About a year ago, a month before our wedding, I was walking with my wife (wife-to-be, I guess) and some friends through New York City. It was a hot, sunny summer day, so she was in a sun dress.
We walked through parks, we met various friends throughout the city, and generally had a good time.
That evening, talking with her mom, she mentioned that she needed to pin the front of her dress, because it showed too much cleavage, and people had been staring at her cleavage whispering crude things to her all day.
Folks, I was right there, arm around her waist, pretty much all day. But jackasses walking past us were making quiet little comments to her, so quietly I didn’t even notice. I was too blind, or too unaccustomed to notice the stares. I was, to be blunt, pissed. But she shrugged it off. That’s just how it is when you show some cleavage. If anything, she felt like it was her mistake not to wear something different, or to have altered the dress to be less revealing.
Ladies: This doesn’t happen to men. Ever. I’ve seen cartoons and stuff from the ’50s, and I’ve watched Mad Men, so I know there was a time when that happened all over the place, but honestly, I thought society had grown out of that. I simply didn’t think this happened anymore to anyone.
Guys: This happens all the frigging time. You don’t know about it, because women don’t do this to us, and we don’t do it to each other, but it’s a real thing.
Imagine not being able to wear comfortable clothing on a warm day because you didn’t want to deal with the barrage of comments all day. Imagine not being able to wear the shoes you like, or get the haircut you like, or the shorts you like, because the inevitable result would be a cavalcades of douchecanoery. Imagine not being comfortable dressing up to look nice for your special somebody without knowing that lots of other people will take advantage of your appearance, treating it as a gift to them.
Then imagine giving up, and simply accepting that your lot in life is to have dickheads hoot at you, that your body, your privacy, your choices on every level are not entirely your own, that this all is just the cost of being a woman.
Lots of women do that. To get on with their lives, they give up on their autonomy. They let the worst of us control their choices and their behavior.
For some, the circumstances are so bad as to make it unsafe or impossible to entirely give up, and they have to live in fear. Emily Finke describes some of what she goes through just because she’s a lady:
I live in a world where I’ve had to change my work schedule because I was afraid of being alone with a coworker.
I live in a world where I have to (regularly) suddenly find some reason to go back to the lobby because I don’t want some man following me to my hotel room, or grab a random acquaintance to ride the elevator with me.
I live in a world where I have to take a male friend with me through a convention hallway so that I don’t get cornered, alone, in what should be a safely patrolled area. Having another woman doesn’t help. They just try to corner both of us.
I live in a world where I have had to call a professor and tell them I wouldn’t be at their class because my newest follower has been standing outside of the room waiting for me for the past half hour.
I live in the world where I have had the thought, as horrible as it is, that “at least the newest stalker walks with a cane, so I can outrun him”.
I live in a world where the only reason I can use my real name online without fear is because my real address is in no way associated with that name. (And partially because I’ve just said F*** it and decided to be who I am.)
I live in a world where I (and several other women I work with) have strict rules for whether security will even confirm whether we work in our building due to problems with people showing up in the past.
I live in a world where it’s okay to call me a bitch because I won’t drink the random cup you just offered me or sit down at your table or let you touch me.
I live in a world where a former boss thought that it was perfectly okay to tell other women that I am harassed because I dress nicely.
I live in a world where men I’ve dated don’t think it’s a problem that I’ve been touched without permission by other men, and excuse it with “well, he’s just like that”.
I live in a world where I am a statistic, and where I am soundly renounced if I dare raise my voice to be anything but a statistic. If I dare complain that I don’t want to ever be put in the situation where I have to fear for my physical safety simply because I am a woman, or have to rebuild the pieces of a shattered and invaded psyche.
Again, ladies: This doesn’t happen to men. And guys, again: this happens to women all the time. Dickbag guys do this in ways that good guys don’t notice it, and women don’t talk about it for all sorts of obvious reasons. Including the fact that when they do speak about it, it’s as likely to get folks criticizing them, rather than the dickbags.
I thought back to that walk in New York, and Emily was inspired to write about her experiences, because a woman spoke up. As Gawker explains:
In Dublin last month, Rebecca Watson attended a conference and spoke about sexism in the skeptical community. (It was technically an atheist gathering, but it was probably attended mostly by skeptics.) Now, you should know that Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick blog and a very big deal to skeptics…
So Rebecca Watson does her spiel on feminism vis a vis the skeptical community, and wants to party with the conferees. Suddenly it’s 4am, and she’s closing down the bar with fellow skeptics. She’s sleepy. She says she’s gonna go to bed. She gets on the elevator, and a guy from the bar hops on, too. From Rebecca’s description of the encounter, he’s pretty nervous. (For a certain kind of skeptic, sharing an elevator with Rebecca Watson is a very big deal.) Maybe he’s constitutionally awkward. This is a likely bet, as male skeptics are not known for their suavity. According to Watson, the guy on the elevator says: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”
Rebecca rebuffs him. Eventually she flies home, and posts a video on her blog. Most of it’s devoted to the nicer bits of her trip. She briefly recounts her elevator adventure. She does this in a calm, measured voice, before saying in an equally calm, measured voice:
“Just a word to the wise here, guys. Don’t do that. I don’t know how else to explain how this makes me very uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out: I was a single women in foreign country in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and I–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.”
