"I Like Your Tits!" is Not a Compliment: A Guide For Men

My raging feminism combined with almost-daily experience of street harassment leads me to think about the problem perhaps more frequently and more in-depth than most people would care to, but my interest lately is not so much in the harassment itself, but in the way we think about and discuss it. You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman in the United States who has never experienced catcalls, leers, and the occasional outright hostility of entitled men who believe it is their right to evaluate women's bodies and then demand attention from them. When you speak about street harassment to a group of women, there is always disgusted eye-rolling, groans of recognition, and a general understanding that being harassed on the street is both unpleasant and scary. Women who have experienced it have respect and sympathy for the horror stories of female friends, because even those of us who haven't experienced the more extreme forms of harassment can still imagine the more benign encounters escalating to that level.

Men, on the other hand, are a different story. Perhaps it's that they don't experience it themselves, or that it almost never happens to their female friends when they are along, but men rarely seem to recognize the seriousness or the ubiquity of street harassment. If you speak about street harassment to a group of men, while most of them will shake their heads in disapproval, it's not at all unusual to get somebody asking what you were wearing, or suggesting that you don't know how to take a "compliment." They honestly don't understand what's so upsetting about a few little catcalls, and it's a hard thing to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it.

The old "put yourself in another person's position" mental exercise is usually a good one for triggering empathy and compassion in another, but when you suggest men imagine what it would be like for them to be sexually harassed on the street, many of them respond with, "I'd love it if women were hitting on me all the time!" I couldn't figure out why so many men would see it as a positive thing when it's generally such a negative experience for women, until one day it hit me: men are imagining being catcalled by women, and the sexual politics of our culture dictate that such an encounter is going to be experienced differently by the harassee depending on the gender of the harasser. So, men, let's try this a different way:

Imagine you are on your way to work, dressed as you always dress for work, minding your own business. As you wait at the bus stop, another man says to you with a vaguely malicious tone, "Nice ass!" You are startled and look at him in shock; he is clearly larger and stronger than you are, so you don't feel safe to express the rage that is beginning to boil inside your sternum. You keep quiet all the way to work, where you finally tell your coworker Joe about your experience. Joe shrugs and says, "Well, you do have a nice ass; if you're going to wear pants that flatter it you're just going to have to expect some comments. I'm sure he was just trying to compliment you anyway." In just two sentences, he has dismissed your experience, invalidated your feelings, and suggested that you were asking for it by dressing the way you dressed.

Okay, I realize that the odds of the above scenario actually happening to a heterosexual man in this country are about eleventy-bajillion to one, but that's sort of the point. The mental exercise doesn't work if you're imagining being ogled by a woman, because women are not accorded the same social status as men, and also are not usually physically threatening. So while it's possible to imagine a strange woman making a sexual comment to you, the element of physical danger will almost certainly be absent, because how many women are bigger or stronger than the average man? Also, some cultural ideas of masculinity are tied to aggressiveness and dominance, and this is something that can escalate harassment when the person being harassed does not respond in the manner desired by the harasser. If a woman commented on your ass and you got mad at her, she probably won't feel like you just threatened her femininity, while a man who comments on a woman's ass may fly into a rage when his comments are not received well, because he feels that the woman has emasculated him by rebuffing his advances. Men, you may not personally harass women, but let me assure you, a lot of other men do, and a lot of them also take it personally when we don't enthusiastically give them our numbers after they have loudly shouted their approval of our tits.

A good portion of the confusion of the decent dudes stems from the fact that many of them don't seem to understand the difference between a compliment and harassment. It may seem like a fine line, but honestly, this stuff isn't that hard to figure out if you follow three simple guidelines.

First: complimenting a stranger is almost always creepy. You have to be very friendly and benign to pull it off, and frequently it's still going to come off creepy because underlying a compliment is the implication that the complimented person ought to care what you think. The true power of a compliment lies not in the words themselves, but in the relationship between the two people. This is why a comment like "Wow, those jeans make your ass look fantastic!" will please me when it comes from my husband, but disgust me when uttered by a stranger. I care what my husband thinks of me; I couldn't give a shit less about whether a stranger approves of my jeans and would frankly rather not think about the fact that a stranger is noticing my ass in the first place.

