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Not All Women

There used to be a dive-y bar on the outskirts of Central Square that I didn't like to walk past. It wasn't a dive bar like the ones my friends and I liked, where the diviness was sort of cultivated and semi-ironic. It was a serious dive, for serious drinkers, and every time I passed it one of the patrons would say something to me that I didn't like hearing. So I didn't walk past it. I crossed the street to avoid it, and I always thought twice about ordering takeout from the Thai place on the same block even though I liked the Thai place. Sometimes if I was hanging out with a dude, I'd suggest we get Thai takeout for dinner, just so I could get Thai food without having to cringe while walking past the stupid dive bar. The dive bar is long gone now, its patrons scattered to who-knows-where, and the Thai place is gone too, and there aren't any places I cross the street to avoid now. There never were any other places I crossed the street to avoid. The dive bar stays with me because it was so contrary to every other part of my lived experience.

Street harrassment seems to be a topic that pops up every few months: a Hollaback video or Daily Show segment here, a hashtag frenzy there, and every time it does, I find myself startled by the universality of something that basically doesn't exist for me. That's not to say that I am totally invisible in public, but the qantity and tenor of my interactions with strangers, with strange men, are rare and neutral enough that they barely seem worth remembering. Talking to strangers in general is something I kind of enjoy, and that's true of men and women, but strangers generally leave me alone. And in the aftermath of the video or the frenzy, when someone oboxious and disingenuous says "Gosh, but men are just trying to be NICE and COMPLIMENTARY and FRIENDLY, what's wrong with that?" I almost kind of buy the argument, which is really disorienting. But then I remember crossing the street to avoid the dive bar.

And I wonder, too. What it is about me that makes me exempt. How the unconscious and instant calculus of glancing eye contact reads in things about me and concludes "No. Not this one." Is it the ever-present earbuds and resting bitchface? Is it the relative rarity of makeup or shoes-that-are-not-sneakers? Is it that sidewalks are more exposed than bike lanes? The peculiarities of Boston relative to other walkable cities where strangers come face-to-face all the time?* The whatever-it-is that has led many lesbians to assume I'm one? Does dresssing mostly like a twelve-year-old boy coupled with my height truly signal 'child' rather than 'woman'? Do I just miss it all because I tend to look down at the ground a lot when I walk? No, seriously, is my bitchface just that powerful? These theories become more and more convoluted and implausible as I exhaust the simpler ones and inch closer to the one I don't want to consider: That I am simply ugly. Not invisible at all. Noticeable, just not worth the noticing, and that's a painful possibility.

But mostly I am grateful for my exemption. It seems to have spared me from some of the rituals that women undertake: the streets that get crossed to avoid the bars, the deliberate hardening of face and thousand-yard-stare, the never-wear-your-hair-in-a-ponytail-while-walking-at-night, and not having to do those things is a privilege. Not even stopping to consider that I might want to do those things before deciding not to do them is an even greater one. I talked about it with an older woman a couple years ago and she seemed almost awed, then disbelieving. She asked questions that probed back to adolescence, maybe thinking I had just chosen or forced myself to forget an avalanche of rotten experiences, and forgotten I'd done it. When I walked past the dive bar, it was like passing through a portal to #YesAllWomen-land, and I know I would not enjoy living there. So I remember it, and think "It's probaby the bitchface" as I walk where I want to and never cross the street unless I need to get to the other side.

* This one, actually, is something I'm pretty sure of, and it doesn't surprise me that many of the horror-story first-person accounts come from women who live in New York City. The city's reputation for unfriendliness makes no sense to me, and I do get acknowledged by strangers way more often in New York than I do in Boston. But even there it's always felt friendly, never threatening, even at 4 AM from a drunk guy looking for directions to a strip club. Hell, the last time I was in Manhattan somebody chatted me up in a bar and forced a phone number on me, which had never happened before in my life. (The somebody was a straight woman.)

Comments

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
pyrric
Dec. 19th, 2014 09:33 pm (UTC)
First of all, you're definitely not ugly. Second of all, plenty of "ugly" women (by this I mean women who don't fit into stereotypical definitions of what is attractive) get harassed every day.

Getting harassed never makes me feel pretty. It makes me feel like that one sad, sickly little wildebeest that the lions know might not taste very good but will be so easy to take down.
ayun
Dec. 19th, 2014 10:05 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know enough to know that sometimes being outside beauty norms (especially when it comes to weight) can cause more vicious treatment. And I know that at least from the neck down, I basically fit into the box I am supposed to fit into.

I want to know what my Thing is so that I can manufacture it in mass quantities and give it away for free.
nepenthe01
Dec. 22nd, 2014 05:04 pm (UTC)
might be the way you hold yourself. Like she said - about the weak wildebeest - you may come across as someone that you don't want to screw with.

The older I get, the less I get harassed. Not because I think I'm getting less attractive, but because I look more confident. Also cutting my hair has REALLY changed how people interact with me. that's why I used to think it was your short hair that did the trick, but now you have the long hair that signifies femininity and sexuality. So it must be the confidence.
ayun
Dec. 23rd, 2014 01:58 pm (UTC)
Definitely the hair has made a difference, but it basically made men nicer to me across the board, which will never stop being weird (and funny).
nepenthe01
Dec. 23rd, 2014 02:32 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to figure out if I mind, in general, not having the attention I had before. I don't think I do.

