Versions of equality

I was out for a walk around the neighborhood last night, which meant my brain was in autopilot mode, getting a rare rest. I passed a couple of male gardeners working in someone’s yard, and they took a good long look at me, head to toe. I ignored them. And the following thoughts passed through my relaxed brain:

  • Ugh.
  • Well, they have a right to look. And I have a right to ignore them.
  • Wait a second – how are those two things equal? What would happen if I looked them over real good to see if they’ve got good asses or the outline of their genitals in their pants is appealing?
  • Well, according to most men, they’d be flattered. And according to most jurors, they’d be well within their rights to interpret that as an invitation to have forceful sex with me right there on the sidewalk, and it would be my fault. According to most people, this is one of those nature versus nurture things that humans can’t possibly fix, so women will just have to learn to live with it, ah well.

This got me thinking about how the majority of people – not the ones who read here, or post here, or link to this site – think men and women are all equal now. Here I was, engaging in a dialog that for a few seconds sounded reasonable. They have a right to look, and I have the right to ignore.

But “equality” would mean everyone either has the right to ogle or they don’t, and everyone who gets ogled and doesn’t like it has equal avenues of redress. Like, rather than just ignoring them, I would be entitled to fungo bat them about the head until they lose consciousness. Or something, I don’t know. The point is, there’s more than one way to equalize a situation, and we’re constantly conditioned to accept certain versions of equality, most of which aren’t even truly equal by any definition.

What’s the worst that can happen to them if they ogle me? I could kill them, I suppose. But then I’d be in danger of being put to death because that’s such an unreasonable thing to do in response to being leered at, according to the judicial system where I live. What’s the worst that can happen to me if I ogle them? Well, if they were so inclined they could rape me without much fear of reprisal – because ogling them would designate me a whore, and we all know you can’t rape a whore, right? – and if they’ve ever been awake during their lives, they would know this. And no, I don’t think most men have the desire to rape anybody, or can be incited to it merely by lust, but the point is my culture tacitly grants them the right to hurt me if I step out of my place by looking at them the way they look at me.

I mean, this is why I don’t have the nerve to stop, glare, whistle and say, “Turn around, big boy, strut your stuff. Wanna check out the family jewels and see if ya got it. No, you don’t. Bummer – I am outta here.” Or even a simple snapped, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.” I should feel well within my rights to comment on their ogling – as their ogling is a non-verbal comment on my body – but I don’t because I know my culture has granted them the privilege to rape women who aren’t properly submissive to them. Even when they’re improperly aggressive.

On the other hand, I realize they may have no idea how their ogling makes me feel because there’s no cultural record about why, exactly, a woman wouldn’t feel flattered with a construction worker hoots at her, for example. We all know that’s considered inappropriate (and there are now fines of several hundred dollars meted out to construction workers who harass passing women in any way), but do most people understand why it’s inappropriate? I don’t think so. I even know women who find it flattering and think one must be an uptight prude to be bothered by it.

Good for you, if you find it flattering, but it’s not prudishness that makes women feel harassed when strange men force attention upon them. It’s the fact that such attention reminds us of all the rights men have in regards to women’s sexuality which we do not have in regards to theirs. Right now, unless this post only reaches feminists, there are young men reading this and thinking, “But men would love for women to hold them down and rape them. Wow, I fantasize about that all the time!”

Which proves my point. Male privilege enables boys never once to think about how having sex might negatively affect their reputation or take away their right to legal redress when they’re criminally victimized. It enables boys to wonder what the hell could be so gosh-darn awful about being raped when sex is so awesome. It enables them to wonder how a woman could fail to crave men’s approval, so much that she would resent being given it on the street by strange men whose behavior society holds her responsible for.

That’s what male privilege really shields even kind and decent men from realizing: that women are responsible for men’s actions, according to the dominant forces in our culture. That even when a man chooses to take full responsibility for his actions and to pass this ethic on to any boys he mentors or parents, if he transgresses society will go looking for an excuse for his behavior, to exonerate one of its precious, valuable men at the expense of a lesser being.

And so being ogled by two men who are each bigger and stronger than me and for all I know may be psychopaths is my responsibility, and my cross to bear.

(ETA: there are two follow-ups to this article: Why, if you think harassment is flattering, you are stupid and Why, if you think women should be flattered by your harassment, you are stupid.)


  1. says

    I have to admit, when I read this, the thing that popped into my head was that shitty “Gay Panic Defense” thing that comes up, you know? The whole idea that “well, he was FORCING HIS GAYNESS UPON ME! and thus I could kill him.”

