Why, if you think women should be flattered by your harassment, you are stupid

1209407_stopI recently wrote a post to explain the difference between street harassment and sincere flirtation. Unthinkingly, I wrote it to an audience of women. I guess I unconsciously assumed any man who would yell sexual remarks at strange women would not come to this site in an attempt to figure out why “that uptight bitch” glared at him, told him off or called his boss and damn near got him fired!

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write that version all the same, so here it is. If you’re a man who has been rebuffed more than once by women you thought you were flattering, this article is for you. (I say “more than once” because misunderstandings could account for the occasional incident.)

It’s not up to you what I find flattering

The first problem with thinking a woman “should be” flattered by your behavior and getting irritated when she’s not is that flattery is subjective. Some people are flattered by comments about how smart they are. Others want to hear how good they look. And some of us react warily at any flattery attempt because we assume they’re buttering us up for a favor.

If a woman doesn’t take what you intended as a compliment the way you expect, the correct response is to recognize you’ve had a communication problem. It could be that she misunderstood you but it might also be that you don’t sound like you think you do. To think of her, call her, or later describe her to your friends as an “uptight bitch” is an attempt to feel superior to her – to label her as defective. Because that is the real reason you’re yelling at her – to, in some way, make yourself feel superior. If that weren’t true – if you really just found her appealing and were hoping for her phone number – you’d be anxious to correct the communication problem and, with any luck, actually get that number.

Approaching women in packs isn’t flattering. In fact, it’s threatening.

Being approached by a group of strangers is always intimidating, no matter your gender, the context, or how big and strong you are. Being outnumbered by people you don’t know well enough to trust gets your guard up. You know this because you are alive on Earth and you’ve ever been approached by a group of strangers at some point in your existence. You’ve seen it in movies. You know what it feels like. And you can’t seriously think that when the strangers are commenting flatteringly on someone’s body (which is most likely less physically imposing than any one of theirs) this mitigates the effect. It’s often quite the opposite, in fact, as it calls attention to her vulnerability.

You know deep down it’s not flattering; that’s just your excuse.

If you’re honest with yourself, you know it’s not really about how attractive she is. It’s about one of two things:

  • The men. Most often, catcalling at a woman is a way men socialize with each other. You’re trying to impress each other with who can say the most outrageous things, or who can get a smile or glance from the most passing women. The woman is just part of the scenery, so it’s no surprise you’re oblivious to her feelings. Her responses don’t represent a person with sensitivities to you; they represent a finish line, and tell you whether or not your verbal volleys are scoring.
  • Intimidating women. For every bunch of guys who thinks catcalling is harmless because they know their own motives aren’t hateful, there’s one guy who really hates women and revels in feeling that a woman is afraid of him. He thinks his buddies feel the same way, and when they engage in the same behavior, they are (perhaps unwittingly) encouraging him.

Whether you’re merely insensitive to what strange women feel or actually hate them doesn’t really matter. The behavior was invented by men who hate women, and by participating in it – in fact, by not calling on other men to stop doing it – you’re encouraging misogynistic attitudes whether you mean to or not, whether you share them or not.

It’s not so much what you say as how you say it

Flirtation can be edgy, even with strangers. People often think the whole “politically correct” movement is about a list of words and gestures you can or can’t use, and all you have to do is follow the “good” list (which leads to eye-rolling logic like this: “Okay, guys, we can’t yell Suck me! at them anymore, so I guess we’ll yell Come sit on my lap! instead”), but it’s not that simple. It’s mostly about listening and paying attention to the signals the person you’re talking to gives off in response to you. This is something everyone has to do in flirting – even women. Even really gorgeous or rich people. Communication is a tricky thing, and we all make mistakes in it, but listening is the most important tool. (In fact, listening is probably the top skill that enables people who aren’t gorgeous, rich, or witty to attract those who are.)

But harassment isn’t communication

The best definition of “harassment” (of any sort) I can give you is one-way communication. It’s that simple. It doesn’t even have to involve an ugly motive; it’s just someone talking at you instead of with you. While everyone has a different tolerance for that sort of behavior, no one likes it and that’s why you need to stop when someone tells you to back off. The man who yells at a woman about her boobs isn’t engaging with her; he’s talking at her. The religious zealot co-worker who lectures you about your evil ways every day at work isn’t engaging with you; she sees you only as a potential point on her score card of godliness. When someone’s engaging with you, they stop to listen. That’s how you know the difference.

Comments

  1. SunlessNick says

    People often think the whole “politically correct” movement is about a list of words and gestures you can or can’t use … but it’s not that simple.

