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Harassment: A Definition?

[NOTE: In my last post, I mentioned composing but then shelving a response, which I described as being “not a defense of the men who harassed [UnWinona] but a limited critique of how she and some of her commenters have framed the issue.” This is that piece.]

What do we mean when we say “harassment”?

With the current political climate being what it is, I’m reluctant to say anything that could put me on the wrong side of the debate over sexual violence and women’s rights, but this tumblr post by UnWinona and the reaction it has received brings to light a shift in how men and women interact that I think may have broader social implications than we recognize.

However, before I get into the discussion, I want to give proper respect to something obvious but important: I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman alone on a train with a physically aggressive man, and having grown up male, I inhabit a position of privilege that handicaps any analysis I might attempt on the subject. That limited perspective recognized, I’m going to try to talk about this subject anyway. In writing this, I don’t mean to diminish the difficulties faced by women—straight or queer, trans or cis-gendered. I am merely trying to unpack what seems to be an exceedingly complicated gendered dynamic that determines how and what we think about community. Take my cautiousness and timidity throughout this piece as a sign of my respect for the lived experience of women.

(That sounds ominous, doesn’t it? What is he going to say that requires such an anxious preface?)

The post that set off all this handwringing came to my attention when a friend, Maratinage, linked to UnWinona’s story on her Facebook. In linking to it, she included a preface, which I have, in part, excerpted here:

this is the sort of reason you /never/ simply approach a strange woman without a good solid reason[…] no matter how nicely you think you’re doing it. we have no way to know whether you’re actually nice, and it’s scary[…] plus it’s incredibly annoying a) to be interrupted while reading and b) to have to worry every time someone sits next to you when there’s plenty of space elsewhere

While I don’t want to jump all over dear Maratinage, I had a pretty strong reaction to the original tumblr post and the comments that followed. Never approach a woman in public without a solid reason? To me, that’s a startling pronouncement with wide-ranging implications for how we socialize. After thinking about this position and reading UnWinona’s post several more times, I’ve realized that I just don’t have enough information to settle—for myself—how I feel about the beginning of her story, which is important because that’s the part of the story that allows her to critique general male behavior based on isolated anecdotal evidence:

Without fail, I am aggressively approached by men on at least half of [my] commutes.  The most common approach is to walk up to where I am sitting with body language that practically screams LEAVE ME ALONE and sit down next to me or as close to me as possible, when the train is not crowded and there are many empty rows.  Sometimes an overly friendly arm is draped over the railing behind me, or they attempt to lean in close to talk to me as if we are old friends. Without fail, the man or boy in question will lean to close and ask me What are you reading? Is that a good book? What’s that book about? This serves the double purpose of getting my attention and trapping me in a conversation.  If I stop reading the book I enjoy to talk to you, random stranger, you hit on me or just stay way too close to me.  If I tell you to leave me alone, you get mad at me.  Because I somehow, as a woman, owe you conversation.

Here’s my problem: although I can certainly see how she perceives these near constant trespasses—annoying, threatening, misogynistic—I don’t feel I have a very clear picture of what this actually looks like. Because she’s painting in somewhat broad strokes, it’s hard to pin down exactly which behaviors are beyond the pale. Is it the physical proximity? Is it the interruption? Is it the fact of the flirtation itself? I mean, of course Bicycle Man is a lunatic, and of course the teenagers are out of line, and of course a stranger should be aware of personal space especially at 10:30PM on an empty train car. But, what about the guys who, from the seat next to her, just try to strike up a conversation on the train?  How many of those guys are being treated like predatory misogynists? And if she is treating them like predators, do they have a right to react? Because, honestly, if I tried striking up a conversation with a woman and she “loudly and firmly” told me to leave her alone, I’d definitely think she was an asshole, and in some non-violent way, I’d probably treat her like an asshole too. Because, although I don’t think that, as a woman, she owes anybody anything, I do think that, as a person, she owes some degree of civility to the people who share the world with her.

I’m not talking about clear-cut cases, like Bicycle Man. Instead, I’m interested in locating the minimum threshold for harassment, because I want to create—for myself—an ethical code of interaction that doesn’t throw the community baby out with the harassment bathwater. Here’s my question: In a public place, should a man be allowed to initiate conversation with a woman he doesn’t know?

Being Interpellated is a Bummer

I am a gay man, but I almost never talk to “strange” women in public because I don’t like being treated as—in order of severity—a hassle, a threat or a predator. My look is butch enough that, if you’re worried about that sort of thing, I code as straight, so I know that unless I’m holding hands with my partner, I probably shouldn’t be too friendly or engage too directly with a young woman I encounter randomly. Even if we’re reading the same book, or she’s wearing a t-shirt for my favorite obscure band or she looks lost on the subway, I don’t try to catch her eye and I CERTAINLY don’t try to initiate a conversation. On rare occasions when I do make contact, I shoehorn the fact that I’m gay (and thus NOT A THREAT) into the conversation as quickly as possible. Because—and maybe this is news but—sometimes it feels that BAD to be perceived as a straight guy. Although I certainly rank sexual violence against women above the plight of straight dudes trying to pick up chicks on the bus, I still think my aversion to being perceived as straight means something’s going wrong in how we’re talking about who and what is threatening.