The blonde mitigates the short hair a bit, I think.

My mom told me there's a point at which you become invisible to all people, including women, so that when you go into the store, no one asks to help you - you're just invisible. For her, this was a difficult thing but it could also be a freeing thing, to become invisible.
amadea
Dec. 19th, 2014 11:00 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I almost never get hassled either (despite having a very stereotypically feminine and easy sexualizeable appearance and body type) and I've come to wonder why, given that it seems to happen a lot to a lot of other people (who certainly don't seem to be doing anything to encourage it). Sometimes I wonder if it's a class thing, the same way I wonder about that when people think I have a British accent.

ha, this is the best use for this userpic

Edited at 2014-12-19 11:03 pm (UTC)
ayun
Dec. 20th, 2014 07:12 pm (UTC)
Interesting theory. What do you think are the visible signifiers that might be read for class? Clothes?

(That may sound like a dumb question, but consider this: I worked with a woman for over a year without realizing she was married, even though she wears a pretty hefty wedding ring. I'm so bad at stuff like that.)
amadea
Dec. 22nd, 2014 02:27 am (UTC)
I think it's a little bit clothes but maybe more body posture and something in facial expression, like the moments at which I do and do not make eye contact? I really don't know, it's kind of a wild guess. As perihelion noted below, I've been thinking a lot about privilege. Strangers tend to treat me with respect, even when they initiate conversation with me, and I know that I spent my childhood and was educated in some pretty elite settings (I was a disaster at the girl's private school in Manhattan, but I might have picked up at least some social behaviors) so I wonder if the two are related.

Edited at 2014-12-22 02:28 am (UTC)
ayun
Dec. 22nd, 2014 04:10 pm (UTC)
So what's funny is that even though my knee-jerk impulse is to frame EVERYTHING in terms of class, it didn't even occur to me that it might be in play.

(Though I have read some arguments suggesting that the social class of the would-be harasser is relevant - that cat-calling is a class-marked behavior, which I guess makes sense. The ur-cliche is construction workers, after all...)
atalanta
Dec. 20th, 2014 03:08 am (UTC)
For me it is completely dependent on how I dress, so I would bet that has a lot to do with your experience. Also hair color is freaky that way, like a switch that turns on or off more harassment. It was so unnerving to (briefly, long ago) be blonde and instantly get constant harassment or other weird comments.
amadea
Dec. 22nd, 2014 02:29 am (UTC)
I remember a friend who (briefly!) had her hair dyed blonde was also really, really struck by this experience.
ayun
Dec. 22nd, 2014 04:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, dude, that reminds me of the time I was walking home from a club past Sammy, this homeless 1369 regular who I've been interacting with for more than a decade. At the time I would pass him on the street at least twice a day, but never talked to him (because he's annoying). He basically ignored me too.

When I had a short skirt and giant shoes and makeup on, though, he saw me and said "Heeeeyyyyy, do I know you?"
nepenthe01
Dec. 22nd, 2014 05:05 pm (UTC)
I feel I am treated more positively as a blonde. People are much nicer to me.
cayetana
Dec. 20th, 2014 08:03 pm (UTC)
It's not the bitchface, because I've been called a "fucking bitch" when I wear it. But I think it also is the bitchface...

I've spent a hell of a lot of time around BU, and I've grown from a 17-year old to a 36-year old watching older men say stuff to college-age women in the BU context. In lots of ways, the college-age women are more vulnerable because they will react to harassment in a way that is pleasing to the harasser: they will giggle, get mad, blush, and generally be uncomfortable. They are younger and maybe haven't learned how to ignore this stuff. The man has achieved a victory by making a woman uncomfortable. He has exerted power over this creature. Or shown off to his buddies. Or whatever the intention.

Older women like us don't giggle or blush as much. We often won't react at all, because we've heard it so much and it's just another man shouting another thing. Or we have the confidence to know what to do if we feel threatened. So we don't show as much discomfort. That's not as fun for the man. I think bitchface can be a expression of this. Certain bitchfaces tell people that you aren't going to be any fun to tease. They can shout stuff, but you'll just stare them down. I think men have learned this subconsciously, so they tend to pick on younger women, or women who in their minds are more vulnerable.

But I think this is just one thing. There are obviously lots of other factors. It seems that anything that makes you stand out as a target will draw more comments. I think you're just a bad target for this behavior. Especially considering where you live, people really are more open-minded and chill than in other places.

Edited at 2014-12-20 08:10 pm (UTC)
_perihelion_
Dec. 20th, 2014 11:11 pm (UTC)
we’ve all been thinking about privilege a lot lately. does that mean we are privileged? do only the privilege have the privilege to spend time thinking about their privilege? I suspect it’s rather more complicated than that.
ayun
Dec. 21st, 2014 03:52 am (UTC)
I know for a fact I'm privileged, in a number of ways, though when I used the word in the post I was thinking more little-p privilege, not like full-on Invisible Knapsack, Society Assigns Value To These Qualities privilege.

