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:
- 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.)