Regular readers will note that I regularly intersperse my dating advice with discussions about what some may term “social justice” – issues dealing with feminism, harassment, bullying and generally shitty behavior. On occasion, I’ll get a question from someone who wants to know why I’m talking about all this Social Justice Warrior bullshit and when I’m going to get back to teaching dudes how to get laid.
That’s usually the point when I roll my eyes because honestly? That’s part of why I’m writing those articles. I’m a big believer in what’s known as “enlightened self-interest”: doing the right thing because it actively helps you too. If folks won’t do the right thing simply because it’s what you should be doing in the first place, then perhaps realizing that being a good guy is also good for your penis may be a better motivator. If dragging people by the dick is what it takes to get better behavior out of them, I’m all in favor of it.
See, a big part of the NerdLove Dating Philosophy is that one of the quickest and easiest ways to find the relationship you want – whether it’s for a lifetime or the next thirty minutes – is to not be an asshole. For all that guys like to wax rhapsodic about how “assholes get all the women”, it’s the assholes who’re actually making it harder for you, the good guy (as opposed to the Nice GuyTM) to meet and date incredible women. The behavior of the shittiest among you disproportionately affects how others respond to you and it doesn’t matter how many times you insist #notallmen are like that.
Correcting that behavior, on the other hand, benefits everyone.
So in that spirit, I want to talk about the topic du jour and one of the most common examples of when it comes to men behaving badly: street harassment and cat-calling.
10 Hours of Street Harassment
On October 28, the Hollaback Project posted a video on YouTube depicting a sampling of the come-ons, cat-calls and and demands that actress Shoshana Roberts received while walking through New York City. In the video, Soshana is wearing a simple crew-neck teeshirt and jeans and minimal make-up, continually walking straight forward without stopping or making eye-contact with anyone. The entire time, men try to get her attention, with demands like “Smile!” and “You should say thank you!” or comments like “Damn, sexy” and “hey beautiful!”; a few follow her, continually trying to get her to engage them in conversation. One man walks along side her for five minutes after she ignores his greeting. Other comments
While there are unfortunate (and presumably unintended) racial implications in the video, it’s an uncomfortable example of the street harassment that women face on a daily basis. It’s very clear that Shoshana is not enjoying this – the tension in her shoulders and face is unmistakable. What makes this astounding is that this is just a sample of what she – and many, many other women face on a daily basis.
Naturally, when the video was released, people soberly and quietly reflected on how repulsive the behavior directed towards women had been and treated the subject with the consideration it deserved.
Nah, I’m shitting you. People rushed to explain how this wasn’t so bad really and Shoshana was, in fact, inviting this on herself by daring to be dressed immodestly in a fitted tee and jeans.
Rush Limbaugh insisted that these men were just being polite to a pretty woman walking by. On a CNN panel, author and dating coach Steve Santagati insisted that women “would not care if all these guys were hot. They would be bolstering your self-esteem, bolstering your ego. There is nothing more that a woman loves to hear than how pretty she is.” Fox News, of course, reacted with the class and tact that they are known for:
Meanwhile, Ms. Roberts herself has been receiving a number of rape and death threats for the crime of… recording herself walking and documenting the street harassment she received.
So What’s Wrong With Saying “You’re Pretty”?
Whenever the topic of street harassment comes up, one of the first things that people ask is “What’s wrong with telling someone you think she’s pretty? Aren’t you just paying her a compliment?” Others take it a step further and insist that women are being overly sensitive, defining anything as street harassment.
STOP STREET HARASSMENT such as, “You’re beautiful” and “Have a nice evening.” http://t.co/cfkbWHvzzj
— Gavin McInnes (@Gavin_McInnes) October 29, 2014
So what is the problem, exactly? Why is it a bad thing if you sincerely want to pay a woman a compliment, even if you have no ulterior motives? Well, for a number of reasons.