Second: be appropriate. If you're trying to ingratiate yourself to someone in whom you are romantically interested, limit the compliments to non-sexual things like her eyes or her smile. Do NOT, unless you are already in a sexual relationship with her and know her comfort level with such comments, compliment her tits, ass, or any other culturally sexualized physical feature. If you're complimenting someone in whom you're not romantically interested, it's best not to comment on any physical features at all.

Third: own your words. If she expresses discomfort with what you've said, apologize immediately and sincerely. Don't get angry if your compliment is not received in the manner you expected. You cannot dictate a person's reaction and a compliment in many ways is a verbal step inside someone's personal space, so if she requests that you step the fuck back, you must accept that you have violated her comfort zone and this is your fault, not hers.

I hope that someday street harassment will be a thing of the past, but I'm not holding my breath. We women can only repeat our stories so many times before we start to get tired of being second guessed and dismissed and blamed for the actions of men who are convinced they've done nothing wrong by perpetrating what feels to us like a mental and emotional violation (which sometimes turns into physical violence too). I think one of the best things individual men can do is stop tolerating such behavior from their friends. It's not good enough that you don't do it yourself; you need to speak up when your friends treat strangers poorly, and begin to untangle the web of dominance that has become so closely tied to male/female relationships.

I know it's a cliche, but come on: if we'd all just treat each other with respect and see each other as people, we wouldn't be having this problem!

Posted byMJ at 12:55 PM 5 comments  

Craptastic

It sucks to take the dog out every 20 minutes when he has the shits; it sucks more to leave him alone in the computer room for 10 minutes immediately after a trip outside so I can take a shower, and emerge to find a rank shitpuddle on the carpet behind my chair. What sucks most, though, is waking up at 4:30 a.m. and realizing the dog is sick again, and this might be the last time.

Posted byMJ at 11:20 AM 1 comments  

The hype over the Harry Potter books

I just don't get it.

I tried a few times to get into the first book, but children's fiction just doesn't do it for me; I found it unbearably dull. Am I the only one? It sure seems like it.

Posted byMJ at 8:01 AM 2 comments  

Excuses and Explanations

I have a hard time updating this blog regularly. I didn't set out to write an exclusively feminist blog, but somehow it turned into that since feminist issues are usually the ones that get me fired up enough to write. Now that the blog has become that, I am sometimes reluctant to post things that don't fit into the whole feminist blog paradigm-- silly little stories, random quotes, offhand observations that have nothing to do with patriarchy or misogyny or women's place in a world that is ever-changing. Although I know it's my blog and I can do anything I damn well please with it, I feel like I should have some kind of unifying theme to my writing here, something bigger than "all things Molly."

I suppose I should just say "fuck it" and write whatever I want.

This blog has, in many ways, become the space in which I grapple with my identity as a woman, a wife, a twentysomething college graduate with murky ambitions and potential limited only by the glass ceilings against which I fear breaking my lovely and delicate nose. I am finally, at almost-26, coming to grips with the fact that I'm an adult now, that I am married and might potentially become a parent within the next few years, and struggling with the implications of these choices on my economic prospects. I'm trying to find a job, and I've met with the frustrating reality that despite my newly-minted diploma from Oregon State University, I am qualified only for the exact same jobs I was doing before I went back to school-- jobs that rarely pay more than about $12 an hour. I've set my sights on a Master of Library Science degree program, which means another three years of school and who knows how many thousands of dollars in new student loans, and the end result-- being employable as a librarian-- sounds like something out of a gorgeous dream, but how will this economic goal affect my personal life? What if, in three years, there is no job market in this area for librarians? Can I expect my husband to pick up and move if I find a job elsewhere? What if it doesn't pay well but offers significant opportunity for advancement? Where are the lines in these potential conflicts? Obviously, this is a take-it-as-it-comes situation, yet another scenario in which I drive myself crazy pondering the what-ifs, but the fates of women who have come before me have made me wary of being too willing to sacrifice my personal goals for marital peace, and I worry sometimes that that caution will lead me to be too inflexible, too stubbornly determined to achieve my own goals, and then I wonder if there really is such a thing for a woman.