    I find political correctness pretty simple if it’s broken down into three principles:

    1. Glib schoolday proverbs aside, words can and do hurt.

    2. Therefore, if you care about not hurting people, it’s worth taking care over what words you use.

    3. And if you aren’t willing to, then it’s evident that hurting people doesn’t really bother you.

    It’s not rocket science (and I know enough rocket science to make that comparison literally :)).

  2. harlemjd says

    SunlessNick – everything you said is absolutely true, but #2 still has to encompass more than just the specific word one chooses. If the overall message of the entire statement is disrespectful / hatefull/ rude/ etc., using “nice” words won’t make it OK.

  3. says

    “Approaching women in packs isn’t flattering. In fact, it’s threatening”

    There was an episode of 6 Feet Under in which this showed up (I don’t know which episode, I was wandering through when my housemates were watchin it) where a girl was walking alone. A group of guys started calling out to her and following her, she started running and was hit by a car. It turns out the guys were friends of hers who thought they were just teasing her – they said several times they didn’t think she would be so frightened and didn’t understand it. I’m not sure how the episode was resolved, but it did seem to show very clearly why the girl was scared at the beginning. Has anyone else seen this episode?

    (I hope I’m not repeating myself – I was going to say this a while ago and was distracted and don’t think I did).

  4. MaggieCat says

    Season 3, episode 3 “The Eye Inside”. What I remember the most is:

    1) her mother coming in to plan the funeral and being really pissed off that the friends clearly had no idea that what they were doing was so stupid, let alone why

    2) Nate commenting to Rico that the girl may have overreacted with Rico speaking up that crap like that happens to Vanessa (his wife) all the time, even when she’s out with the kids, and it scares her, suggesting Nate ask Lisa (his wife at the time) if she has a different opinion (God, Nate was a horrible person)

    and 3) one of the guys responsible speaking at the funeral and basically having a breakdown after he said something like ‘she was never scared of anything’ and so not being able to cope with the idea that she died because she was scared of them. Which is part of what made it stick in my head, since I’ve heard heard the clueless say similar things about me. Plus at that point they’d only had one or two deaths that were people my age (actually according to the death list she was 19 so she was younger, I was 21 at the time).

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Tigtog, that would be great! I just noticed I still had this blog showing my byline as “Betacandy” but I’m using my real name now, if you credit it. :)

  6. Isabel says

    I thought American men were more polite. I’m from Chile, Latin America, and I’m surprised to see you have to deal with the same things we do.Unfortunately it seems to me than in our culture this behaviour it’s much common and acceptable, and threfore it’s really difficult to fight back. Arguing doesn’t work, they just laugh at your face, or even worse, they become more agressive.

    Any ideas or suggestions about how we can deal with this will be really appreciated

  7. Kate says

    Great Post. And yet you can google all sorts of articles advising men how to approach women on the street you find attractive and that we secretly all really want it and are flattered by such boorishness.

    I know I don’t find it flattering…and would never pursue anything with a man who approached me in teh way described above. No quality man approaches that way. no quality woman accepts.

  8. Lisa says

    Unfortunately, in a high-crime area like Atlanta, GA, for example, flirting with women, especially if you don’t know them very well, is considered harassment, no matter how appealing they may be. So, in other words, if you see a woman you like, please stay away from her and don’t look at her, either.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Lisa, that doesn’t quite make sense. You mean flirting with strange women on the street? That is harassment, yes. But no one’s saying you can’t flirt with women in situations where it’s expected. When I go to a bar, I know there’s a chance someone will hit on me and I’m okay with that (as long as they go away if I politely say I’m not interested). But when I’m just walking down the street because that’s the only way to get from point A to point B and I have a life to live, then what I don’t need is for someone to follow me, or try to get me to stop and chat, or say something and get offended if I pretend I didn’t hear because I’m not sure I’m safe.

    The way to think of it is this: if a salesman came up to you on the street and tried to get you to buy a car, would you be flattered? Only if you’re someone who craves attention to a neurotic degree. Most people would be annoyed – in fact, most MEN would probably be a lot more rude to a sales person trying to get them to buy a car than women are to strange men trying to get them to go on a date. Which is totally backwards, really.

  10. says

    It’s a slightly different situation when you’re traveling, the first phrase a woman should learn by heart is GO AWAY in the language of the country she’s in.

    The men I had to say that to in India and Korea, some of them would go ballistic. Maybe they thought they were being nice by stalking/selling to me all day long? Ticked that I wasn’t as easy a mark as they thought?

