Compliment or Not?

Ruth at Women’s Glib recently wrote about sneaky street harassment – the kind where men pay you “compliments” that are not blatantly out of line so you can’t really respond negatively without appearing rude. I sympathize with her completely!

One of the trickiest aspects of fighting against the street harassment of women is this type of behavior. If we say that the behavior she describes is harassment, people get bent out of shape saying, well now we’re not allowed to flirt, now we can’t even look at other people in public! People who want to get upset over the harassment label ought to consider different scenarios and try to understand how even a seemingly innocent comment can be viewed as harassment.

When I wrote my master’s thesis on street harassment, I found several main factors impacted whether a woman viewed behavior as harassment or a compliment. These factors include: if the woman was alone or in an isolated area or it was dark, the woman’s history with violence, if it was one man or a group, the age gap between the man and woman, if the woman held “traditional” or “feminist” view points, and if the woman felt the man/men approached her respectfully and made a non-sexually explicit comment.

In my current research on how women feel about street harassment, I’ve found that the respect aspect is huge. Did he come up and make a non-sexual comment in a nonthreatening location in a nonthreatening, respectful way (ie he looked at your eyes when he talked instead of your chest)? If yes, then chances are better that the woman will take his actions as a compliment instead of harassment.

On the other hand, even the most polite comment can be viewed as harassment if a woman has had several men approach her within a short period of time or if she is preoccupied with something going on in her life or she is in a hurry or any number of reasons. In our patriarchal society where men (whether gay or straight) are told they should pursue women and women are told they are to be the pursued, it’s acceptable for men to approach and interrupt women’s personal space in public, at work, at school, anywhere, for any reason, with no thought about how many times she’s already been interrupted by other men or what she’s already got going on in her life.

In Ruth’s case, the man at the cafe she likes to go to feels he has the right to comment on her appearance, ask personal questions, and so on, to the point where she’s started avoiding going to the cafe to avoid him. Yes, people are annoying regardless of gender, but, taking the liberty to extrapolate Ruth’s scenario to the larger female experience, it’s hard for many of us to confront someone like him due to our socialization, we never know which men will turn out to be psycho and one day follow us home and attack us or will turn psycho if we tell him to leave us the hell alone, so the easiest and probably safest thing to do is avoid him. And thus we change our lives because of a harasser.

What are your thoughts? Have you had an experience in public (excluding somewhere like a bar or club or party where meeting people is a given) that you considered complimentary? Have you ever changed your life because of a persistent harasser, like the one Ruth has?


3 Responses to Compliment or Not?

  1. Golden Silence says:

    If it makes the recipient uncomfortable, I feel it’s harassment. If the “complimenter” then proceeds to attack when he doesn’t get his way, then it’s harassment. That’s the measure I use for what’s harassment and what’s not.

    The other day, I went to an interview and was wearing a suit. I stepped into an elevator and one of the servicemen/delivery guys on the elevator referred to me as “sweetie.” I simply told him “Don’t call me sweetie,” and he proceeded to get an attitude with me and curse me out. He told me “Get the f*** out my elevator!” and other obscenities. It just proved my point: If he meant it in a benign way he wouldn’t have gotten so violent in response. A lot of these men are conditioned to feel as if they have control over how they speak to women and how they feel women are supposed to react to them. It’s aggravating and ridiculous.

    Long story short, I cannot stand these “compliments” from random men I don’t know. I’d rather get it from someone I do know and feel a bond with. Even something seemingly benign as “You look nice today” coming from a man I don’t know annoys me greatly. Those men aren’t simply trying to be friendly, they’re trying to hit on women they find attractive. You don’t see them communicating with men they don’t know on the streets. The streets are not the place to pick women up at!

  2. My experience is not as awful as Golden Silence, but perhaps that is only because I have not had the courage she did to respond. I think she is very brave. I come often to South Beach, Florida in the winter, sometimes it is with my husband, other times alone. There is a man selling beautiful paintings on the boardwalk. He dresses in a suit, at first I thought he was just looking at the paintings, and I think that is what he hopes you will assume. They must be nice, a serious business suit guy is looking at them. As I walked by a month a go, he saw me, turned from the paintings and said, “you look nice today.” Remember I’m a total stranger. Then my husband joined me a few days later. We passed him and all be it, my husband and I were talking, but of course he said nothing. I’m in South Beach again and yesterday I was walking alone and there he was examining his painting like a shopper in his nice suit. As I neared he turned and said to me, “beautiful earrings.” I felt violated. But I just walked by. Today I was planning to take a different route to avoid him, but now after reading these entries I’ve decided I am going to face him, who is he to make me change my route? Thanks for your courage Golden Silence, you have given me some new courage to face my walk today!

  3. Golden Silence says:

    Thanks, Beckie. I wasn’t always this brave, though. It took a lot of harassment to the point of not wanting to take it anymore to get me to finally speak up.

    Good luck in dealing with your harasser!

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