Let’s start with the underlying motivation to tell a woman she’s pretty. Yes, you want to pay this stranger a compliment and let her know that she’s attractive. But here’s the thing: we live in a society where we are taught that women’s bodies are for public consumption – to be observed and commented on by all and sundry. You can’t go five feet in a supermarket with out running past a dozen magazines that run cover pieces on which (female) celebrity has gained weight, which ones have the best beach bodies, which ones have lost the baby weight and which ones are “just not looking so good”. It’s taken as a matter of faith – as with Santagati’s comment earlier – that women want or need the approval of men in order to feel attractive. There’s an entire genre of songs of men informing women that they’re beautiful because clearly she doesn’t realize it. There’s the “Modest Is Hottest” body-shaming trends in conservative Christianity. We’re taught over and over again that the world has the right to comment on women’s bodies and perceived levels of attractiveness.
I mean, you may have noticed that folks who’re offended that they can’t tell a woman “you’re pretty” aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to tell men they’re looking good too…
There’s also the underlying assumption that everything women do is ultimately for men’s attention and approval. You hear this over and over again when people discuss the clothes that Roberts is wearing in the Hollaback video: she’s wearing make-up, “flaunting her curves” or “showing off the goodies” so clearly “she wants people to notice” or “begging for attention.” By being visibly a woman in a public space, the de-facto assumption is that she wants – even needs – male attention. Of course as many women will tell you, not being conventionally attractive isn’t a shield against street harassment, nor is being thin or curvy. Women of all shapes and sizes report experiencing street harassment on a daily basis.
Now is it inherently bad to think that someone’s pretty? Hell no. Are there ways to tell a strange woman that you think that she’s attractive without harassing her? Of course there is. But this is one of the many times where you need to examine your motivations in the first place. For many people it’s not just about paying the compliment – it’s about her reaction to the compliment as well. They say they want to make a stranger feel good but if she ignores then or – worse – gets annoyed by it? Many of those “gentlemen” will get their backs up – “It’s just a compliment! I’m trying to tell you that you’re pretty. You should say ‘thank you’!” Which, I might point out, occurs in the street harassment video.
That reproach for not acknowledging his compliment underscores the real motivation: he wants her attention and acknowledgement. Her presence out in public means that her time and attention is now a public resource, available for any and all to demand at will.Those compliments – the “Hey Pretty”s, the “You’re beautiful!”, the “damn babe, you’re a piece of woman” – all come from the same place: they say “your self-esteem should be dependent on my approval.” Similarly, the demands of “Smile!” aren’t about “hey, cheer up lady”, they’re saying “Your facial expression should be pleasing to me at all times.” When she won’t give him the validation he craves by acknowledging him, she’s being “rude” – ignoring the social contract that she has unknowingly agreed to by being a woman in the first place.
And how, exactly, should she respond to these enticements? Clearly ignoring it doesn’t work – several of Roberts’ harassers follow her demanding that she talk to them. Smiling is often the default option – it’s a quick way for women to end the interaction with minimal investment of her time and attention.If she tells them to fuck off, she risks escalating the situation – possibly to dangerous levels. After all, a woman was killed recently for refusing to give a man her phone number – the threat of violence is very real for women. As Margaret Atwood famously said: “Men’s greatest fear is that women will laugh at them, while women’s greatest fear is that men will kill them.”
Sure, you may not be one of those guys… but how, exactly is she supposed to know this?
Male Entitlement To Female Attention
One of the ongoing threads of the reaction of far too many men is one of disbelief and mockery. Over and over again, we hear men complain that “women are being too sensitive,” or how it’s “ridiculous to consider telling a woman she’s pretty to be street harassment”. Many more insisted that by not responding, Roberts was the one being rude and inconsiderate to people who were “just trying to be nice”.
It should go without saying how insulting this is. The implication is that women simply aren’t capable of understanding what’s going on to them – they lack the intelligence and social calibration to recognize real harassment or understand someone’s true intent and are just overreacting.
