Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Proposed Small Step For Womenkind

Pondering the issue of unwanted male attention, I found myself thinking about another unwanted encounter I had on Sunday afternoon while walking down another block on 8th Avenue to meet Raj for a quick bite.

A man fell in step with me on my right (putting himself between the street and me, just as the other one had) and said, "Excuse me, do you mind if I introduce myself?" He was a tall, skinny white male in his 40s with shaggy brown hair, faded denim clothes that didn't look especially clean, and a guitar slung across his back. I said, "No," but in a clipped, polite, noncommittal sort of way, and he told me that his name was "L." Not liking where this was going, I said, "I'm on my way to meet my boyfriend." He mumbled, "Okay, then" and fell out of step with me.

Another one bites the dust. Kudos of a sort to me. But, what had I accomplished in this encounter?

For those of you keeping track, that would be two unwanted encounters with males in the span of 3 days. Either I've been looking exceptionally hot, New York males have been feeling exceptionally desperate, there's something strange going on on 8th Avenue, or men everywhere feel a warped sense of entitlement to accost women in public places. Raj said it's my fault for wiggling my butt suggestively when I walk, which I most certainly do not do! (Unless he's behind me on the stairs.) But, I digress.

According to Gravelly, I need to do a better job of not putting myself in situations where I could become the target of unwanted male attention. But, as a woman, that's difficult to do because so often it doesn't matter where we go, what we do, what we wear, or what time it is. There is almost always going to be some man who feels entitled to gaze at, ogle, comment on, approach, or take forceful possession of our bodies. Although I refuse to concede that I must limit my freedom of movement because of the bad behavior of men, I’m wondering if I could do a better job of combating it on an individual level.

This problem of unwanted male attention is about men, not women. Or more accurately, this problem is about the gendered imbalance of power between men and women in our society. It's about men feeling like they are entitled to any piece of female ass that shows up in their vicinity. Unless of course said piece of female ass is already taken by another male. If a woman has been claimed by another man, then other males will often back off, hence my handy "boyfriend defense." Whereas an unclaimed woman in our society (this goes for lesbians too, which though claimed by their female partners are not claimed by males) is open territory - a loose cauldron of bubbling sexual energy to be controlled by men - a claimed women has already given over her sexual energy to the male system, and in so doing has gained a protector she can trot out to fend off the testosterone-crazed masses whenever they mistake her for one of the female free agents operating out in no-man's land. No one said patriarchal possession didn’t come with its positives.

What's the solution to all this, and what’s a girl to do to make it happen? The solution would be for men to come to realize that they are not entitled to every piece of female ass that shows up in their vicinity, whether or not said piece of female ass is already claimed by another male, has a male protector waiting for her on the next corner, or wiggles her ass when she walks. The solution, as our powerful songstress of soul said so eloquently, is to teach men some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The boyfriend defense is a handy way of telling men to buzz off, and it’s a nice way of warning would-be attackers that you are not alone (let’s not overlook this other perk of the defense), but it doesn’t teach men to respect women. Rather, it reinforces a problematic aspect of the gender power structure in which men show respect for one another, and other men's belongings (in our patriarchal system that would be us ladies), but not for women in their own right.

The defense also has the unintended consequence of perpetuating unwanted male behavior because it keeps hope alive in the hearts of men. When women use the boyfriend defense as a shorthand way of explaining their lack of interest, as I did, it allows males to delude themselves with the fiction that the object of their desires would have been interested but for the fact that she was already taken. It allows them to imagine that the next woman they approach on the street might actually welcome their advances. In helping myself by shooing L away, I did the rest of the women walking down 8th Avenue on Sunday a disservice.

What should I have done to do my small part in shifting this powerful tide of male entitlement? What should I have said to send the clear message that men are not entitled to approach women willy-nilly on the street and to expect that women will be interested in their often times crude ovations unless they are already claimed by another male?

