It’s Halloween and not April Fool’s Day, so hopefully you won’t take it as a gimmick when I say “I had a rather rewarding Twitter conversation recently” at the start of this blog post. But I did. This long collection of thoughts is my reply and follow-up to that dialog with some other folks since — as you’ll see — if I tried to shoehorn these comments into 140 character chunks I’d be kicked off of Twitter via the rate limits in their API.
It all began (for me) when my friend Laura (@soapturtle) retweeted something where the author C E Murphy (@ce_murphy) had linked to an article by Kat George (@kat_george)…
Six things you might not think are harassment but definitely are (because apparently we need to clear a few things up)
This article lists the following behaviors as unwelcome forms of harassment practiced by “sex pests” on our city streets…
- Telling someone to “smile”
- Saying “god bless you”
- Giving compliments
- Speaking to someone who clearly does not want to be spoken to
- Becoming incredulous when you are ignored
While I found the main thrust of the piece to be very accurate and a good accounting of speech and actions that are totally creeper behavior, I (and apparently many other people) took issue with item #3… “giving compliments.” One must presume that Ms. George was actually talking about “compliments that aren’t really compliments” but the tenor and tone of the article made it difficult to really gather where the author felt the line should be drawn. For instance, Kat mentions that…
…we can receive compliments that are given out of kindness. For instance, there’s an elderly man who lives on my block and when I see him on the street and I’m dressed up to go out he’ll tell me I look lovely. He’s pretty much a stranger, I don’t know his name or anything else about him. But he’s not eye-fucking me when he says it, and there’s a sincerity in his tone
…and if that point were made more prominently, I feel that the whole piece could be received a little more easily. However, Ms. George calls that individual a “complete anomaly” and takes a much harsher tone elsewhere. I and other readers who commented a bit started to fixate on other passages, such as…
Complimenting the physical appearance of a random woman on the street is not a compliment. Even if you think of it as a compliment, and think you’re being nice and that she should feel glad to have received your compliment, well, that view is indicative of a really problematic mindset that says your opinion matters enough for us to want to hear it.
The man “complimenting” her feels entitled to look at her, judge how she looks, force that judgment onto her, forcing her to internalize his view of herself. And if he feels entitled to her in those ways, where does it stop? Where is the line of entitlement drawn? Maybe that’s as far as it goes with this one person. But how does the woman know? How does she know that he doesn’t feel equally entitled to have sex with her or beat her or kill her, as some men do feel entitled to do to women?
Being complimented by a stranger for her nice dress or top is just as insulting as it is harassing.
Ultimately, the notion that we should all ignore our fellow citizens in the streets seemed to be the theme expressed. I do not believe that was actually what Kat George was attempting to convey, but the wording grew particularly harsh and very concrete in some places…
It’s safe to assume that a vast majority of people don’t leave their house in the morning looking for a conversation with a stranger on the street.
Unless there’s something circumstantial that creates cause for polite conversation (the loose shoelace, for instance), there’s no reason to assume a woman would like to be spoken to
I would strongly encourage everyone to take the time to read fully through Kat’s piece, however. Clearly, I am picking and choosing specific quotes from her article to illustrate a certain atmosphere that some sentences carried, but I don’t want to be seen as crafting her theme for her. Read the whole piece, and see how it strikes you.
It moved me enough to reply on Twitter.
I responded to Laura and Ms. Murphy, registering my unease at the tone of defensiveness and dour attitude espoused in the article’s writing. “Lines like ‘being a woman walking in the street, almost ALL uninvited attention from men is threatening’ make it hard for a lot of readers to accurately judge the tone of that piece. It’s easy to dismiss as alarmist,” I remarked (across a few tweets).
Laura encouraged me to see it more from the perspective of women, and Ms. Murphy made a more in-depth response…
But it’s true. Most uninvited attention is threatening. It’s not an alarmist statement to/from/by women. I’m not trying to be difficult when I say that I assume from your userpic that you’re male, & that to me when you say “a lot of readers” it scans to me as “men” because most women wouldn’t find it alarmist, just accurate.