Concepts of body image and health-consciousness are also a constant roiling mess in my head as I fight to define for myself what constitutes "health" and "attractiveness" and how hard I should strive to achieve each of them. Two of my close female relatives had plastic surgery this year (two boob jobs, a tummy tuck, and some liposuction), and my own reaction to the news really threw me for a loop. I've always known that my body cannot fit the ideal of "hotness" and it never will; no matter how hard I work out or diet or how much makeup I wear, I will always have round hips and a 32A chest, and I will not look proportionate in tight clothing. I have a pretty face and a reasonably trim figure, but I am not "HAWT" and I never will be.

It was always a great comfort to me to see those older female relatives with bodies like mine living successful and happy lives, and it gave me hope that someday I might be able to accept myself as I am. Then two of my role models had surgery to change their bodies. It seems like the right thing to do is to say I respect their decisions, and while I do understand perfectly why they both did it, it has nonetheless been dismaying to me to recognize that women in their 40's and 50's who are shaped like me have come no closer to accepting their bodies than I have. I don't respect their decisions. In fact, I sort of hate them for those decisions. Of course they have no obligation to leave their bodies unaltered just so I can feel better about my own predicament, but it really is disheartening to see older women struggling with the same feelings of inferiority that I face, and it depresses me to know that it doesn't necessarily get easier with age. I truly hope that I will never grow so dissatisfied with the way I look that I'm willing to have surgery to change it, but who can say how I'll feel in 20 years? It infuriates me to think that I might still be striving for "fuckability" as a (happy and successful, I hope) fortysomething who cannot possibly hope to compete with the fetishized 18-year-olds who have become the gold standard for female attractiveness in this country. Is that what I have to look forward to? Is there really so slim a chance of me accepting and feeling comfortable in the body I have?

All of these conflicts and issues are knocking around in my brain on a daily basis, but I have no idea how to turn them into a coherent blog post. I don't want to abandon this endeavor, but it doesn't feel fresh and full of promise anymore. So I guess what I'm trying to say is this: I don't know what my goals are here anymore. Bear with me. I'll muddle through.

Posted byMJ at 1:06 PM 1 comments  

A rant against "Nice Guy Rants," and some advice for Nice Guys

On Monday, I read a "Nice Guy Rant" on the myspace page of a friend. It was one of those charming missives that are posted and reposted by bitter young men, ending with the instructions, "If you agree with this, repost it as 'I'm Sorry.'"

To paraphrase the entry (which was unfortunately very long and rendered in clumsy verse):

"I'm sorry I've always been there for you, always been a good friend to you, stood quietly by while you dated assholes who weren't me. Since you can't see what a diamond in the rough I am, which would necessarily result in your immediate giving up of the pussy, I am no longer going to be your friend."

Of course it was more delicately worded than that; although I am about to lay into them with a vengeance, I do think that most Nice Guys honestly believe they are being wronged and taken advantage of by the women they fancy. They see themselves as the Duckie character in a real-life "Pretty in Pink," the lovesick best friend whose devotion and uniqueness are ignored or dismissed by the object of his affection, who would rather date the bland (but much better-looking) popular guy who doesn't worship the ground she walks on the way her best friend does. His bitterness at this implicit rejection-- because rarely do Nice Guys make their true feelings explicit-- grows and grows until, in a fit of impotent rage, he channels his pent-up emotions into a passive-aggressive rant casting her as the one with the problem. This passive-aggression is at the heart of what most women find so distasteful about Nice Guys: despite their persistent "niceness," they are fundamentally dishonest about their intentions.