When he asked me whether I minded if he introduced himself, I should have looked him straight in the eye, owned my lack of interest, and declared, "Yes, I do. Now leave me alone.” I should have done my best to crush the hope within his chest. That would have helped me and my sisters on 8th Avenue.

Can you imagine if all women started responding in such unequivocal terms when faced with unwanted male attention? Men might actually start becoming afraid of approaching women on the street. That would be something.


gravelly said...

I still think women and men need to not take unnecessay risks, walking alone at 11 pm isn't a good idea. Getting mace or an alarm are great ideas.

Buttercup said...

Gravelly, I agree that everyone should minimize risks, and I will look into the mace/alarm ideas just as soon as Dragon Lady gets off my back this week.

Tracy said...

I agree that we should be smart and not take unnecessary risks, but still...it makes me mad that walking home from work late at night is a risk at all. Especially when a man might not think twice about it. Why should I have to pay for a cab home when a man can walk home for free? I know...to be safe. But still, it's frustrating.

Barbara J Gill said...

This is really interesting. I don't attract male attention like I used to ... age I think - but also I think I DID exude an attraction factor at one time that is more subdued - from within. I never really knew I was doing it. This blog makes a grandmother smile on one hand but on the other - care of where you put yourself - all those kinds of things are important. I travelled a lot with business. One had to be very careful and I certainly did have some situations. I also was a psychiatric nurse and had a patient pursue me (sexual offender). Deadbolts. Unlisted phone. All that kind of thing. Life has not been dull.

Buttercup said...

Tracy - I'm irked by the cab fare as well. Men's violence costs women more, literally.

Barbara Gill - Your point, like Gravelly's, is well taken that we do need to take care where we put ourselves due to the reality of male violence.

Interesting that you bring up women exuding attraction. It seems to me that men harass/assault all different types of women, whether their stereotypically attractive or not. That's again why I feel that this has far more to do with men's entitlement than women's irresistability.

InterstellarLass said...

Someone thinking you are attractive and wanting to meet you is harassment? I think "Do you mind if I introduce myself" is quite polite and not a crude ovation. "Hey Baby" or "I like your ass" or "You and me honey" would have been a crude ovation. How is someone supposed to approach another person? Is he supposed to wait for the female to approach him, thus making women the aggressor/predator? And what is to stop another woman from gazing/ogling/commenting on/approaching a woman?

I don't think that there's a gender imbalance of power. I think it's a personal imbalance of power. And I disagree that anyone feels entitled to a piece of ass. This is assuming that someone wants your ass all the time, and that's arrogant. I've found that many men respect women and are not just out to get a piece of ass. But some women, with their attitudes and their permissiveness, lend themselves to be taken advantage of. If they allow it, the men are going to do it. Rather than teaching men to respect women, women should be taught to respect themselves.

Bean said...

I think the way he purposed to introduce himself is yes, nicer than, "Look at that ass", but what I hate is then I feel like well, if "I say yes, I would mind." Even though I should care less about what he feels, I feel bad, if I say buzz off, where I just have the problem in general if telling any guys to buzz off. Where sometimes, I would like a guy say a rude comment, like look at that ass, because than I feel more entitled to say "F off" or "learn some damn respect asshole" and I don't feel bad at all, only that he is a fool and will get no one with his remarks.

On the lines of boyfriend, I rarely have ever said, well, I have a bf or husband, I don't know why, but I have said some rude things like, "Y do you think you would be worthy of this? or my above, rude comments to oogling guys.

Buttercup said...

Lass - You are right that the way L asked if he could introduce himself was not overtly offensive, or even offensive at all.

In terms of "piece of ass," L turned away instantly when I mentioned my boyfriend. He wasn't interested in conversation nor directions, and his purpose seemed pretty apparent.

But this sort of thing happens frequently (you pass millions of people each day here) and there's a broad scope of behavior that ranges from overt harassment to pick-up attempts. My discussion was directed not just at all, but at that broad scope of behavior, some of which is more problematic than other behavior.