    Women get men’s sexuality forced upon them all the time, as you say, and yet, if we beat someone with a baseball bat and pushed them into the trunk of our car… well, we wouldn’t be able to claim “Het Panic.”

    Double Standard, much?

    [Which isn’t to say I think we should be stuffing people in trunks, or that stuffing people in trunks is okay in any way, just trying to use examples of how men who don’t want to be leered at have been known to respond.]

  2. Ren says

    At the beginning of the year I started training to become a Land Surveyor. This is a fairly male-dominated program – out of a class of about 20, we’ve got two girls, and there are no girls in the upper years of the program at all.

    So when the school nurse came to talk to the class about sexual harassment in the workplace, and how whistling at women on worksites or making comments of a sexual nature was NOT OKAY at all, my friend and I were treated to the full brunt of male shock and confusion. After the nurse left, of course. None of them felt like asking the questions while she was there.

    And we couldn’t think of a good way to make them understand – you can’t just reverse the genders, because most guys /do/ feel flattered when girls check them out or catcall them. There’s no element of threat there for them. And you can’t say “Well, what if you were surrounded by burly leather-clad men who were checking you out and commenting on your ass?” because, while that does give most of them the element of threat, you also get the comment “But that’s because I’m straight, and I’m not attracted to other men. What, aren’t you straight?”

    It was such an exercise in frustration it wasn’t even funny. They’re all nice guys (not, to my knowledge, “nice” guys), and they’ve had my back in many a barfight, but they just don’t have the tools or the interest to grasp the issue at hand. It can make a gal despair, sometimes. Despair, and never date her classmates.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    @Anna, very true. Statistically, women have good reason for panic at a man pushing ANY form of unwanted sexual attention on her, and yet we’re not allowed to be afraid of men. I’ve written on and around this topic a few times, randomly around the web, and it boggles my mind: even when we have rape statistics like we have and domestic violence statistics like we have, it’s shameful for a woman to be afraid of men. There are days I think we women should all hole up somewhere with guns until men get the point that you can’t have it both ways: either you give us no particular reasons to fear you, or you get feared.

    @Ren, it really is hard to explain to someone who can’t experience it. Everything becomes so intangible and abstract as you try to verbalize it. Even in my head, it’s elusive. I think what most bothers me is the feeling that life is pushing one more responsibility on me because once a man has noticed me, I’m responsible for whatever behavior he engages in from that point on. It almost doesn’t matter when the behavior is respectful and appropriate, because I STILL feel responsible and it honestly just wears me out. I have a lot of genuine responsibilities without also having a bunch of fake ones dumped on me.

    • Brandon says

      From having read the stories out there I’m afraid to start up a relationship lest she turn out to be a phychopath. I don’t know how women can bring themselves to trust men sometimes given that they’re at a greater disadvantage.

  4. says

    I was walking home from work this week, during the few days when spring had finally, if briefly, broken through the very, very long winter we’ve had, and alternating between appreciating the sunshine, thinking “Yay, spring!” and thinking “Sigh, street harassment season is starting up again, then, too…”

    And practically every conversation I have about the subject involves others (usually women) who tell me I “should” feel flattered, or that in 30 years, I’ll miss it. Which angers me and frustrates me for all the reasons you’ve described so well above, but it also reminds me of something else: in 30 years, I’ll be invisible. While I hope to not lose sight of the difference between wanted attention and unwelcome harassment, it reminds me that there’s another problem here, which is the actual ability of this process of public sexualization and value appraisal, to make women feel completely irrelevant.

    I’m trying to have more grace in these conversations because of that, but damn, is it hard.

  5. SunlessNick says

    Statistically, women have good reason for panic at a man pushing ANY form of unwanted sexual attention on her, and yet we’re not allowed to be afraid of men. I’ve written on and around this topic a few times, randomly around the web, and it boggles my mind: even when we have rape statistics like we have and domestic violence statistics like we have, it’s shameful for a woman to be afraid of men. – BetaCandy

    You’re advised to be, constantly. But, then as you say, castigated for taking that advice. Which is why I suspect rape-prevention guidelines are really intended to provide men with excuses – be they rapists or rape apologists – or those who just don’t want to care about it.

  6. Amy McCabe says

    A few things come to mind. First, how rape is tried in court is never clear cut, fair or equal. One day I should make a really comprehensive list, but quickly, for each one you answer yes, the more likely the guy can get away with raping you.

