be over with it. They both however have the exact same body-language, attitude and behavior when in the gym.

    ============
    So even if it’s just a hello, the man is demanding my attention and reminding me that overall women as a category are subordinate to men overall as a category and therefore they feel they have the right to interrupt my space in public.
    ============

    Do remember this part is one angle/interpretation/layer. I think we can better identify the layers if we keep from explanations while we are identifying them.

    Not to say its not a true layer. It is true as a layer. But when we say “men do x to women because they y”… We’re reducing a complex issue to a single layer. Also we’re being sexist “men who say hello = x”. Which makes it a generalization over an entire gender of peoples (3 billion humans).

    p.s.

    I am trying to simplify in the forms of these questions so we can look together at some of these layers, and try to isolate the issues that make the problem, from the issues that are simply “tag-along” issues. While at the same time, maybe we will find that its actually more than one issue.

    Question 1: If a 100 gay men said hello to you (or any woman) every single day [zero sexual objecitification], would it now be non issue?

    Question 2: “That time or place” is different for different women. Wouldn’t you agree?

    *In my personal view, to try and define a “womanly time and place” is sexist. To say “women don’t like being approached at the gym”, and “women only want to be approached in the morning”… Would be sexist. Sexism is trying to limit individuals to a gender-role, definition.

  4. 1. It would be a non-issue in that I wouldn’t feel like the attention was based on my looks and how well I measured up under the straight man’s gaze, but it might still be annoying if I just wanted to be left alone. Also, would men be told hello 100 times every day too? That would make a difference in how I felt about it.

    2. Of course time or place is difference from different women. I qualified commuting to or from the gym or school or work by saying “like.” They were a few examples based on my research about when girls/women seem to pinpoint being harassed the most. I also meant commuting to or from the gym, I didn’t mean at the gym. Those are different realms.

    And back to the different women definition, I stand by what I have on my website, “While women’s perception of men’s attention in public varies depending on factors like what the men are doing, the women’s personal history with violence, and how safe they feel at the time, no woman wants to be insulted, groped, stalked, or assaulted. Many women don’t want to be bothered period.” — that’s directly based on my research.

  5. evolveguide says:

    ==========
    And back to the different women definition, I stand by what I have on my website, “While women’s perception of men’s attention in public varies depending on factors like what the men are doing, the women’s personal history with violence, and how safe they feel at the time, no woman wants to be insulted, groped, stalked, or assaulted. Many women don’t want to be bothered period.” — that’s directly based on my research.
    ==========

    Well you don’t need to double-affirm standing by it because it speaks for its own truth. Your research is well done, and rings true.

    What about a solution though? That’s “what is”.

    How about, what “can be”. What’s an “ideal scenario” that we can come up with that solves sexual harassment for all women.

    =======
    no woman wants to be insulted, groped, stalked, or assaulted
    =======

    Agreed! This is pretty much a no-brainer. The above list is a clear list of what I believe should be obviously penalized and even criminalized in some cases.

    But as we know, this list doesn’t describe more than half of the stories on sexual harassment.

    ==============
    I qualified commuting to or from the gym or school or work by saying “like.” They were a few examples based on my research about when girls/women seem to pinpoint being harassed the most. I also meant commuting to or from the gym, I didn’t mean at the gym. Those are different realms.
    ==============

    Oh, sorry about that. I apologize about that. I realized that I sounded as if I was accusing you of being a sexist on purpose in your choice of examples.

    That can’t be further from the truth! I love how you take a balanced viewpoint on the issue and try to present in a clear manner without attachment.

    I used the example of “in a gym” as to make an obvious example of differences by two sisters I know. I personally met my best friend on the street (headed for tennis practice). My other cousin is marrying a man she met at the bus stop.

    =======
    1. It would be a non-issue in that I wouldn’t feel like the attention was based on my looks and how well I measured up under the straight man’s gaze, but it might still be annoying if I just wanted to be left alone. Also, would men be told hello 100 times every day too? That would make a difference in how I felt about it.
    =======

    1) Ok, assuming that:

    -The Average Amount Of Hellos you received Was the Same as those Received by the Average Man
    -They had an absolute zero sexual objectification in them

    Would you be satisfied to say you are not sexually harassed?

    2)
    -The Average Amount Of Introductions you received Was the Same as those Received by the Average Man
    -They had an absolute zero sexual objectification in them
    -No touching whatsover
    -No Sexual Language

    [introduction – someone saying, “Hi, i’m so so, i’d thought I’d come over and introduce myself” etc… or whatever wording you’d assume of a good polite introduction]

    I do realize these are simple examples of a silly, simplistic scenario, but for the sake of illustration and seeing what a solution might look like in terms of law, education etc… It helps us break down a complex problem.

  6. evolveguide says:

    AlekNovy = EvolveGuide

    wordpress auto-logged me under a bloguser.🙂

  7. Wow Holly and Alek I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful dialogue. I am fifty and still have the underlying fear of rape or attack when a male says hi or more to me on the streets. I hate coats and winter because I am mostly a summer short and tank top type person, but it does give me a break from as much street harassment here in NYC when I am bundled up. I hate that idea that females have to be bundled to be safe. I absolutely HATE IT!

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