One problem is this: if a man grabs a woman’s ass, uninvited, he is presumed to be getting something out of it. If a woman retaliates, i.e., grabs a man’s ass uninvited… he is presumed to be getting something out of it. The power dynamic there is always in the man’s favour, see? It’s the same with nearly any male/female interaction.
I genuinely appreciated these and other folks’ desire to respond and engage me on this topic, so I made the best attempt I could at replying with a few more tweets…
I’d love more dialog on this. And yes, I am male.
I fear that my perspective on this is inherently flawed due to (a) being raised right, (b) the circles i’m in. A number of other women have reached out to me, essentially saying, “the hacker world is not the same” etc etc. Most of all, the small 140-char limit is poor for deeper discussions like this. I wish we could all hang out sometime.
While the limits of brief tweets and the lack of any facial expressions or body language injected into the social discourse can often lead to unnecessary ratcheting-up of emotions and unhelpful sniping, this was a really rewarding conversation and we both agreed that it would be good to attempt fleshing out of our thoughts a bit more via some other medium. Ms. Murphy made the following comments back to me which I found deeply rewarding.
“It’s really heartening to have an interaction with someone like you. So seriously, thank you. Also, do you guys mind if I blog about this conversation? … I’d like to talk about it.”
That’s wonderful, in my view. I find it very heartening when brief chatter can turn into a real dialog and no one resorts to ad hominem attacks or being needlessly catty or rude. I later emailed Ms. Murphy, offering up some of my own words and thoughts. And now I’m sharing them here… because Twitter would most assuredly not suffice for the torrent of commentary I had on this topic.
My response to Six things you might not think are harassment by Kat George…
While most men (or just about any people who would attack the position voiced in the article) probably hold opinions of the unhelpful “ah, speech is speech, just ignore it or toughen up” variety, I feel that my take on the matter is somewhat different.
Let me be clear from the start that I hold deeply passionate libertarian views and therefore part of me really does believe that on a fundamental level, society is best governed by the old adage “free speech stops where the fist meets the face.” One can rant and rave and get right up in someone’s mug but unless they actually touch the person or directly impact them physically, I’m loathe to see legislation that would curtail the behavior of the offending party. (That’s not to say societal norms shouldn’t put pressure on them… I’m just being clear that being an asshole shouldn’t be a crime, in my view.)
However, I think a different streak of my libertarian persona is actually driving my feelings on this topic. It’s more akin to the “someone else’s bad behavior is not adequate reason to curtail my liberty” kind of thinking. Allow me to approach the topic from a wholly other perspective for a moment… the realm of intoxicating substances. It may further make me look like an extremist libertarian whackjob to say it, but I’ve believed in decriminalization of nearly all drugs and alcohol for quite some time. The freedom of an individual to put whatever they want into their body and alter their consciousness as they see fit — even to their own detriment — is something that I see as their own choice which should not be impeded by the state. Again, societal norms and pressure from friends/family are wholly appropriate means of attempting to affect someone’s decisions, but law enforcement and criminal penalties are not, in my view.
“But what about the rife problem of addiction and negative behavior that society faces!” comes the criticism in retort. “From drunk driving to broken homes to abuse to school drop-outs to blah blah blah on down the line…” runs the list of ills that we face when people become dependent upon and ultimately abuse alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and the like. I do not deny this, but (and now we finally come to my key point) I see myself as a responsible person. I see myself as in control. I see myself as a fully free agent capable of (and by right entitled to) making my own decisions, including decisions about substance use. In short… “The bad behavior of other people — including law-breaking people — is not sufficient grounds to curtail my own behavior, especially since I am decent and law-abiding” is my philosophy.
Often innocent people (or, phrased another way, people who are not posing or doing any harm to others) are the ones most impacted when calls are voiced for limiting behavior or speech in some manner. Since there are far more decent people in the world than bad people, inevitably new regulations or attempts at curtailing behavior wind up impacting good people more than bad ones.