The drive to negate women’s lived experiences is part of the entitlement that men feel to women’s time and attention taken to the next level: as we’ve seen with GamerGate, it’s only harassment if men say it is. After all, acknowledging that this is harassing behavior would mean that they don’t have a right to impinge on her space and her boundaries… and that is exactly what street harassment is about. It’s about men demanding authority over women, establishing that their desires inherently override hers.
You never see this attitude more clearly than in the seamier sides of the Pick-Up community, especially when it crosses into MRA territory. Pulling a “moving set” – that is, women who’re going about their daily business – is considered to be the sign of a Master PUA because of it’s difficulty. Many PUAs have their pet theories on how best to approach “moving sets”. These techniques range from catcalling to planting yourself directly in their path and holding up your hand like a cop directing traffic in order to get them to stop.
Writer, blogger and living example why people aren’t allowed to pick their own nicknames, Vox Day suggested that the problem wasn’t that the catcallers were harassing Roberts, it was that they were going about it the wrong way. Instead, they should’ve been sniffing at her and rolling their eyes – a “street neg” as he calls it – in order to get her craving their attention and validation. Another would-be master PUA advocated cornering women on subways, demanding their numbers or email addresses before they could escape at the next stop. There are videos online for how to push boundaries with women, how to get away with harassing women in foreign countries in public… The list goes on and on and the underlying assumption is the same: men have the right to do what they want because it’s all in the name of good fun (and getting their dicks wet). The women who object are killjoys at best, prudes and SJWs at worst.
Of course, pointing out that these are shitty times (and even shittier ways) to try to get a date inevitably brings out the whiners who insist that the base line of “not catcalling women” is somehow unfair – their rights are somehow being abrogated because women don’t want to have to deal with the douchebag gauntlet on the way to work or the store. Being asked to not creep on women who are just trying to go about their day is a step too far. Others will tell you that they’d love to have strangers tell them how sexy they are. Of course, what goes unstated is the assumption that the people coming up and saying “I like your ass in those jeans” is going to look like Emily Ratajkowski. It would a rather different story if they were being approached by, say, Kimbo Slice or Brock Lesnar…
A TL;DR Guide to Not Harassing Women On The Street
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that speaking to women you don’t know on the street is de-facto harassment, nor am I saying that you can’t pay a stranger a compliment.
But the fact of the matter is that just about every woman has dealt with assholes who thought that their desire for her attention overrode her desire to be left alone. Even more of them have had their very real concerns minimized by men, men who chose to believe that women couldn’t possibly understand their own lived experiences. These behaviors make it much harder for women to be willing to trust men, to open up to them. It makes their daily existence a grind – having to negotiate their way past the douche armada on a daily basis will bring even the strongest person down before too long. Being told that they don’t have the right to feel harassed by the entitled assholes tells them that they have no allies and they’re alone in this. It means your innocent – and sincerely meant – compliment could well be met with icy silence or even anger.
Guys: The way you feel about dudes on the street trying to sell you their mixtape is the way we feel about men catcalling us on the street.
— Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) October 28, 2014
I don’t wanna buy your mixtape. I don’t wanna listen to your mixtape. I don’t wanna talk to you about your mixtape. FUCK YOUR MIXTAPE.
— Jessica R. Williams (@msjwilly) October 28, 2014
If you want to try to strike up a conversation with a woman on the street then you need to be willing to listen to what women are saying – verbally and non-verbally. Someone who’s interested in talking to you will give you signs that yes, she is open to being approached. And if you want women to be more open to being approached… well, you have to work to make things safer for them. This means trusting women to know when they’re being harassed or threatened. It means not arguing with them about whether “smile for me!” is street harassment or not. It means not treating requests for basic politeness and consideration as cause to throw a tantrum about how you’re “not allowed” to talk to women anymore. It means calling dudes on their shitty behavior and helping create a society that doesn’t tolerate threatening women.
Yeah, it’s a tall order. No, it’s not going to be fast. Yes, it’s going to be work. But the more of us who stop arguing and start listening, the better it will be.
For all of us.