Anti-Misogyny / Emotionally Dissociated / Personal Is Political

Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, & Nice Guys®

Having just finished writing about microaggression and rape culture, I found myself today sifting through hundreds of responses to a man who declared that he had gotten drunk at a party where everyone thought he was Really Important®; and where the booze just kind of went straight to his head, causing him to sexually assault a woman who didn’t, at the time, say no or push him away. This is a very frustrating thing for me to read, because he is already putting the onus of establishing consent on the woman he assaulted — when in fact, he just grabbed (and bit) first and made half-assed attempts to establish consent after the fact. But then he goes on to say that he felt so embarrassed to have been so drunk and uninhibited at this party that he spent the entire next day phoning people up and apologizing for being inappropriate. When he reached the woman who, unbeknownst to him at the time, he had assaulted, she dismissed his concerns. For months, she is said to have kept talking to him, being occasionally kind of flirty, and a full three years later, finally coming out and declaring that he had in fact assaulted her that night. That she was not consenting to his advances. So he published his side of the story online in one place and she posted her side of the story in another.

The fact that she was sexually assaulted by this man was met with criticisms against her ranging from “what a bimbo” and “she’s obviously just a lying bitch” to accusations that she’s just a histrionic drama queen who is clearly just basking in the attention she’s now generating by dragging the poor manz reputation through the mud in a desperate bid for his sexual advances. People demanded to know why she didn’t go to the cops, declared that she was clearly fabricating the entire story because she took so long to come out with it and made no efforts at the time to shake him off, tell him no, or tell him how fucked up what he had done really was. Next thing I know, I’m reading all sorts of hypothetical speculations, meaningless thought experiments, men’s rights activist’s mansplanations® about how sexual assault victims/survivors at all stages of healing and all battered women ought to experience and respond to unwanted advances, and attempts to essentially eradicate any credibility she may have been able to establish, had she chosen to participate at all in this public conversation. But what really fucked me up was reading someone who actually demands that she apologize to the man who assaulted her, because he already not-pologized three years ago and has not-pologized again, and so in their infinite wisdom, she’s no longer entitled to share her experiences with anyone else. And the congratulations for not-poligizing, back-pattings, and “There, there” he received just made me smack my fucking forehead.

Transitioning From Constant Target To Mostly Incognito

Here’s the thing. As I’ve stated countless times already, I am a survivor of incest and multiple rapes (I am hyper-vigilant of invasive behaviours as a result). And as I’ve alluded to often, especially during my action against misogyny demonstrations, I am frequently the subject of sexual harassment (when I am being socially read as a woman). I have also been sexually assaulted in ways that do not meet any criteria for rape (e.g., groping and other forms of non-consensual, unwanted physical contact such as forced kissing), and this has occurred more times than I could possibly assign a number to. I continue to struggle with how to speak about these experiences without getting upset. I am often met with victim-blaming rhetoric when I speak up, as the woman who was assaulted in the above incident was — and she wasn’t even present in that conversation. My coping mechanism lately has been to embrace my masculinity; to blend into my surroundings by trying to pass as a male in public places a majority of the time; and allow myself to move about public space without being stared at, gawked at, yelled at, leered at, whistled at and cat-called, stalked by male drivers repeatedly circling the block and either stopping or slowing down in the street next to me to stare at me, being subject to strange men trying to talk to me when I’m wearing headphones and ignoring them, and/or being subject to strange men trying either to use pick-up lines on me or trying to solicit me for lewd acts. Virtually all of the women I have ever known in my life have adopted this coping mechanism at various times in their lives, for varied durations. It’s simply a way of going incognito (and there are times, such as after the end of bus service, when this is especially adaptive).

