I 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.