Why ‘Hey, Baby’ Is Not Okay.

19Jan10

Street assault, both verbal and physical, is more common than most males of my acquaintance realize. It is also more serious than they are willing to admit. I have heard “Why is it such a big deal?” from friends and strangers alike, so often that it’s become sadly expected.  This is far more common with verbal harassment.

The yelling of “Hey baby!” in the street may just be a compliment from the man yelling (that is, at least, often given as an excuse, while we are being told to “lighten up”). We, as women, however, are not obliged to enjoy the compliment, or acknowledge it.  It is frightening how often we are called names for just walking by instead of responding to such a comment.

Another phrase that commonly accompanies the command to lighten up is “I would love it if a woman called out to me like that!”  That may well be, but there are other factors to consider in this statement.

First, you can not assume that any random stranger is going to enjoy a particular mode of interaction. Therefore, you cannot take your personal preferences, and assume that the people around you will share them.

Second, and this is quite important, the dynamic present in the way women approach men is immensely different than it is in the way men approach women.  Part of this is due to the inherent strength and size differences between the sexes, but that isn’t the only thing

A guest blogger on Shapely Prose put it very well — every man with whom we interact is Schrödinger’s Rapist (the article actually limits this to men who are strangers with whom we interact, but I would like to extend it to all men, because approximately 73 percent of rape victims know their attackers). This means that, while your call of “Looking good today” may just be you wanting to let a woman know she is attractive, it probably sends the woman into defense mode immediately. She will begin sizing you up, wondering if you are a possible attacker. She will note her surroundings, and calculate the level of danger (including whether or not she can escape if the situation escalates).

For example, say I am in the mall doing some shopping, and a man calls out “Hey sexy!” to me (this, as ridiculous as it is, does happen — mostly when I am alone, although it sometimes happens if I am with female friends). My reaction depends on the time of day. If it’s morning or early afternoon, I will probably laugh it off, and just try to avoid the person while I’m wandering around. If it’s late afternoon (where, in winter, it might perceivably be dark by the time I get out) or evening, I will go into analytical mode. I will pay close attention to how many people are with the man who called out. If he’s with a group of men, I will be on hyper-alert. I will not only avoid him in the store, I will also check to make sure he’s nowhere in the vicinity when I’m leaving. I will make sure I don’t go out into the parking lot unless there are other people around. I will probably even wait for a family, because families are generally less threatening entities. If I’m out on the street, the situation is even worse, because I have zero control over who is around.  In stores, I am guaranteed at least a cashier.  On the street, there is no such protection.  (I’d like to add, this reaction occurs with leering as well, but I’ll discuss that more at a later time.)

To go a bit more in-depth, I suggest looking into the article from Shapely Prose that I linked above.  If I quoted all the parts I found true and relevant, I’d have to quote almost the entire thing, but here is an excerpt from it:

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Fortunately, you’re a good guy. We’ve already established that. Now that you’re aware that there’s a problem, you are going to go out of your way to fix it, and to make the women with whom you interact feel as safe as possible.

To begin with, you must accept that I set my own risk tolerance. When you approach me, I will begin to evaluate the possibility you will do me harm. That possibility is never 0%. For some women, particularly women who have been victims of violent assaults, any level of risk is unacceptable. Those women do not want to be approached, no matter how nice you are or how much you’d like to date them. Okay? That’s their right. Don’t get pissy about it. Women are under no obligation to hear the sales pitch before deciding they are not in the market to buy.

The second important point: you must be aware of what signals you are sending by your appearance and the environment. We are going to be paying close attention to your appearance and behavior and matching those signs to our idea of a threat.

The excerpt above describes very well why alarm bells start going off in my head when guys ask me what the big deal is about verbal street harassment (they don’t call it that, of course, because the word ‘harassment’ implies that it’s bad, and most aren’t comfortable with that idea).  It isn’t just that they disagree with me about the interpretation of catcalls from strange men, but that they are so willing to brush off my concerns in order to hold onto an image of themselves and/or their friends that does not include the idea that they may have done something wrong.  (Side note: From now on I’ll pass along a copy of that article, and if they still don’t care, it isn’t worth my time.)

Look, everyone fucks up.  It’s a part of life.  But when a fuck-up is pointed out, you should at least consider the fact that you may have been wrong.  Will you always be wrong when someone thinks you are?  Of course not.  But it is extremely dangerous to tune out any dissension.  Don’t tell the person who comes to you with a concern to “lighten up.”  Do not come back with petty insults about their perceived level of intelligence.  Seriously consider their position.  Try to figure out where they are coming from.

When a woman comes to you and tries to explain her views on street harassment, you don’t need to go on the defensive.  You are not a bad person for engaging in a behavior that society has (incorrectly) taught you is acceptable.  But if, after it is pointed out to you that a certain behavior is abusive to the women around you, you continue to engage in and/or encourage that behavior, then you are saying that my safety (and the safety of all women) does not matter (at least, not as much as your own amusement).  This is not okay.