Because I can give myself a breather for an average of five days a week, I feel more comfortable pushing my risk tolerance the two days a week I picket in the street in my underwear for women’s rights. And that behaviour comes with all the pre-existing risks of the staring, gawking, leering, yelling, whistling, cat-calling, stalking, pick-up lines, and solicitations I have been fairly constantly receiving since about 20 years ago; when all the females in my age group started to develop feminine curves while I secretly waisted away in my tiny anorexic body. All of this unwanted attention makes me uncomfortable (especially when it comes from law enforcement), none of it is ever acceptable, and yet I am consistently held to blame by virtue of what I’m wearing at the time. But not only that, demonstrating publicly in my underwear also now comes with the risk of invasive solicitations about the content of my briefs, as I am now regularly suspected — on account of the sound of my voice — of secretly having a pair of testicles tucked into my lower abdomen and a flaccid penis taped down over top. It’s either that, or I am subject to baseless speculations that my very real tits are falsies or implants. Add to all of this, men literally leaning back and trying to leer at my undercarriage, and the only possible analogy I could give to a man who doesn’t understand what it is to be so constantly sexually harassed whenever he is in public space, is if he was forced to take a front desk job somewhere where he was regularly subjected to having the waistband of his pants grabbed at while both women and men frequently solicited for the size of his penis.

Nice Guy®, Terrible Conversation

As I tried to share my perspective with my male flatmate tonight (he’s a guy who I can usually respectfully disagree with, and who usually sees sexism for what it is), I lost my shit on him when he repeatedly tried to minimize how frequently a woman in our society typically experiences sex-based discrimination such as sexual harassment. He was attempting to achieve this through the use of an inappropriate analogy (i.e., “If I wear this particular hat, I can’t expect no one’s going to notice it”). And though we agreed that simply noticing someone in a public space (and not treating them with disrespect for being there) and sexually harassing someone are two very different things, he somehow adopted the impression that I’m offended at being merely observed. I repeatedly told him I took issue with the way his analogy minimizes the frequency and magnitude of my experiences, which are not at all uncommon among women and various female-bodied persons. He tried to tell me that a) I’m speaking (inappropriately) for all women, and b) if he doesn’t observe me being literally constantly gawked at while we were at a nude beach together, then it logically follows that I’m not being so constantly harassed as I claim, virtually everywhere else in public, when my body is read as female (although, this is especially true when I am unattended by a man — I have little doubt, based on what happens whenever I’m with another female-bodied person, that men are hesitant to sexually harass me when they just assume I’m “with my boyfriend”).

He regularly reiterated that I can’t expect people to just not notice or do a double-take, let alone get offended or upset that someone noticed or did a double-take, if I am wearing anything non-normative in an unexpected public place — to which I repeatedly answered that there would be nothing to “notice” or do a double-take at if more women felt more uninhibited by the reduction in the perceived threat of constant sexual harassment for the same choices I frequently exercise. I cited the example of walking for all of five minutes on a blistering hot day, with my linen shirt draped over my chest (and the sleeves tucked into the neck hole), before a car full of men literally stopped on the corner so they could gawk at me while I waited for a crosswalk signal to change. I later cited the incident where I was slut-shamed by a cop for being topless at a demonstration for women’s bodily autonomy, and didn’t quite get my words out fast enough when I tried to add the times bus drivers sexually harassed me (or flat-out refused service) when I attempted to sit quietly on a bus while wearing a bra without a shirt. I said, in obvious jest, that I am really beginning to think that there’s something about my exposed arms that’s offending people.

I tried to tell him to think about phrasing himself differently (i.e., not saying “You can’t expect someone not to notice if you wear X or don’t wear Y”), because it sounds very suspiciously like victim-blaming (i.e., “You can’t expect someone not to ‘share their appreciation with’ you if you wear X or don’t wear Y”). I tried to tell him that women are sexually harassed all the time in public, regardless of what they wear (citing examples of when I have been sexually harassed simply for being read as female); and that I’m going to lose my shit if he keeps talking like someone who perpetrates that behaviour, leaving me (and any woman with whom he ever broaches the subject in the future) with the onus to trust and believe that he doesn’t do those things (even though he talks exactly like someone who does when he says it like that, which was clearly very upsetting to me). I know he doesn’t sexually harass women, so why does he need to talk so much like someone who does? Why the need for all this deflection and derailing of the issue (especially from someone I know to be a Nice Guy® who normally gets this shit)?