    Do you know the man?
    Did you look at/stare at the guy?
    Are you anything other than white?
    Are you poor?
    Are you unemployed?
    Were you walking alone?
    Are you over 18?
    Are you single?

    Chances are, in your case, if those guys raped you they would be found guilty. I know you work, are middle class, didn’t stare at the men, didn’t know them. You had enough “no’s.”

    Rape is, by and large, considered something that happens to underage or married white, middle-class women by men they don’t know. Absurd, I know, and I think I read a post along these lines before on Hathor. Is suspect you personally would have enough yeses in that scenario that, if raped, those men would be found guilty. Change one or two of them however….

    One another topic, in an equal world, there would (and should be) nothing wrong with one person admiring the beauty of another. It would be either faltering or you’d just ignore it. It would not be threatening because in an equal world, rape would be a rare or non-existent thing.

    But we don’t live in an equal world. Admiring someone’s beauty is dirty and sinful if they are of the same gender as you (hell, crazy how men can rape women but a guy noticing another guy is akin to rape in some people’s minds!) Women are taught that rape is done to them by strange men they don’t know, so guys they don’t know that stare at them are dangerous, yet you have a much higher chance, statistically, of being raped by your guy-friends that you trust and hang out with than a construction worker that’s cat calling you. And the faltered-threatened equation matters a lot on how much the woman precieves the risk of rape. This includes how much this guy is a stranger and how up-front and vocal he is about he’s appreciation.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    @Purtek, I’m still trying to distill a simple “soundbyte” version of this for those conversations and not having much luck. Reading your post, it occurs to me that whether the attention is icky or friendly and respectful, it ALL stems from treating women as property*. By walking down the street, it’s as if we’ve submitted ourselves to an auction block and invited men to bid on us.

    Or maybe the soundbyte is that there should be a way to avoid that treatment, no matter how you look. And there’s not. We opt in just by being outside the house.

    *Yes, sometimes it feels like plain old appreciation of beauty, which in an ideal world wouldn’t be fraught with other connotations, but I think the connotations are unavoidable for now.

    *Nick, I think you’re right about the purpose of rape-prevention guidelines. It’s also like I talked about in the Protection Myth post – men Like Us warning women away from men Unlike Us, with no consideration for the fact that a woman’s odds of safety are about the same with any group of randomly chosen men.

    @Amy, that’s true. But my fear was that if I lost a “yes” by staring at them the same way they stared at me, there went my safety net. And that’s an absurd way to feel. A lot of this post was about my conditioning more than about reality, but it’s our conditioning that in some ways determines our reality.

  8. SunlessNick says

    I’m still trying to distill a simple “soundbyte” version of this for those conversations and not having much luck. -BetaCandy

    It sounds like you have a good soundbite with the auction block:

    “By walking down the street, it’s as if we’ve submitted ourselves to an auction block and invited men to bid on us.”

    That is pretty chilling to read.

  9. Ide Cyan says

    But that soundbyte places the emphasis on women’s actions as the cause of men’s behaviour, which is misleading and ultimately victim-blaming.

    It would be simpler to say that, in the context of men’s oppression of women, men feel free to sexually harass women in public spaces.

    The harassment itself has weight because of the power dynamics behind it, but it is not merely a problem because of the threat of rape and violence it implies, which, as pointed out above, are less likely to occur in public than in private spaces.

    It is a problem because this kind of public behaviour transforms public spaces into a hostile environment for women.

    That in itself ought to be harmful enough, but the pernicious consequence of creating hostility for women in public is to force women to remain in “private” spaces, where we are much more likely to be vulnerable to the very real threats that public cat-calls and so forth often only imply.

    And it’s even worse when you consider the general hostility that both men (in their privilege) and many women (in their attachment to men) have towards separatism, which is attacked as an outrage to men’s rights or mocked as unrealistic, cowardly escapism. (And which women quick to disclaim that they aren’t “man-haters” will equally quickly dismiss.)

    Men drive women out of the public sphere with harassment, and refuse to allow women to control access to their own spaces, leaving women with no power to act upon the world and no place of refuge.

  10. says

    Ide Cyan, everything you’re describing is true, in that men and sexist structures are the source of this no-win scenario, but I disagree that the “soundbyte” Nick selected places the blame elsewhere (on women).

    The presumption inherent in the statement is that “it’s as if” is a condition imposed upon the decision to walk down the street from outside of the woman making that choice, changing that choice to be “actually, no, you’re not just walking, sorry – now you’re up for auction”. Which is why Nick found it so chilling (I assume) – it really highlights the losing proposition into which women are placed. In short, not victim-blaming in the slightest.