I can think of two approximate, if not entirely fair, corollaries: black teenagers in shopping malls and gay guys who want to be elementary school teachers. Both populations are thought—incorrectly—to be especially threatening or predatory. This is one place where my comparison breaks down because while gay men and black teenagers are assigned disproportionate blame for the crimes ascribed to them, men actually do commit the vast majority of violent crimes, so women’s wariness can’t be challenged in the same way it can be when we’re talking about the bigotry of racists and homophobes. Additionally, you can’t pretend that a woman’s cautiousness towards a strange man on a train is equivalent to a white storeowner’s heightened vigilance when a black teenager starts browsing the shelves, because position matters in these sorts of dynamics. The gaze of the disempowered interpellating the privileged does a different type of existential violence than the gaze of the privileged interpellating the disempowered. One is prejudice, the other oppression. However, some degree of existential violence, personal and affecting, is still being done. Although I am no masculine apologist, I think it’s valuable to dissect out the similarities that make this whole discussion a little more complicated. Put in the most basic and least inflammatory terms, the somatic experience of being treated like a predator is remarkably jarring.

I can’t speak to what it’s like for black teenagers in America but I do have some experience with the effects of interpellation: I love kids, but as a man—and a gay man to boot—I have an insidious paranoia that if I’m too friendly to a child, his mother will think that I’m a sexual predator. I don’t let it bother me too much—really, it’s only a whisper of uneasiness—but when I’m meeting a new mother and I don’t know her views on gay people, I stay distant. It isn’t even that I’m afraid she’ll accuse me of something. I just don’t like to imagine the kinds of ugly thoughts she could be thinking. I haven’t verified this, but I’d guess that many gay men feel the same way. And you know what, it sucks to be treated like a predator when you aren’t one. Again, I don’t think that when a straight man is treated like a threat he is being exposed to anything close to an IDENTICAL experience of societal oppression. However, having experienced that sort of interpellation, I think “harassment” as a category should be used judiciously, if for no other reason than that it’s counter productive, if what you’re after is safety for women because if you criminalize talking to women in public, only criminals will talk to women in public.

Because let’s be clear, the altercation UnWinona described was not between a disinterested woman and a normal, entitled guy. He was a nutcase. If the issue of crime in urban centers says more about class than it does about race, then to what degree does this story say more about mental health than masculinity? Although this episode certainly tells us something about gender roles and the energy released when you violate them—women are SUPPOSED to be passive, so FUCK YOU—we certainly can’t use a violent (and bereaved?) crazy dude as a simple case study.

I’m sure that I’m missing some very important experiential wisdom that, hopefully, my female friends can bring to this subject, but I do think we need to consider how adversarial relationships between men and women affect society and the individuals within it. Perhaps I’m grossly exaggerating the claims being made by Maratinage and UnWinona, but I think the spirit of the discussion still holds. I, of course, want women to feel safe, and a huge part of that relies on men opening their eyes to how unconscious social conditioning inflects their behavior, especially when and how they interact with women. But I also want to live in a society where people are able to strike up a friendly, maybe even flirty, conversation with the person sitting next to them on the train. If that balance—safety with community—is the goal, what changes need to be implemented and how do we implement them? Where do we want to place the boundaries that govern interactions between men and women? How does the treatment of men affect male identity? And, ultimately, how private is public? Because the more socialization moves to online communities—with their block buttons and physical distance and safe anonymity—the less resistant we’ll all become to the difficult prospect of coexisting in an overcrowded world.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Darling, i will really enjoy reading you but is there one “french translation”…we ‘ll get through during the Climbing Graduation…Don’t forget the motel !

    September 20, 2012
  2. Elainasaurus #

    Just from my work at the farmer’s market there is a difference in the way that men and women will assert their privilege in a situation. Let’s say that there is a vague line of customers, one of those lines where people are chatting and it takes a second to realize that they are waiting to be rung up, I usually know immediately if a strange woman is going to ignore the line, but I am always surprised by the pushy men. The reason being that a woman usually makes eye contact before she approaches the register, watches for body language, and while I have some women that ignore my “I am obviously still ringing up someone else” look, more often than not they will wait until i finish with my current customer, or find the line themselves.
    However I am interupted more often by men who approach the register and try to hand me produce while I am attempting the mental math of another’s purchase. In this case I am usually taken off guard because there is no eye contact or body language before the person cuts in line, nothing that attempts to signal “hey, are you busy?”.

    I would love to hear from other women but in my experience one of the ways that I distinguish predators from not. Is the non-verbal communication. If some dude on the bus plops down next to me and interrupts my book every fiber of me will be screaming CREEP! If however they sit a few seats away, wait until I look upfrom my book, make eye contact and possibly look at my book, and wait for any signal that I want to speak to them I would not have nearly the same problem with chatting about what I’m reading. I guess a good analogy for my position as the female in the situation is the difference between pulling over for a hitchhiker and asking where they are going as opposed to having someone hijack my car. Unfortunately there are a lot of guys out there who approach conversation and personal space with women like they might prep for stealing a car. Men might be perceived as smaller threats if they aproach conversations with strange women in a similar manner that they start conversations with random guys.

    October 13, 2012

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