The idea of privilege (and, trailing behind it, intersectionality) has been working its way out from academia for some time now, but does seem to be common currency for liberal types at least. I first read the Peggy McIntosh essay sometime around 2001 or 2002, but it was published long before that. I think it's a useful prod to get people to strive for a more empathetic way of viewing the world.
badriyaz
Dec. 20th, 2014 11:53 pm (UTC)
I think there's a combination of class factors and how likely you seem to react to attention that figures into harassment, though sometimes they can backfire. I.e., seeming to be of a higher social class and like you have the confidence not to respond could be taken as a challenge, which is how I would interpret the bar people. But generally I think if you look confident and like you own your space, the sort of men who are likely to harass women won't bother with you, because they aren't going to get the response they want, and you might call the cops. To use pyrric's metaphor, you come across as the strong healthy wildebeest that can kick a crocodile in the chops.

The whole being yelled at to smile thing, I think is something else entirely but I'm not sure what.
nepenthe01
Dec. 22nd, 2014 05:08 pm (UTC)
Yelled at to smile. never happens to me - I smile at everyone I walk by. Smile & nod.

In other cultures, this is an Americanism and in some cultures this is seen as an invitation. Gets me into trouble.

Y'all go on with your resting bitchface .... it's only in America where you're expected to smile at strangers all the time.
mistresshellena
Dec. 22nd, 2014 10:44 pm (UTC)
Confidence, looking like you know where you're going. Those definitely go a long way. I didn't get many comments when younger, but they definitely stopped when I was about in my mid-20s. I firmly believe in the predatory/vulnarability frame, whether or not our non-lizard conscious brains realize we're doing it.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 23rd, 2014 07:53 pm (UTC)
This is not a not-all-men defense, clearly it's enough men, and/or too many men.

I liked that one metaphor going around tumblr recently trying to help guys understand what it's like to be on the receiving end of that: "you know those smiling pushy folks, like trying to get you to do a lotion sample of a phone thing at the carts at the mall? Well imagine they were nearly everywhere, and the product they were selling was dick".

I wonder if they're related to the dudes I see evidence of in women's OKC profiles, evidence of men who just blast out email to anyone with a decent looking profile picture, using a wide net approach and sending shirtless (or pantsless) photos to any woman at the drop of a hat. It's kind of weird to be in some ways the same category as those guys, with some of the same goals, even as I hope I'm more finessed and generally a better human.

Anyway, weighing in on the "why a respite?" question is probably a lose-lose blend of either affirming self-perceived flaws or semi-inappropriately implying attraction and I don't feel I have much insight into the issue anyway. So I'll just say, I wish the world provided a better environment, especially for women.
rojagato
Dec. 28th, 2014 07:00 am (UTC)
Since my accident (and unable to competently apply makeup around the scars) I've been difficult to read, genderwise, on the street, so just get stares or a "Hey buddy, can you ... uh, nevermind." Actually, it's predated that, and I'm still threatened, a lot, by really drunk people. Not so much in Salem (small town, where I'm known), but when I'm downtown in Boston or Cambridge or in the evening in Dot when I don't look so much like the middle-aged lady I am.

But I meet your eye and smile. If my mother is with me, I meet your eye and smile softly, with malice. If I see you look at a friend of mine, I'll look at you and jerk my head, as if at a cop on the corner before you say a word.

I haven't forgotten the catcalls when I was 12, or 17, or when, in my late 40s when, barely off the walker and on a cane, on my way back from my first job interview after my accident, you came at me on a T platform and asked whether I was a guy or girl and either way I should give you and your friends some head. The look on your face, standing in for all those faces, when I finally made a connection with you, tossing my cane up to grip it at the bottom, and connecting the handle at your knee in a perfect bunt, as the Orange Line came in -- thanks! that almost made the last thirty years worth it, the Araki cinema of watching you cry and puke on the platform from the other side of that scratched-up train window, now on my way home. I mean, I feel we really made a connection there, we really exchanged what we wanted each other to experience. How much closer can two people get? How rare is that? I don't think that my resting heart rate was ever so low as I took off my jacket, put on my hoodie, because I felt so much more comfortable without the monkey suit.






Edited at 2014-12-28 07:00 am (UTC)
silentq
Jan. 2nd, 2015 09:14 pm (UTC)
My first instinctual response was to say that I've never had a lot of cat calling, but now I'm wondering if I just forgot about it because it was never a surprise. I discount the calls from moving vehicles since I can never tell what they said anyway. The one time a man on the street tried to get me to smile I'd just been fired and I like to think that my glare withered a part of his soul.
Now I'm wondering if being short plays into the general lack of comments, we just sneak by under their lines of sight. :-) Granted androgynous dressing and a short hair cut probably help a whole lot as well as my middle aged lack of fucks to give.

I've been noticing that I've been getting bike-called now that I have a nicer bike, from male gear heads who are assuming that of course I need their opinions on my bike. Well, there was that one old guy who started to lecture me at a stop light... As a biker, I guess the comments tend to be more about my "right" to the road, either approving or disapproving.

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )