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?