For the record, Nice Guys, if you are only being nice to a woman because you want to get into her pants, you aren't actually nice. If you are uncomfortable with being just friends, then don't be friends at all; pretending to be a woman's friend is lying, and insinuating yourself into her life under false pretenses makes you no better than the asshole boyfriends whom you decry for hurting her over and over. Being a good friend to a woman does not entitle you to her romantic affection.

Let's repeat that one, because it might be the most important:
Being a good friend to a woman does not entitle you to her romantic affection.

This is where the Nice Guy logic gets all screwy. Everyone knows what it's like to have a bad friend; we've all had relationships with people who take more than they give, and nothing sucks more than being the one who's always putting forth the effort. For most people, the impulse to continue making an effort switches off at some point and we recognize that the friend is not worth it. Nice Guys, however, often add the extra expectation of sexual interest to the list of Good Friend criteria, and even women who are good platonic friends get cast as Bad Friends for not giving it up. This is patently unfair. You cannot expect things of a person who has not agreed to the ruleset by which you'd like to be playing.

Again, for the record, Nice Guys, you need to recognize your own responsibility for your situation. If she is not a good friend to you, you are free at any time to end the friendship. If, on the other hand, she is a good friend but you want more from the relationship, you don't get to hold that against her. If you make your wishes known and she rejects you, you can either get over it and continue to be a friend, or you can move on and end the friendship entirely; what you should NEVER do is fake being her friend, hoping she'll change her mind, while silently nursing a grudge over the fact that she doesn't share your attraction. That is passive-aggressive, dishonest, and perhaps most importantly (to the Nice Guys) unattractive.

Contrary to popular belief, women don't actually like dating assholes.

Now, before you go throwing all your anecdotal evidence at me, let me elaborate.

People (not just women, but people) are attracted to confidence. It's no fun spending time with a person who needs constant reassurance-- ask any guy who's dated a woman who constantly demands, "Do I look fat in this?" Assholes of the variety that has great success picking up women in bars are not attractive for the fact that they are assholes, but because their cockiness comes across to many women as self-assurance. We are social animals, and it pleases us on a very base level to be chosen by a popular and charismatic peer, so those assholes who stand us up and treat us disrespectfully are sometimes attractive because the assholish behavior can be mistaken for desirable traits. We like people who have lives of their own and interests outside our immediate relationship; it can be difficult to distinguish between the returned phone call that was late because a person was geniunely busy and the one that was late because the person was playing head games and being rude. While some women have learned to tell the difference between the genuinely well-rounded, socially active man and the carefully-crafted act of an asshole, younger women especially often lack this social savvy and can fall prey to men whose seemingly busy lives are an illusion specifically crafted to lure in a potential easy lay.

Nice Guys, women don't date assholes just to spite you!

The constructive response to this is not, as many Nice Guys posit, to become an asshole yourself. Unless your goal is only to have meaningless sex, becoming one of the bad guys is not going to help your case with the ladies. If you really want that girl to notice you as more than a friend, you have to actually get a life. I mean it. Get yourself some interests that don't revolve around her, some other friends, hobbies to occupy your time. You have to be an actual person with an actual life of his own; don't just "play" hard to get, cultivate a life in which your time is really filled with activities and people you enjoy, and your resulting fulfillment will make you infinitely more attractive than any worshipful sniveling ever could. She shouldn't be the center of your life unless you are also the center of hers, and to put her in that position without her consent is an unfair burden. Should you make that mistake, your resulting misery is your fault, not hers.

I'm not sure why Nice Guys are so intent on blaming others for the awkward positions they've created for themselves, but one thing is for sure: they will never get out of those one-sided relationships as long as they keep avoiding reality. Nice Guys of the world, I challenge you to examine the roots of your "niceness" and honestly assess whether it is as genuine as you would have us believe. If you have fallen into the trap of worshipping an unwilling goddess, then step up and own your actions, and move forward with the resolution to be more forthright in your future dealings with women. Every person wants to be appreciated; no healthy person will expect your worship. It's a long fall from the pedestal, and most women would prefer not to be boosted up there in the first place.

Posted byMJ at 1:04 PM 5 comments