    I actually find that kind of statement to be very effective in the kind of dialogue I described above – pointing out that no, choosing to leave my house, regardless of what I’m wearing when I do it, is not in itself an invitation to grade, judge, evaluate or comment upon my body. Popular opinion seems to disagree, and I do, in fact feel that people need to have that exposed. Otherwise, how are we to ever start to talk about how to regain power in those public spheres?

  11. harlemjd says

    Ren – If they just don’t get it and won’t stop without an explanation they consider “good enough”, maybe you could at least get them to limit themselves to saying things that aren’t creepy?

    I definitely divide unsollicited comments into creepy and non-creepy. Non-creepy being those that aren’t lewd or disrespectful and don’t show any expectation of anything from me (beyond maybe a minimal reply that doesn’t require me to slow down). For example, “Have a nice day, beautiful” is very different from “hey there, beautiful” because the second is an attempt to start an interaction with a total stranger, while the first is not.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    Ide Cyan, what Purtek said. The “as if” makes it clear we’re talking about a farce, not a legitimate reality. That said, you said, “It’s much simpler to say…” and went on for several paragraphs, not one of which were simple! 😀 I don’t think there IS a perfect soundbyte for this, but then that’s not the necessary: the point of a soundbyte is to get someone’s attention, suck them into a discussion they didn’t know they had an opinion on, and THEN start introducing them to the more complex issues.

    Harlemjd, that’s an interesting point. This whole time, I’ve been thinking in the back of my mind of times strange men have said a mere “hello” and it seems friendly and respectful. Maybe because they don’t leer at every part of my body, don’t comment on how I look. It just feels like they’re possibly bored or lonely, and just want a sliver of interaction with another living soul, and I can understand that and even enjoy it. Which just complicates the discussion even more.

  13. harlemjd says

    Beta Candy – Personally, I don’t like hello because it’s a conversation starter, so I either have to answer or I feel I’ve been rude. So often, men use the societal expectations that women feel to be polite against us. Like the guys who say hello as their walking past you, so late that you pretty much CAN’T respond, even if you would have, and then get angry when you were “rude.” There’s no point to that but as an excuse to be angry at some strange woman, but it happens to me all the time.

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    …and that’s another area where this gets so tricky. People are from different regions with different cultures, and therefore they have different reactions to how strangers approach them.

    Where I’m from originally, it’s so reserved you don’t make eye contact with strangers. After I moved to L.A., where people hug and air kiss at the slightest introduction, I learned some new skills. “Hello” gets answered with a smile – nothing more nothing less, and not even that if there’s any creepy feeling. Or I might say “hi” if I’m really feeling cheery but keep right on walking, eyes front.

    Also worth noting: in L.A., strangers do make eye contact, smile and say hello to you on the street. Women and men alike. So that may be another reason it doesn’t seem so weird to me. I also feel no guilt whatsoever about ignoring them completely if I’m not in the mood.

    But that’s me. I can’t be the litmus test for what’s acceptable, and neither can any other person. Even a consensus isn’t likely to take regional differences into account.

    That’s why I think the solution can only be found through breaking down the rape culture and reconstructing a world where men aren’t taught that just by leaving the house with their breasts and legs on, women are opting in for sexually charged interaction with strangers.

  15. Firebird says

    I thought of this post when an older guy on a dating website complained in the forums about women expressing distaste or fear if he suggested an in person date on the first message or IM. To be fair, some (younger) guys jumped in and commented that it was always the older *men* complaining about this, and it is a little bit creepy for them to complain about it. I was proud of speaking up, though, and thought I’d paste it here too:

    *Bear in mind, if something *does* happen to a woman who met a guy “too quickly” off of a dating website, everyone will say “Well, she should have known better – you should at least talk for a while and get a feel for what the person is like.” Just like she should have not flirted, encouraged, dressed for, or dated him, or gone to that park/bar/neighborhood, etc. If a guy was tricked by a man pretending to be a woman (and how do the statistics for *that* compare to the statistics for rape, etc?), very few people are going to blame him for meeting the person too quickly or for being fooled, assuming the trick was fairly well put over. [This was a spurious comparison earlier in the thread.] No, the blame will fall on the perpetrator in that case, rather than the victim.