I use the term “abusive” for a reason.  Women don’t senselessly go into a panic when they encounter verbal street harassment.  The panic we experience is founded in the things we have been taught we need to do in order not to be sexually assaulted (which is bullshit, but, well, that rant has the potential to take over this entire post).  I’ve quoted this article before, and will again:

She didn’t fight back because you told her not to. Ever. Ever. You told her that was okay, and necessary, and right.

You didn’t give her a caveat. You didn’t say, “Unless…” You said, “Good for you, shutting up and backing down 99% of the time. Too bad that 1% of the time makes you a fucking whore who deserved it.

Emphasis mine.  When harassment occurs, most women freeze up.  We do not know whether we are supposed to back down or say something.  Most of the time, we will back down.  We have been taught this will keep us safe.  Except, in cases of sexual harassment, backing down means we must have wanted it.  Backing down means that no doesn’t really mean no, we were just playing hard to get.  Even those of us who know this double-standard exists and wish to fight it still panic — because we are still in potential danger, and we still do not know which course of action will keep us from being assaulted.

So for us, it is a very intense moment.  It is a moment in which we are wondering what to do in order not to be sexually harassed.  For victims of a previous sexual assault, it can be even worse.  So, even if you are just a nice guy who wants to tell a girl she’s particularly attractive today, don’t.  You don’t know her history.  You don’t know if your catcall will send her reeling into flashbacks she’d rather not relive.  You don’t know if she’s comfortable with such compliments (some women are, but you can’t know if she is one of those women).  You, in fact, know nothing about her.  So, just don’t.

Now, this does not mean you can never approach and interact with a woman you don’t know.  There is a better way to go about it.  I will quote again from the Shapely Prose article for some very good guidelines to approaching women in public places:

Women are communicating all the time. Learn to understand and respect women’s communication to you.

You want to say Hi to the cute girl on the subway. How will she react? Fortunately, I can tell you with some certainty, because she’s already sending messages to you. Looking out the window, reading a book, working on a computer, arms folded across chest, body away from you = do not disturb. So, y’know, don’t disturb her. Really. Even to say that you like her hair, shoes, or book. A compliment is not always a reason for women to smile and say thank you. You are a threat, remember? You are Schrödinger’s Rapist. Don’t assume that whatever you have to say will win her over with charm or flattery. Believe what she’s signaling, and back off.

If you speak, and she responds in a monosyllabic way without looking at you, she’s saying, “I don’t want to be rude, but please leave me alone.” You don’t know why. It could be “Please leave me alone because I am trying to memorize Beowulf.” It could be “Please leave me alone because you are a scary, scary man with breath like a water buffalo.” It could be “Please leave me alone because I am planning my assassination of a major geopolitical figure and I will have to kill you if you are able to recognize me and blow my cover.”

On the other hand, if she is turned towards you, making eye contact, and she responds in a friendly and talkative manner when you speak to her, you are getting a green light. You can continue the conversation until you start getting signals to back off.

Let me reiterate — if a woman is giving signals that she’s not interested, drop it.  Immediately.  You have no right to try to convince her to be interested.  You do not deserve a chance to prove your worth.  Again, you know nothing about her, and therefore know nothing about how your advances might be affecting her.  So, if she gives signals for you to back off, do it.  No questions.  No second attempts.  Back off.

For the women, I recommend this article for a little more information on how to speak out about verbal street harassment in a way that will avoid escalating the situation (there is also some information toward the end about how men can show support for women experiencing street harassment).

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2 Responses to “Why ‘Hey, Baby’ Is Not Okay.”

  1. 1 waterfriend

    i think we are exaggerating our own reflexexs.
    a man may just like your company; nothing more, nothing less.
    after all, the opposite sexes attract !

    • I didn’t say that every man who calls out to me on the street is looking to assault me. What I did say is that I can’t know whether is he is intending to assault me, or just wants to give a friendly greeting (I will not buy that he just likes my company, because, at this point, he knows nothing about me, and therefore cannot know what my company is like). 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. Catcalls are not the way to show interest. I’m going to bring this up again, because I think it is a wonderful illustration of the reason catcalls aren’t appreciated– You are a stranger, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. I will not know whether or not you are a rapist until you start molesting me. This isn’t an overreaction. There’s a reason women follow careful steps in an attempt to decrease their chances of being sexually assaulted (don’t go out alone at night, keep your hand on your drink, etc., etc.). It doesn’t hurt you to stop yelling at women who do not know you to let them know how attractive they are (and which exact body parts are their most flattering), it does hurt those women when you continue. By saying that I’m exaggerating and excusing catcalling as acceptable because “the opposite sexes attract,” you are telling me that you don’t care about the safety of the women around you. You are telling me that you would rather make these women highly uncomfortable than give up your privilege. Which is not a surprise, but is still wrong, and I couldn’t let it slide without addressing it.


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