The issue is disrespect for women, not “compliments” about our looks

I’ve read several important blog post this week that mention street harassment, from Jos’s Feminsiting post, “On violence, hate and gender non-conformity” to Mychal Denzel Smith’s post on Roots, “Growing Pains of a Male Feminist.”

Yesterday on Womanist Musings, JuJuBe wrote, “The Street Harassment Experience in a Fat Body” about how she envies women who experience “complimentary” street harassment because the street harassment she experiences is negative, like being called fat.

Though I have some issues with what she said, I’m glad she wrote it because way too often the harassment we hear about is the “complimentary” crap, the whistling, the “hey baby,” the “nice ass” comments. One of the reasons I get annoyed when I see an article supposedly about street harassment only talk about “catcalls” is because that term encompasses the “complimentary” type of harassment while ignoring all the rest.

Overall, I think there is still a big misconception that street harassment is only “compliments” that attractive women don’t want to hear. Stock photos that accompany street harassment articles reinforce this as do cartoons, commercials, and tv shows.

But street harassment is any harassment that happens because of gender and it’s harassment that 80-100% of women (cis and trans) have experienced at least a few times.

Some forms of street harassment are meant to punish/humiliate women who meet conventional beauty standards and gender performance for doing so and other forms are meant to punish/humiliate women who don’t for not. It’s all similar; it’s all a way for men to exert control over women and force their opinion on women when it’s not solicited.

This is an excerpt from my book when I talk about this issue:

In their article “Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body,” Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler, wrote that “street harassers put women ‘in their place’ by commenting loudly on their beauty or lack of it. Beauty norms limit the opportunities of women who can’t or won’t meet them.”[i] Street harassment can shock women into remembering that they exist “to be sexually enjoyed by men.”[ii] When men say “mmm-mmm” at women’s butts or tell women they are fat cows, they remind women how some men and how society in general value them, and they are forced to see themselves as men see them.[iii] Thus, a woman who is conventionally beautiful is reminded of her value when men harass her “positively.” One of my 2008 online survey respondents said when answering 2009 follow-up questions, “Sometimes I wish I was fat or ugly so that I would not be sexualized by strangers. But then I remember that they would instead taunt me for being unattractive and not sexually pleasing to them.”

She is right, many women who are not conventionally beautiful are reminded that they are “undesirable” despite their other qualities when men harass them with negative comments or when they see men harass “pretty” women but not them

So while I’m glad that the Womanist Musing post is bringing more attention to all of the types of harassment that happen, I’m also disappointed in it and I’ll discuss two reasons why.

First, the author, just like a lot of people who talk about street harassment, ignores how frequently there is an underlying threat of rape/gender violence behind street harassment, “complimentary” or not. Too many people ignore how often the harassing men turn violent – if they weren’t already violent to begin with – in what they say or do to the woman. The “Hey baby” can turn into “Stupid ugly bitch” in a matter of seconds. Women may find themselves suddenly being chased or being hit with garbage by their harassers. We just don’t know what will happen.

An extremely beautiful woman I know routinely faces “complimentary” street harassment. Do you know what else has happened to her? In public places, men have groped her, hit her, followed her, and at a bar, given her a roofie. She’s been hospitalized twice because of panic attacks from the severe harassment.

And that’s supposed to be enviable?

The second reason I’m disappointed is that her post reinforces the societal notion that women’s value is our looks. Practically from day one we receive messages that our most important achievement in life is to be pretty and desired by men (no matter our sexual orientation). Princesses are beautiful and all girls are supposed to want to be princesses. Boys are smart, girls are pretty. Actresses, singers, models and sex workers often make more money than women in most occupations where looks aren’t one of the job criteria.

This message that women’s looks are our value is reinforced on the streets. We’re supposed to like and wish for strange men to comment on our appearance. Clearly, a lot of women have internalized that. And sadly, whether they mean to or not, when they voice support for that internalization, they contribute to why street harassment is dismissed as a problem: they’re portraying it as a compliment.  That’s not helpful.

What I hope is that all women will learn about types of street harassment experiences they don’t have (and of course that men will learn about all types) to better understand the larger issue and how it’s all about gender inequality, gender violence, and patriarchy. Learn how racism, homophobia, classism, transphobia, ableism, and fat-hating can make different women have different experiences. I cover all of these issues in my book (particularly in chapters 2 and 3) and you can read a range of women’s stories illustrating these experiences on my blog.

No form of street harassment is a compliment; otherwise it wouldn’t be called harassment. There is a time and place for genuine compliments between strangers and the street can be one of those places, but the complimenter needs to make sure that it’s consensual first and that it’s not being done in a way that reinforces the disproportionate value society places on women’s looks.

And finally, let’s all remember that most men do not have to deal with unsolicited comments about their appearance as they walk down the street because they are respected enough to be left alone. And when they do hear comments, they rarely fear rape or attack the way many women do. Women completely veiled or very modestly dressed in countries like Yemen or India face some of the highest rates of street harassment because, when it comes down to it, the issue is disrespect for women, not “compliments” about our looks.

[i] Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler, “Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body,” in Women: A Feminist Perspective, Fifth Edition, ed. Jo Freeman (Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995), 312.

[ii] Norma Anne Oshynko, “No Safe Place: The Legal Regulation of Street Harassment,” Thesis for Masters of Law in Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia, 2002, 15.

[iii] Margaret T. Gordon and Stephanie Riger, The Female Fear: The Social Cost of Rape (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 6; see also Oshynko, 15–16.


2 Responses to The issue is disrespect for women, not “compliments” about our looks

  1. KJ says:

    I so agree with you. I am actually staying in the Geneva-Lausanne area, looking for a job here. I lived in the UK prior to my arrival in Switzerland and can say that British men are much more respectful for women in public areas and don’t get on top of them. The distance between genders is properly maintained. Men don’t smile to strange women and that is good! In Switzerland I stayed in Geneva hostel first and remember a fixing guy working there who smiled to me everytime but I found it embarrasing. I had worse experiences in Lausanne. In example in the backpacker’s hostel I stayed in I was once the oldest female (I am 36), busy with my laptop while the other female travellers were generally younger attractive girls chatting a lot. I am single woman, assertive and experienced in dealing with a variety of people. I am tall and wear denim trousers and a stretched jumper, I am without a make-up and really don’t need men’s attention. Thus, in the hostel I was prosecuted for my attitude. In the hostel you have to mark your food. A couple of days ago I was preparing a meal and I also remember that there were some men (with a southern-european look) eating in the kitchen. The following day in the kitchen I noticed that someone had looked into my bag with food. I looked at the reverse of the paper with my name and… there were big female breasts drawn by someone! I was shocked how snide tactics some man used to humiliate me! He used my belongings to harass me! I too a piece of A5 paper and put a note on my bag informing that what that person had done was a form of bullying and harassment and for the reference I would undertake any legal action. The other guests (both genders)in the hostels said I was right.

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