    If you haven’t lived with the constant daily responsibility for preventing other people from hurting you, even when “prevention” is limiting your own freedom of choice and emotion and conversation and interaction, then it’s really not fair to criticize the safety precautions women take based on such a predicament. Tell you what: when the society stops blaming women for being abused and taken advantage of, I’ll be willing to take some more risks that might turn out to be wonderful happily-ever-afters OR dangerous dead ends.

  16. Dan says

    I guess my question would be, how do we fix this double standard? I mean, without the complete and sudden accomplishment of global egalitarian society. How do we fight for equality in ogling?

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    Dan, there’s no easy answer, but I think we have to change the context as well as the behavior. By context, I mean the culture that looks at women’s bodies like merchandise, but men’s bodies as part of a complete and complex human, that fosters atmospheres conducive to rape while claiming to condemn it, etc. As long as women are coming from a substantially different place in the world than men are, you can’t have equality on ogling – especially with strangers.

    I wrote later articles:

    Which went into more detail about the difference between flattery and harassment, such as that a man who means only to show appreciation for a woman’s looks will back off and/or apologize if she takes offense. A harasser gets irritated with her for failing to appreciate his “flattery”. Those are the best answers I have. Just speaking for myself, I try to get a feeling for what a man really means by the way he speaks to me. For example, Baby Boomers sometimes say things that strike my younger ears as patronizing, yet I get the feeling they don’t mean it that way, so I cut them slack – or maybe fire back a little teasing retort and see whether they take it gracefully or get irritated. Young guys sometimes say really awkward things, but give me the feeling they’re just nervous. Conversely, if a guy says perfectly nice things but somehow my “creep” radar goes off anyway, I’ll trust that, too.

    Geez, it’s complicated, isn’t it?

  18. Danpark says

    I’ve just been having a most frustrating conversation with a guy (Troy711) on a social bookmarking site called Reddit. (Here)

    Such a hard time expressing why exactly it is so threatening to be catcalled and leered at on the street… The “I might be raped with impunity if I did the same” explanation makes me sound hysterical, though there is so much truth to it.

    I ended up pointing Troy711 to this article. Thanks for writing it.

  19. SayBlade says

    “Male privilege enables boys never once to think about how having sex might negatively affect their reputation or take away their right to legal redress when they’re criminally victimized.”

    This is the key. Can you think of an example where someone’s knowledge that they had sex would be a threat? With even a suspicion that they may have had sex, then they would be humiliated, not taken seriously, lose a job or be unable to escape further victimisation in a court of law.

  20. Anemone says

    I can’t imagine feeling threatened by a couple of male servants. I guess that’s class privilege talking.

    It’s interesting. My sister and I (in a rare moment when we were talking to each other) commented on how neither of us feel threatened walking around outside, even after dark (among other things, it’s never as scary as going to the outhouse in the dark at the cottage), but we both run into problems very quickly in social situations where we’re supposed to be nice. I guess where you’re vulnerable depends partly on the constellation of safe and unsafe you grow up with.

  21. says

    I can’t imagine feeling threatened by a couple of male servants. I guess that’s class privilege talking.

    I don’t know what your class background is, but mine is “poor white trash” from West Virginia. We ARE the servant class, and unfortunately I’m aware firsthand that when men are feeling oppressed, they often turn around and oppress the women and children they have on hand, repeating the cycle of violence from macrocosm to microcosm.

    My sister and I (in a rare moment when we were talking to each other) commented on how neither of us feel threatened walking around outside, even after dark (among other things, it’s never as scary as going to the outhouse in the dark at the cottage), but we both run into problems very quickly in social situations where we’re supposed to be nice. I guess where you’re vulnerable depends partly on the constellation of safe and unsafe you grow up with.

    It’s actually the lack of other people around that usually makes me feel unsafe in L.A. Aside from tourist strips, there’s hardly anyone out on neighborhood streets at night. I think this is because L.A. has no street lighting, and the outdoor lights here and there leave a lot of very dark spaces where crimes could happen and no one would have any idea unless they heard you scream and could tell it wasn’t just some obnoxious neighbor yelling for fun.

  22. Brandon says

    I can remember being mocked by my fellows (testosterone-juiced soldiers in their late teens admitedly, but that’s no excuse) for not ogling women. Or “eye candy” as they called them.

    I thought it was insulting. For both the looker and lookee.

    As for if unfamiliar women ogled me I’d feel creeped out and a little dirty. Not just because I don’t think I’m worth ogling. Even if they were hot women, it would make me feel like a piece of meat they were running their hands over.

    If I knew them better, and it was as a joke, I could laugh about it. But not if I don’t know them well, whatever they look like.


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