1. People use alcohol
2. Some people abuse alcohol
3. Alcohol is made illegal
4. Now no one (ostensibly) gets alcohol
5. A few bad people are (again, in theory) denied alcohol
6. Far more good people are denied alcohol
Net Result: more harm done to society than ill prevented
Side Result: step 5 doesn’t work well and plenty of “bad” people are still drinking and causing trouble
I think that people like me see the tenor and theme of many articles like Ms. George’s as almost advocating the notion that “men should never talk to women whom they don’t know on the street” and this, of course, leads people to the following logic…
1. People talk while out in public
2. Some jackoffs talk abusively and harrassingly
3. People are told “don’t talk to others whom you don’t know”
4. Now no one (ostensibly) speaks to women they don’t know
5. Maybe some jackoffs shut up (but probably won’t)
6. Mostly, this just prevents normal societal intercourse while out in public
Net Result: streets are actually a LESS friendly place for all citizens
Side Result: women’s interactions with others now actually tend to seem /more/ hostile and unfriendly because good folk are encouraged to stay silent but assholes will continue to be assholes.
Ultimately, I think that as outsiders reading a piece like this, we come away with the impression that the author and those like her advocate a rule of thumb being, “When out in public, just don’t talk to women around you if you don’t know them… especially if you’re male.”
Aside from giving me visions of time spent in repressed Muslim countries, that kind of logic leads (in my view) to the problem described above: it just makes society a less friendly place and ultimately reduces how we can interact with one another. I would think that for maximum impact and greatest acceptance to all readers, articles like that one would do well if their overriding theme and take-away lesson was twofold…
1. If you see harassing or ungentlemanly behavior towards women (or, frankly, towards anyone else) on the streets or out in public, stand up to it. That applies to both men and women. Taking an active role in saying “this is not OK and you are a loser who is a joke to everyone else” has a real impact. It has the MOST impact if it comes from friends and associates of the asshole and they register their complaint directly and plainly to them.
2. Just as important, in my view, is “if you are NOT an asshole and not hitting on everyone you see, be friendly, polite, and open in your hellos and compliments to others… including women.” I see the solution as not less speech, but more speech. Specifically, good and kind speech.
I say hi to almost anyone I encounter while waiting for a trolley, standing in line, holding open a door. I say “how do you do” in a brief but friendly manner to others sitting in my row on a plane or riding the same elevator as me. And, yes, I frequently also compliment things about them. “That coat is exceptional… you don’t normally see people wear purple, but that really works on you!” or “Let me just say, those boots are really spot-on. Nice leatherwork!” and “Wow… you don’t see someone reading The Guardian often. Good choice! Who carries that around here?” are three examples of comments I made just yesterday. In all cases, it was clear that I was not hitting on anyone and had no expectation beyond brightening their day. In all cases, I was met with smiles and kind chatter back.
Yes, it is true that I tend to compliment women more than men. But that’s not an exclusive thing, and I like to believe I’m not doing it out of some position of sexual desire. I’ve told guys out in public that their jacket was kickass or that I liked the band or political sentiment represented on their shirt. I’ve done so on the streets of West Philly or in the Gayborhood on Pine Street. I treat all genders and orientations pretty much the same in my conversations because in all instances I am not interested in having anything to do with them without benefit of my pants.
So yes, that’s my main philosophy and it works for me…
1. Discourage assholes from assholin’ whenever you see it
2. Say hi to as many of your fellow citizens as you can and make it clear from your behavior that you’re not interested in immediately seeing them naked
… If more articles were to include that as their overall theme and not word things quite so much along the “leave women alone at all times because they are in constant danger and need to be insulated from men” kind of phrasing (yes, I’m over-dramatizing) then I think society would be a much better and happier place.
Incidentally, if I were ever afforded the chance to sit and chat in person with Catie Murphy or Kat George I would jump on that opportunity. I’d even buy the first round. (OK, maybe this is the wrong time for that joke.)
Overall, I hope that this post just generates more positive discussion. I also hope that my analysis above of Kat’s piece didn’t give the indication that I dislike her or find her to be wrong-headed. It was just the manner in how she chose to speak that raised an eyebrow with me. And this is expected, perhaps, given that when we write something with passion on a topic where emotions run high it is natural to speak with fervor more than finesse.
The bulk of Kat’s work appears to be delightful and enjoyable. I’m eager to see future installments of “The Big Gulp” but I have thus far not experienced any of Catie’s creations as of yet. At least one appears to involve handcuffs, however, so my interest is piqued somewhat on that front.