As I’m sure all of my regular readers are well aware, I am far from being a delicate flower of dainty, ineffectual womanhood. I don’t expect men to open doors for me, carry heavy bags, or take the driver’s seat when we go out (unless it’s their car, in which case I’ll probably still ask if they want me to drive; or I’m drunk, in which case I’ll make sure they’re sober before crawling into the back seat and falling asleep for the ride). I don’t want them to walk me home late at night, or defend my honor when I get hit on at the bar. I am deeply hostile to anyone who insinuates that there are things men can do which I cannot (unless those things involve physically having a penis, in which case just let me get my strap-on and we’ll just see how much I can’t do). When it comes to traditionally “masculine” pursuits, I’m often far ahead of my male friends: I own my own power tools, am pretty good with carpentry, can manage basic plumbing and electrics with ease, drive a standard, can carry my own body weight, spent nine years training and competing in martial arts, and regularly handle animals (snakes, lizards, rats, etc) that send a lot of men running and squealing pathetically.
I’ve also been the victim of multiple sexual assaults and attempted sexual assaults, and am continually harassed and accosted by men who don’t seem to know what is socially appropriate and what is just plain threatening and creepy. Just being capable of defending yourself doesn’t make you immune — being female and attractive (in that order; there are plenty of men who only look at the first criteria) means that it doesn’t matter how capable you are, you’re going to be a victim at some point in your life.
So when I read about Rebecca Watson‘s encounter in an elevator with a creepy dude who didn’t know where the line was, I thought, “yeah, that guy was totally out of line.” I didn’t have to consider it: I know what it’s like to be stuck in a small space with an unfamiliar man who clearly finds you attractive and might or might not want to do something awful because of it. Nevermind that I’m a black belt in karate and 90% of men, even if bigger and stronger than me, wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of successfully defeating me in an even fight — the fear is always there, because it’s impossible to know if this particular guy happens to also be a trained martial artist, or maybe he’s too drugged up to notice if I kick him in the balls, or maybe he’s got a gun tucked into his pocket, or maybe he’s got five friends waiting just around the corner to help him out. It’s impossible to know, and the unknown is scary.
So I empathized with Rebecca’s situation, and figured that most other people would, too. Elevator Guy was out of line, and everyone should understand that — right?
Well, apparently not. The blogosphere has exploded with commentary on the incident, with many people (even women!) saying that Rebecca’s uneasiness about the situation was misplaced, that she had no reason to be afraid, and that she’s maligning the poor guy, who was just trying to be “friendly”. (A side note to the men here: it’s never “friendly” to approach a woman you don’t know at 4am and ask her out. Especially in a small, confined space). Richard Dawkins (yes, author of “The God Delusion”) has even said that she shouldn’t have been worried, because it’s easy to just push a button and get off the elevator at the next floor — threat averted, nothing to worry about.
So I was getting all ready to write a long and rambling post, trying to explain to the unenlightened just what it is like to be in that sort of a situation. Trying to think of some analogous situation that a male might find himself in, where he would feel threatened and unsure of what to do. Trying to explain just *why*, in an enlightened society where we try to treat everyone as equals, regardless of gender, men should go out of their way to make women feel unthreatened by them.
The most important point that needs to be made here, I think, is that for all that we want to believe that we live in a society of equals, we really don’t. The white, heterosexual male is still the privileged “norm”, while anything else is subject to discrimination and abuse in varying shapes and forms. And for every enlightened, completely non-threatening man out there, there are many who still subscribe to a belief that women are fundamentally different, lesser, and exist solely for male pleasure — even if they protest otherwise and, intellectually, can find no logical basis for such behaviours. Media brainwashing and centuries of social conditioning aren’t overcome in a single generation, and it’s going to take a long time before equality truly exists (if it even can be achieved).
I’m not even saying that men who would sexually harass, assault, or rape a woman are in the majority. In fact, I think the opposite — it’s only a small percentage of men who constitute enough of a problem to be an annoyance (people like Dawkins, perhaps, who might make sexist comments now and then, but aren’t truly bad people or prone to doing anything violent), and an even smaller percentage who could be considered a real threat (the sort who might actually grope, threaten, or attempt to rape a woman). But considering that we might encounter dozens of different people on any given day, the laws of probability suggest that we’ll eventually encounter one of those truly dangerous elements. And so we must always be on our guard, always prepared against the day when that guy in the elevator with us isn’t just going to make an awkward pass, he’s going to actually try to do something. And by the same token, men must always be prepared to prove that they’re NOT a part of that tiny percentage of whom we should be afraid.
While I’m on the topic, guys: here’s a handy list of a few things that women (especially the attractive ones) find incredibly annoying and/or threatening and creepy:
- Staring. If you want to look, be discreet about it. Staring directly at a woman will make her feel threatened, as though you’re watching her and possibly planning to do something nasty.
- Catcalling and whistling. It’s demeaning, not complimentary. It turns the woman into an object, valued only for her physical attractiveness. Being constantly reminded that society views you as only a pair of boobs with legs attached is not a nice thing. Catcalling is especially annoying when done from a moving vehicle, because there’s no chance for the victim to respond with a satisfying “fuck off, asshole”.
- Approaching a woman just to tell her she looks pretty. This includes telling her you like her hair, that she has the prettiest eyes, etc. Attractive women get this ALL. THE. TIME. Chances are you’re not the first — nor even the second or the third — guy to do this to her today. And no, she doesn’t want to talk to you. If she wanted to talk to you, she’d walk up and start the conversation. The only exception to this rule is if you’re in a bar, nightclub, or other “singles’ spot” where women might conceivably be going to meet new people. In that case, make eye contact and smile from a safe distance away. If she responds positively, then move in with a compliment.
- Standing too close. Unless you’re in a situation where it’s totally unavoidable (really crowded bus, etc), don’t stand any closer to a woman than you would to an unfamiliar man at the urinal. If you’d feel uncomfortable standing that close to a pantsless man while you’re both peeing, she probably feels uncomfortable standing that close to you when you’re fully clothed. If you were pantsless she’d run screaming.
- Walking too close. Similarly to above: if you’re walking and find yourself falling into step with a nearby woman, either speed up to get ahead of her, or slow down and let her go on alone. If you’re overtaking a slow-walking woman, leave plenty of space when you pass (crossing to the other side of the street is an option to consider if you’re in a situation that seems to have especial potential for creepiness, such as late at night on an otherwise quiet street).
- Making a pass at a woman while she’s working. Waitresses, saleswomen, baristas, female police officers, librarians, etc. It doesn’t matter what her job is. She’s at work, and is probably only smiling at you because she gets paid to be nice to the customers. If you want to strike up a conversation with her, pick a neutral topic — the weather, or some piece of local news. See how she responds to that, and let *her* guide the conversation to other topics, if she wants to. She’s at a serious disadvantage in this social encounter, because being dismissive towards you might get her disciplined or fired for being “rude” to the customers. Respect that and don’t be pushy.
- Blocking the exit. Even in a situation where it’s socially acceptable to approach a woman (a bar, for example), never corner her. Leave her with at least one direction (better if you can leave more than one) in which she can simply walk away, without having to squeeze past you. The same goes for situations where you’re not approaching and talking to her — if she’s standing in the bus shelter, don’t stand blocking the door, or if she’s sitting in the back of the train car, don’t stand blocking the aisle.
- Following. If you notice that you seem to be taking all the same turns as a woman, try to find an alternate route, or just wait a minute and let her get a little ways ahead of you. If you got off the bus at the same stop, went left, and then turned down the exact same side street? Stop and pretend to tie your shoelace or something so that she can put a “safe” distance between you.