    Harassment is not fun no matter where you are. Even “innocent” flirting. All that does for me is send my Beware antennae up. Most men are not good at it. Why is that? It’s selling.

  11. flowerkid says

    I second Isabel. Catcalling is extremely common and a big problem in some countries outside the U.S.

    I grew up in Europe where lewd, explicit and palpably threatening catcalls by pack-traveling men were a daily reality. I was about 11 when it happened to me the first time, and I was scared shitless.
    No, I wasn’t some little Lolita. I was a scrawny kid with braces and ill-fitting clothes and a hello kitty backpack. I actually ran home to tell my mother about the incident, but she said I should feel flattered and thankful, and that she wished men started paying attention to her at such a young age.

    Sadly, my mother’s reaction is a common message girls get in some cultures both from peers and from their grown-up female counterparts – that they should be thankful for being notice (read: objectified), because that’s all they are going to get.

    In countries where sexism is deeply ingrained in culture and society, women generally do not fight back.

    Some years ago, I traveled back to my country and I encountered catcalling again. However, that time I reacted like an American woman. I verbally attacked the men back. But I was only ridiculed and even some bystanders who weren’t involved in the incident previously started telling me that I was being disruptive and had no business telling the men off.

    So, I really appreciate both your articles on this topic. You are empowering both genders with information and resources to discourage the social dynamics which facilitate these kinds of behaviors (and the attitudes that go along with them). Thanks!

  12. says

    Thank you for trying to school those who think hating women is: a) cool, or b) going to change the male/female dynamic.
    I would love to chat with you online. I need someone who understands the frustration of being the brunt of ageist/misogynistic comments. Not only to some men hate women, they especially hate us when we have the audacity to live past 45!

  13. A Very Bad Girl says

    Nalani:

    I heard it was 35. If so, my usefulness will expire in 1 year & 2 months.

    Aren’t men groovy???

  14. Stephen says

    Most often, catcalling at a woman is a way men socialize with each other. You’re trying to impress each other with who can say the most outrageous things…

    This goes deeper. A passage in Frank Herbert’s “God Emperor of Dune” made me realise that young male sexual conquering is often the same. It’s the only way heterosexual males can share a sexual experience with each other. The genital act has to occur with a woman; the resulting sharing, emotional bonding, sense of belonging are between the males.

  15. says

    That’s a really interesting point. In high school, I noticed that even the most desired girls would be ignored if two guys were talking to each other. No matter how they went on about the overwhelming importance of sexual relations, boys prioritized their relationships with other males every time. At the time, not having been given the best of thought tools to use, I thought this meant all men were fundamentally gay. Later I came across the term “homosociality” to describe the phenomenon (I think it was Hugo Schwyzer?) as simply what happens when everyone’s most essential life-saving or life-threatening relationships involve men because men are at the top of the heap.

    The way you put it, it sounds like a profound bonding ritual, and takes me back to the question of why many people prefer to bond with their own gender. Are we hardwired to prefer that, and if so, wouldn’t it make sense to de-prioritize sex and not make it the center of our household relationships and lives? Or is it socialized into us that we can’t really relate to the person we’re expected to live with for our entire adult lives, and if so, why on earth would we do that to ourselves as a society?

    • Jay says

      That’s a really interesting point. In high school, I noticed that even the most desired girls would be ignored if two guys were talking to each other. No matter how they went on about the overwhelming importance of sexual relations, boys prioritized their relationships with other males every time. At the time, not having been given the best of thought tools to use, I thought this meant all men were fundamentally gay. Later I came across the term “homosociality” to describe the phenomenon (I think it was Hugo Schwyzer?) as simply what happens when everyone’s most essential life-saving or life-threatening relationships involve men because men are at the top of the heap.

      I remember Hugo using the word “homosociality” though I’m not sure if he coined it.

      I don’t necessarily disagree in the general case, but I think it can work in very limited 1-on-1 cases. As a guy, I’ve certainly had good non-sexual bonding relationships with women peers.

      In group dynamics this changes a lot, for some reason. Usually one gender dynamic is dominant in a situation like that even if there is a small minority of the other gender. Same goes for characteristics like race (we all talk about the situations where a group of white people feel it’s okay to say really offensive things when nobody else is around)

  16. Rebecca says

    …takes me back to the question of why many people prefer to bond with their own gender. Are we hardwired to prefer that, and if so, wouldn’t it make sense to de-prioritize sex and not make it the center of our household relationships and lives?

    Without having studied it specifically, I would guess that we ARE hardwired to bond with our own gender; if you think about it, socially and historically, our day-to-day support structure is usually with our own gender.

