Hey, Creeps, ‘Compliments’ Are Harassment, Too
Now more than ever, women are documenting interaction online from men conveying inappropriate messages—from requesting sexual favors to sending unwanted pictures of part of their anatomy. Now, a new Instagram account called Bye Felipe posts the awful responses men send women, after the women have indicated a lack of interest: “I would beat the living shit out of you” is one of the all too common responses.
Another recent example, which, admittedly, has its own problems, demonstrated the street harassment women receive daily. Despite being told this is a women’s reality, best-selling author and dating advice coach Steven Santagati was more concerned with telling women what they’re doing wrong and dismissing their concerns, on CNN no less. (Everything else he said was also horrible.)
Many people, especially men, dismiss and undermine these claims, wondering why women make a fuss when it’s “done in good fun,” when it’s just “boys being boys,” when it’s “just the Internet.” Yet, dismissal is just an excuse for men to continue this entitled behavior—whether in childish, terrifying online rejections or cat calling.
Creeps never think of themselves as creeps, of course. They’re just “misunderstood,” “socially awkward,” “being men,” “lonely,” or “having a laugh.” None of these, even if true, are reasons to mistreat women. Let’s look at some men’s view of their behavior toward women. Then let’s tease out some lessons men should learn.
“It's just a compliment”
A prime example of creepy camouflage is thinking of harassment as compliments. A good framework for this is seen in reaction to street harassment, as with Santagati.
Activist group Stop Street Harassment commissioned a national US study of 2,000 participants. The study's findings were disturbing. "The survey found that 65 percent of all women had experienced street harassment. Among all women, 23 percent had been sexually touched, 20 percent had been followed, and 9 percent had been forced to do something sexual.” And we're not even talking about the horribly harassed public life forced on many in the LGBTQ community.
This behavior is not limited to streets, as women know. Propositions for sex or sexual behavior, unwarranted assertions of women's beauty, telling women they "want to see more,” sending "dick pics"—women on social media and dating sites face these all the time. Men often use women's work to convey an unnecessary comment on their appearance (whether complimentary or insulting) or requests for sexual engagement.
As Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates wrote: "The men who ask you what the big deal is about street harassment, say they'd love it if it happened to them, or suggest you just 'take it as a compliment.'" But this confuses many factors: for example, it’s not women but other men making these comments. (Women can also harass, of course, but things are not equal between genders; further, I’m addressing men because, well, I am one.)
Second, “compliments” are often anchored by threats—sometimes tragically carried out—if the compliments are not sufficiently acknowledged by women who “receive” them. This is, again, seen in online interaction: a woman’s rejection leads to insults and threats, as Bye Felipe notes.
Men, lets be clear: you are not complimenting women. You’re making environments less safe, less welcoming, and more a minefield to negotiate personal freedom, whether on the street or on the Internet. Men who think they're being nice by complimenting strange women care more about themselves than the women; this desperation of forcing women to hear just how beautiful you think they are is creepy. As activist Lindsey asks in her videos confronting harassers: Why do women need to hear this?
Men need to ask themselves some questions before speaking, like:
1. Why am I telling a woman what I think about her appearance?
2. Is it an appropriate place to do so?
3. Is there some kind of rapport that makes it okay to convey this without seeming like a threat?
Women have made their voices heard and, if you care about other people, you’ll take steps to actually make spaces safer—not contribute to environments that make it worse.
This is exemplified in the CNN panel, following Hollaback!’s video, when Amanda Seales suggests to Steven Santagati that, “You really should just be embracing and welcoming to the fact that women are saying “hey we don’t like this”—not arguing why we [should like it]. If we say we don’t like it and we are demonstrating that, then you should actually as a man, who is a man of honor and wrote a book about this, should be saying: ‘well: lets discuss how we can make you all feel more comfortable…’”
As a fellow man, I reject Santaganti’s defense of the status quo. Men are the ones doing this, the ones who created this. And we need to be doing more to curb it.
This applies to street harassment and online. What matters more than a strange women hearing your Pulitzer Prize winning compliment is creating a space where she doesn’t have to carry keys in-between her fingers. Again, ask yourself what you care about here: a woman being forced to react to you, or the creation of a safe space? This doesn’t mean we never compliment another person, but it shouldn’t be the default assumption.
“But they're asking for it”
Women who are targeted by creeps often encounter victim blaming dressed as sympathy from loved ones: What were you wearing at the time/in your profile pic? Did you provoke him?
More clothing does not equal less harassment, as we know from reports of Muslim women wearing hijabs. This is echoed online: regardless of what women are wearing in their profile pictures, they are harassed anyway. It’s easier to say “slutty” women get harassed because that brings a sense of “fairness.” Though reality indicates otherwise, it also presumes a moral layer: that revealing skin automatically invites or asks for unnecessarily sexual interaction.
Men need to learn that women can put whatever picture they want on their profiles, that they can wear whatever they want, even “provocative” dresses in public, and that none of it is automatic consent for sexual harassment. As man, I expect men to do better. Do we think so little of our gender that we’re incapable of thinking a woman deserves respect, as opposed to unwanted sexual advances?
When people target women for their abuse, they not only undermine that woman’s autonomy to exist in public and online, they also undermine men. Again, we should expect men to treat other people decently. We should expect the default to be civility, not harassment. Otherwise, we morally erode the environment to be the type that makes interaction with others so difficult in the first place.
“Boys will be boys”
Another cog in the fog machine of creeps is the hand-waving appeal to men’s nature. Bad boy, ladies’ man, etc.—terms not in themselves bad, but often used to wipe away creepy behavior that women don’t want.
Appealing to men’s nature helps foster an environment where women are objects to be acquired by the most confident of men. If we wouldn’t dismiss our racist colleague with “that’s just Bob being Bob!” then why do we do so when it comes to women’s treatment?
But nature isn’t a good concept to appeal to. Nature is asthma, volcanoes, mothers eating their young. It’s not just rainbows and Christian Bales’ cheekbones. Evolution isn’t about some universal measure of strength, height, or some facile “manly” measure; it’s about what is the best adapted for the current environment. After all, dinosaurs were surely stronger than our ancestors, but look who’s here now.
And, as noted with victim blaming, this undermines men as thinking, rational, conscious beings. We “undermine” our nature every time we use glasses or medicine, after all. How belittling to reduce yourself to a gene house.
Men can do better and shouldn’t accept their “nature”—whatever that means—as a reason to mistreat women. When you inappropriately interact with a woman, it’s not natural, and it’s not “boys being boys”—it’s creepy, and it’s awful, and you’re consciously doing it. If you think of yourself as more than a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, you can stand up and be respectful. Why not make that your nature?
You can have the best intentions but still contribute to an environment that makes women feel unsafe. I, and many fellow men, know this because women say so—they write it, they lecture on it, they write books about it. There’s no excuse for men to be ignorant about what women experience. To disregard that for the sake of instant gratification from women’s attention seems morally negligent. To dismiss it as just “boys being boys” only adds more fuel to the fires where animalistic natures are given fresh life, burning away any notions of being a person or an adult.
We live in a world that caters to men. This means we are often blind to the damage we do directly or that we contribute to. We’re blind because we don’t have to live directly with the repercussions; we don’t have to fear sexual threats or unwanted attention to the same degree as women. This doesn’t mean we remain blind—it means we constantly question what we can do to make spaces safer for marginalized people, and, more importantly, question whether and how we’re contributing to making the world less safe.
And then do better.