I really would have preferred to keep my shit cool — otherwise this wasn’t going to be much of a conversation, and it was already starting to turn into the beginning of a yelling match. He started to tell me, and I really tried to listen, about how he experiences body-policing for reasons unrelated to his gender but due to his body type. OK. Hearing this, I can begin to calm down. I find this a much more useful analogy. But when I tried to communicate that this is a significantly more appropriate angle from which to address the issue, he tried instead to go back to telling me that I come off as getting offended at the very idea that someone observes my presence in a public space (even though we agree that this is different and therefore not neither upsetting nor invasive, unlike sexual harassment). I asked him how I did this, and he couldn’t give me an example of what I said that gave him this impression. I asked that we abandon this issue, because we agree that Just Noticing is not the same as sexual harassment, and I affirm that I do not get offended by Just Noticing, because it’s not invasive and simply not offensive. It’s what sighted people do in public — make mundane observations about other people in public. Now if only women’s bodies were treated as a mundane observation by default, instead of being constantly ridiculed and speculated about by people who sexually harass them just for Being There While Female. That’s when he tried to go back to the hat analogy. When I got frustrated that he clearly wasn’t listening to how this isn’t even in the same ball park as what I’m talking about, shit started repeatedly hitting the fan in rapid succession. The words “tone-policing” came out of his mouth. I had already lost the patience required of me to sit politely and listen to him without interrupting to vent my anger as he insisted on starting the same already problematic arguments over and over again, and this went on until I heard the words come out of his mouth: “See, this is why no one likes to talk to you. You finish their sentences and put words in my mouth.” I call bullshit on this and I stand by my angry venting — it’s how I wrote this entire blog post in record time.

Increasingly Pressing Questions: Even For You, Nice Guys®

When will all of us, as a society, stop fighting with the people who have experienced this mess directly, and start really listening? When will the issue stop being about what women wear, and start being about the (sexist/misogynist) motivations of the men who perpetrate sexual harassment and/or sexual assault (i.e., seeing a woman as incapable of consent and therefore not requiring any to objectify her)? When will the onus that is placed on women (and other people who have experienced years of frequent sexual harassment and sexual assault) to understand how Nice Guys® want to talk about the issue without even thinking about how they talk about it, shift to placing the onus on all men to simply stop talking about it like it’s always a woman’s fault, especially if she allegedly dresses like she “wanted to get noticed”? Why can’t we take a moment to interrogate why we even think we know what she wanted? Why can’t we just stop for long enough to acknowledge that “getting noticed” doesn’t mean “permission to sexually harass” (how very thin this line is, especially in discourse), and yet, acknowledge that by the time we’re talking about what we assume she wants, we’re also now talking about a form of victim-blaming? It’s time to change the tune, Nice Guys®. That isn’t a form of tone-policing, finishing your sentences for you, or putting words in your mouth. It’s owning your shit in a conversation where you hold the social privilege — it’s you checking your privilege before you wreck yourself.

12 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, & Nice Guys®

  1. Thank-you for this. I get sexually harassed in suits and work clothes (I”m a teacher) all the time. We brought up the issue of female members of our staff being sexually harassed at school, and a male staff member made one of those “well look how you dress” remarks – because he had observed skirts that didn’t go down to the knee on summer school staff (in our south facing, non air conditioned building). It’s never actually about clothes, it’s about power.

    • I taught High School in the UK 1970-73 and was never sexually harassed. What happened? A certain permissiveness seems to have crept into society that does not respect personal boundaries. Lack of manners is also common as is being late for events, sloppy about honouring RSVPs and giving up ones seat on Transit to someone who needs it.

      • I can’t speak to what the political climate in the UK was like 40 years ago.

        But I find it so rude, it’s actually astounding, that you would compare sexual harassment and sexual assault to being sloppy about RSVPing or showing up on time to something or where one chooses to sit on a bus.

        If you need a place to rant about those things, start your own goddamned blog. This isn’t the post for it.