    When a male needs help, he turns to his “brothers” — these being the other males he feels that he can rely upon for support at need, without “owing” them or losing face. Since my mate enlisted in the military, I’ve seen the way this bonding has provided support and comfort for the young men in his (all-male) unit. These guys still want and value meaningful relationships with women, but the structure of their lives revolves more around their relationships with the other men. I have never seen so many unrelated guys so comfortable with each other; laughing, helping, joking, not the least self-conscious. For them, the comfort is built through shared life experience in a positive way.

    I’ve also seen the bonding amongst the wives (girlfriends, etc); we have nothing in common except that our husbands are all in the same unit, but it is enough. There is so much deliberate reaching out and helping and support, with very little of the sniping and backstabbing I’ve seen in other female social groups. With the men currently deployed in a war zone, this shared support is even more pronounced, and more needed as well.

    In this case, the military setup built a positive way to bond for both genders, but I can see how cultures trying to sort-of “freeform” bond would take turning against the other gender as an easy way to feel closer to each other. The catcalling isn’t about the women; it’s about the men.

    I live in the midwestern USA. We have an increasingly large Mexican immigrant population, which means that catcalling by groups of men in a language I don’t understand can happen pretty much anywhere. I deal with this when it is directed at me by ignoring it completely. I’m not a part of that culture; I’m just an outside object. They are really talking to each other, not to me, and as long as it is in a well-populated public place it is not threatening to me.

    I also spent a number of years driving a semi truck, and being a solo female driver in a mostly-male, mostly-lonely industry, there were many men who tried to approach me in ways ranging from engaging to outright insulting. Most of them just wanted attention. I often avoided unwanted contact by not actually looking at people; focus eyes a little past them, or keep eyes focused on whatever I was doing.

    The ones who were persistent in truck stops I was sometimes able to ignore without seeming to by — this actually works surprisingly well — smiling vaguely in their direction, not responding to anything they said, and then saying something to a shop clerk in VERY strongly Russian-accented, broken English. (English is my native language, but who knows?) They immediately cease and desist in paying attention to me without being insulted or (worse) having hurt feelings.

    This only worked when I was going to be in a place for a very short time with limited necessary interaction, and with people who were not catcalling but genuinely trying to flirt, but it worked. Also requires a certain level of acting ability, but still…it works to get me out of uncomfortable situations without escalating emotions.

  17. says

    So if you’re right, Rebecca, it sounds to me like we’ve made a very odd mistake in centering civilization around the procreative act. I.E., we define households as groupings of people centered around two people who make babies. Technically, two roommates not having sex with each other constitute two households under one roof under the law, simply because they aren’t romantically linked. Perhaps we should be living with people of our own gender, and only getting together with sex partners when the urge strikes. Maybe that’s why marriage as an institution is failing? Because it’s designed on a fundamental failure to understand how human psychology works?

    I’m just sayin’.

    • Casey says

      “Perhaps we should be living with people of our own gender, and only getting together with sex partners when the urge strikes.”

      I’m gonna nerd-out on ya, but that TOTALLY sounds like the social structure of the Viera in Final Fantasy 12. :D

  18. Rebecca says

    Hmmm…well, bear in mind that the Shakers based their society solely around same-gender social groups (without sexual interaction, granted) and they…just didn’t make it. Literally died out. Wonder if they’d have lasted in a society which would not have attached shame to procreation without marriage?

    On the other hand…with the way we’ve redefined “marriage” so that the modern married couple is more or less stranded to do everything by themselves, as opposed to the more traditional “village” and extended family support structure — yes, I think that we’ve made a mistake. Not so much by emphasizing the importance of marriage and sexual-preference based pair-bonding, but in failing to place enough importance on keeping extended family support networks intact in spite of pair-bonding. The most stable long-term couples I know (both male/female and female/female) — especially the ones with children — have extended “families” (birth-kin, chosen family, or both) on-hand to help at need. For what it’s worth, I think we need our “villages.” Now, how do we build this into societies where people move often and to widely different locales? Our military has somehow managed exactly this…wish there could be a straightforward answer for everyone else.

  19. says

    I totally agree that we need our villages. But I don’t think society’s survival is only dependent on continual breeding of new members. Societies have crumbled for a number of other reasons, and I think abuse could have that effect. It’s not just our lack of “villages” that causes abuse – it’s a system in which, as this article points out, one half of society’s members are conditioned to expect and accept violence and rapacious behavior as normal or even “flattering.” There’s no way foisting that kind of insanity on people can *fail* to lead to abuse.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>