Fair enough. Don’t sexualize Rebecca Watson. Or, if you must, don’t do it in an elevator, one-on-one, at 4am. Not because you’re a creep, but because if you hit on her that way, you’re behaving in a way that’s indistinguishable from creepiness, and it’s apt to make folks antsy. Flirt in the open. Rebecca’s a progressive gal; she probably won’t be morally scandalized by your desire to hook up. (And if she is, well, fuck it. Not your fault.)
Or maybe it is your fault. Whatever.
The point is, there’s the whole “creepy” factor, and also the “elevators are an enclosed space, and at 4am, no one can hear you shout rape” factor. And there is, as Amanda Marcotte brilliantly explains, “the implication.”
Continuing Gawker’s narration:
But some people–perhaps people who’ve never been propositioned in a pre-dawn elevator–thought her point was a little weird. The blogosphere debated. Righteous uglinesses were exchanged. Accusations of sexism were flung. And then, on the very famous science blog Pharyngula, Richard Dawkins made his thoughts known. In a comments section, he wrote:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep“chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so …
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
And that really did it.
Dawkins was asked to explain himself. Was he really arguing that, because greater evils happen elsewhere, lesser evils oughtn’t be fought close to home? He issued an exasperated response, which did him no good at all. Then he posted another response, in which he literally begged for someone to explain to him what he was missing: “I obviously don’t get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.”
And so, they tried. Rebecca Watson, for instance, explained:
So to have my concerns — and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault — dismissed thanks to a rich white man comparing them to the plight of women who are mutilated, is insulting to all of us. Feminists in the west have been staunch allies of the women being brutalized elsewhere, and they’ve done a hell of a lot more than Richard Dawkins when it comes to making a difference in their lives.
That wasn’t the end, of course. Dawkins went on to compare my experience with his frustration at riding in an elevator with a person chewing gum (presumably he was once accosted by such a person who rubbed Bubble Yum into his silky white hair). You can read all his comments to date at Shakesville or one of the other sites linked above.
And Amanda Marcotte (above), and Dr. Isis, and John Rennie took different angles on explaining what Dawkins was missing, as did PZ Myers (in whose comments section Dawkins made his remarks). Skepchick has posted a series of letters to Dawkins. Jen McCreight posted a helpful list of dos and don’ts. Anthropologist Greg Laden brought it back to monkeys, but explained where Dawkins went awry. Also Phil Plait.
And there are other folks saying that Dawkins was right, and Watson wrong. That being propositioned (subtly) on an elevator isn’t a big deal, that there are bigger issues, that she’s making a mountain from a molehill, and that we should move on. And they’d be entitled to do that if placed in Watson’s shoes. No one is obliged to care about anyone else’s issue. Nor are entitled to tell someone else that her issue shouldn’t matter to her.
It reminds me of a line from Pete Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone:
There’s probably not a joke one could tell anywhere that someone somewhere would not say seriously, “Hey, that’s not funny.”
But if another says, “You’re too sensitive,” tell this other: suppose your shoulder was rubbed raw and later I come along and just touch it. You wince with pain. It’s not for me to say, “You’re too sensitive.”
I think that’s right. I’ve never walked through a park in a sun dress, and had guys whisper in my ear about my boobs. I’ve never been propositioned by a potential rapist in an elevator. I’ve never feared for my safety because of a spurned or misguided suitor. I’ve never been raped. I’ve never been afraid that a casual drink could turn into a rape. I’ve never worried that someone would slip roofies into my drink. I’ve never been accosted because I look little and meek and ladylike. Not having walked in her shoes, it would be wrong for me to say Watson is being too sensitive, but I can listen politely to her concerns, and the similar concerns of other women, and I can be respectful and appreciative of their different circumstances, and be empathetic.
I can also, and this is a different topic, think about ways to change my own behavior and that of other guys, to make this less of a problem. If I see a guy acting like a douchecanoe, I can call him out on it. Maybe privately (which is more likely to actually change the guy’s thinking), but maybe in public, so that other guys know that folks are watching, and so that women know they aren’t alone in this.
And also, we can not stare are ladies chests. Seriously, it’s not subtle (video via Roger Ebert):
If that all doesn’t help, here’s my message to Dawkins:
Remember when Mormons were going through records from Nazi death camps, and retroactively baptizing folks, so that those dead people could be Mormon and go to Mormon heaven? And people threw a shitstorm over it, and the Mormons agreed to stop, because it was heinous, except that they didn’t really stop?
That, too, was “just words.” But words are important. When parents tell their children about hell, those are “just words.” And you called those words a form of mental child abuse on par with violent sodomy.
Symbols are important, too. Even though Mormon retroactive Baptism doesn’t do anything to change the dead, the living object to it because these baptisms symbolize an appropriation. It’s just words, but it feels like graverobbing. By baptizing the dead, the Mormons appropriate our loved ones for themselves.
Guys ogling women, or hitting on them creepily in elevators, appropriate women’s bodies for themselves. And that’s a problem bigger than “just words.” It’s important, however much less momentous ogling is than female genital mutilation. Both stem from the same tainted soil, ground poisoned not by religion, but by sexism.
*Title courtesy of Gloria Steinem.