      • The only thing I take from this statement is one of “obliviousness” or “desensitization” to microaggressions, and of actual sexual harassment against women in our culture, and to the fact that the reason why we are more aware of it now in history is not because it was non-existent, or lesser in the 70s. We are more aware of it because of the volumes of information being shared by women and their allies on the internet, and the accessibility of “crime” statistics. Also a change in culture moving towards actually reporting it and making rapist accountable for their crimes is also helping us be “more aware of the problem”.

        I’d like to add, that a lack of respect for the values of your generation doesn’t equal a sudden “intrinsic loss” to society nor as a “sign of the time” that rape, sexual harassment and such are suddenly increasing, furthermore your perspective is limited and isn’t true of the whole. I also detect a hint of religiously suggested belief, in which you support the idea that our society is in a state of general moral decay. Society isn’t “getting worse” we are just becoming more aware of the problems of society at a rate greater than the rate at which said problems are declining. Such false statements could be avoided with a little research into the phenomenon.

        Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, and other such things have been on a decline historically speaking because of the efforts of feminists; however, things like the increasingly sexualized view of women in media has contributed to a “resurgence” of this issue. Historically speaking sexual harassment and sexual assault were “more” of a problem in your generation, not less. You just were protected from that, not as sensitive of the harassment you did receive, and women’s rights were far less respected, and thus rape was more under-reported.

        In your generation the oppression of women was so much greater that “reporting” a rape, or claim of sexual harassment would have cost you your job, gotten you ostracized, or worse. Even just a few decades ago now it was difficult for women to report alcohol related “statutory rapes” and get a conviction of their rapists without facing public fallout, victim blaming and others. Victim blaming, Slut shaming, a culture of rape, and the attitudes of men within male privilege benefits rapist and further harms it’s victims. Perhaps, Angela, it’s time you open your eyes.

  2. I have experienced this myself. I personally identify as non-binary, trans-feminine (in body), and variably androgynous (in expression). The way I dress can vary between masculine and feminine. By most people without regards to what I am wearing I am read as a woman, but I had an experience the other day that brought up some things I’d been avoiding for a while. A couple times in the last week I dressed feminine out running errands or otherwise. I was shouted at, honked at, gawked at in ways that were “beyond just being noticed”. When I dress butch or androgynous, this generally doesn’t happen as often… The way I dress is pretty much about how I feel that particular day. I am also queer, though generally speaking I am not visibly so as people tend to assume I am heterosexual. But this isn’t the first time it has happened, and it makes me feel incredibly unsafe.

    I find a lot of people don’t have a shred of a clue why that is so “unnerving”, especially people with cisgender, heterosexual, and/or male privilege (even if they are generally aware of it in other areas). I also have anxiety issues from abuse, and military service. I really like dressing that way when the mood strikes me, and my dress is very respectable and conservative (long skirts, higher cut tops, et cetera). But that doesn’t seem to matter. Just the fact that I have a female bodied appearance seems to be all it takes. I hadn’t dressed that way in a long while, and I have been opting for more neutral for a while because of that. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way, and I wish more male-bodied people would notice it and do something about it. Seems to be though that this behavior not only assumes the woman is available, but that “she is asking for it” either based on appearance or perceived gender, sexually active (verses asexual or demisexual), and it assumes she is also heterosexual.

    Being queer, that behavior makes me especially uncomfortable. I have even had moments where I was accosted, groped or rubbed by men in bars without consent (even gay men), or buses because of my gendered appearance (to include dressing androgynous or butch). It really is a problem and it happens far to often. The touching is much more infrequent, but the looks, shouts or sexualizing gestures happen often (almost everytime I am out with a few exceptions). It’s more than enough to make the places I go, transit services I use, and any environment where it occurs feel “unsafe” to me (sometimes even cause panic attacks). Thank you for writing a post about this, I don’t feel there is nearly enough awareness of this issue in the least bit. I also ask myself when it will stop and when will people listen.

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  6. Thank you for writing about this. I wish I was this articulate! Reading your articles helps me to understand some of my own frustrations better.

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