Although you disagree, from my perspective, all of types of behavior appear to have in common a sense of entitlement on the part of the men doing the ogling, harassing, or pick-up attempts. And I do believe this is a reflection/symptom of the gender dynamics b/w men and women in our society.

Buttercup said...

P.S. I agree with Bean that sometimes the men can be just as icky when they try to pick you up politely. If it's apparent from their behavior that they think you are a piece of ass, then I'd rather they were blatant about it b/c it does make it easier to call out that type of behavior.

Gypsy said...

I don't know. Sometimes I feel like what's a guy to do? The ogglers and offensive commenters aside, guys generally have the onus of making the first move. Sure, siddling up to someone on the street is probably not the best way to go, but how are they to know it's unwanted attention if we don't tell them?

Buttercup said...

Gypsy, That's true. If "L" had approached me any other day, except for almost immediately after the other one did at night, I don't think I would thought much of it. But coming as they did one after another it made me think of the connections between the two.

But certainly not every guy that approaches a woman on the street is trying to harass her or acting out of a sense of entitlement. I did not mean to suggest that. Rather, I was talking about the social context in which these type of interactions happen.

Alison Cummins said...

As soon as I learned to say "fuck off," I stopped being approached. It was really sudden.

In terms of protecting yourself by avoiding dangerous areas, I suppose it depends on what you mean by a dangerous area. When I was a teenager living in a residential area and walking to the metro to meet my boyfriend, I would be followed in cars and on foot; persistently pursued; men would try to trick me into getting into their cars and refuse to accept no; one man followed me up my boyfriend's steps and didn't leave until my boyfriend came to the door. Yes, it was worse in the evening, but also happened at breakfast and high noon.

When I was working for handicapped people putting them to bed in a low-income housing tower, I would often finish work after the metro closed and I would have to walk through the red-light district to a friend's house to sleep. That was a completely different experience. Men would pull up in their cars: "Baby, are you dating?" Answer: No. End of interaction. The men in cars would go on their way, looking for someone who wanted to sell what they wanted to buy.

Note that the men in the residential area were prowling for victims, and a sixteen- or seventeen-year old girl in a residential area fits that profile. As soon as I learned the magic incantation "fuck off" I ceased being a victim and was no longer approached. I only ever had to use it twice, and the men all disappeared after that.

The men in the red-light district were looking for adult women able to consent to and participate in a commercial transaction. As soon as I figured that out I felt much safer and gained a lot of respect for johns.

I did use the boyfriend defense a few times as a teenager, but it was both ineffective and humiliating. Telling the guy unambiguously to go away works much better.

I'm forty-two now, but some days when I'm a little manic, striding happily down the street in a little skirt with an enthusiastic expression on my face, I still attract attention. It's not usually the creepy stalky predator kind, like the guy who pens you in by walking on the street side of the sidewalk. It's more a general appreciation, and I wave back happily, or answer the greeting with a smile. The point is to follow your feelings. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, stand up for yourself. You don't have to analyse exactly what he's doing that makes you uncomfortable, the point is that you are and that you want him to go away. End of story. If someone is flirting with you in a way you enjoy, by all means flirt back.

Note that men are quite aware of women's wariness and feelings of vulnerability. They exchange tips on how to behave when they discover themselves walking behind a woman who is walking alone. (They aren't following her, but she doesn't know that, and she's probably anxious, but it's not their fault, so what do they do? Solution: cross the street, then pass her.) So a guy who is imposing himself on you is completely aware of what he's doing and you are under no obligation to be nice.

Buttercup said...

Alison, Intersting point about walking around in "normal" society v. the red light district. I also like your point about listening to your feelings. Women have to go with their gut, and if they feel unsafe or disturbed in any way, then I agree that they need to follow that intuition and forget all thoughts of trying to be "nice." Thanks for sharing your thoughts.