Thursday, August 1, 2013

Helplessness under the Male Gaze

The joys of public transit. As I walk up to the stop in a million degree weather, headphones in and wearing shorts and a t-shirt, both best described as "comfortable and fun" there is a man, old enough to be my father, sitting directly beside the posted bus times. I instantly dislike people who do this when none of the other seats on the bench are taken, but it's one of the few spots in the shade so I don't think anything of it. He smiles and waves, I smile and nod back and he... keeps waving. Since to check the bus times I need to walk and stand right beside him, I assume he simply didn't see my previous gesture. I force the smile a little larger and nod again and he... keeps waving. Sighing inwardly, my smile slips, but I give a very awkward wave back. We exchanged about two sentences before I managed to disengage.

I've played this game so many times, I know it well. Once men hit a certain age, they assume they're no longer a threat to younger women (and there is a certain level of truth to that) and therefore they can flirt and chat them up under the guise of being harmless. Often enough they simply are harmless, but they're not always. Some of these men feel entitled to the attention of younger women like they feel entitled to a pension. They feel it's a right of age, something they've earned. The harmless old men are all smiles and are happy to leave it at a smile and nod if that's all you offer. This man kept going until I returned the gesture he was giving, and once I sat down on the other end of the stop (a small one, two benches) he kept staring at me. Which meant that as I looked around at what a beautiful, bright sunny day it was, I had to be very careful not to look to my right. I knew if I made eye contact that was it, he'd be talking to me.

It is times like these I am thankful for cellphones. It is at the point where I just start texting friends to avoid looking at this man that another man, younger, walks out, and just grins at me. Not a "Hi lovely day I'm in a good mood" sort of grin, but a "I am picturing you naked right now" sort of grin. I look back down to my phone and wonder if I am extra cute that day or what. As I wonder that, I get more and more annoyed.

I have done nothing to invite this attention, I'm not dressed "sexily" and I am reminded that short of wearing a burka, there is nothing I can do to discourage this sort of attention- and even then I'm sure some people see burkas as a "challenge". When strange men look at me, they don't see me as a person with thoughts and feelings as complex as their own who maybe doesn't want to be gawked at like a hunk of fucking meat, they see a decoration. They see one of God's works of art, put on this Earth just for them! If I were to protest their stares, they would be denied. If they weren't denied, I would be told to lighten up, it was a compliment! Or I would be told they weren't staring because they were attracted, they were staring because I was just so fat and ugly like, whoa, how arrogant am I? I should know better, being a lowly woman.

The fact is that being leered at by strangers, no matter what I wear, is normal. It's so normal that I am left with no recourse, no defense. So I sit there with my head down, paying as much attention as I can muster to my book, or my phone, or my mp3 player, even though the little voice in my head is screaming that these men are potential threats--because, growing up, girls are told any stranger is a dangerous stranger, and doubly so for men. But what can I do? Tell them to stop staring? Tell them off? That just invites aggression, and maybe even violence. It's easier to just keep my head down while I feel guilty for not standing up for myself, and angry that I should have to.


  1. This kind of thing is SO INFURIATING, not to mention occasionally panic-inducing, and I see it all the time. People always say things like "Don't be ridiculous, it's a compliment", "Don't worry about it, everything's fine", or "You should feel flattered", but this confuses me. It's like when you mention someone is practically stalking you and won't leave you alone, and you get told off because you should feel so special and wanted. What? I have been in situations like this, and it is nothing less than creepy and frightening. Our society still has the mentality of "men will be men, they're slaves to their lust, just ignore it and hope it will go away." But what if they ARE dangerous? If you end up getting in trouble, it's seen as being your own fault because you didn't say anything. In situations like this, I feel really powerless, and it's quite frankly terrifying. Even if you have reason to feel threatened, sometimes you can't bring yourself to do anything because you're scared of getting hurt, and society tells us if we ignore it it will go away. There should be ways to fix this, but... there just aren't.

  2. "I am reminded that short of wearing a burka, there is nothing I can do to discourage this sort of attention- and even then I'm sure some people see burkas as a "challenge". "
    According to my (Lebanese) Modern Middle Eastern history professor there are, in fact, advertising campaigns which objectify burka clad women to sell products. This sort of thing is the very essence of cannot fucking win.

  3. It's awful and inexcusable to say 'take it as a compliment' because it's not, is it. if someone thinks you're attractive, but is a decent person, they won't sit and leer at you. they'll either approach you respectfully and take no for an answer and go away, or they will decide not to and keep a distance, because they won't want you to feel creeped out. at least that's how I behave. I see attractive men in the street, but I don't ogle them, I'd be extremely uncomfortable staring at someone because I know it is extremely uncomfortable being stared at. I don't understand why so many people seem to lack this basic awareness of how other people feel.

    but there's also a horrible self-hating flipside to this. I am a fat woman (UK size 16-18). No one has looked at me on the street since I was a size 12 years ago. I am actually invisible. I walk down the street or go for a drink or whatever, and men's eyes just pass over me as if I was a bin or a tree or a chair. If they catch my eye by accident, they turn away. If I do get in a situation like queuing for a drink where I make a harmless comment just to ease any social awkwardness, they are curt and unfriendly.

    So unfortunately, for me myself, I do have a hateful initial gut reaction of 'at least you're pretty enough to attract it'. That's not good enough and I correct myself when I think it, because a/ it's the fault of the men who leer, NOT the women they leer at, and I would never want to get close to what sounds like it could be ascribing any responsibility to women who get leered at and b/ because being leered at does NOT make you feel in any way complimented, or good about yourself, or anything like that and c/ because it's part of a wider societal problem.

    But when you're so ugly that no one, no one, no one ever looks at you, it's very hard not to envy those who do get looked at just a little bit. I'm sorry about that, and I don't want to have these thoughts and I don;t expect any sympathy from people who wish they never got looked at. But society so conditions us to tie up our self worth in whether or not people find us attractive, that some of us really struggle with this. I would never say 'you should feel special' because I absolutely realise that it makes you feel anything from creeped out to infuriated to terrified; but I might think 'I wish someone would look at me.'

  4. There is enough in this comment to fill its own post, and may have just helped me figure out the framing of something I was working on, so, thank you.

  5. Saw a T-shirt a while ago -- Not Here For Your Viewing Pleasure. Because one isn't.

  6. I admit to feeling the same way more often than I'd like. I've been told by a lot of people that I'm very attractive, and no one has really ever called me ugly (well, not since I used to get picked on in middle school :P), but I have struggled most of my life with crippling self esteem problems despite this. I work in the pipeline business as a field office worker for an inspection company, so I work around about 700-1000 (depending on the project) men who spend months working away from home and was obviously warned when I started working it that men being pervy jackasses would be a serious problem. But it hasn't been a problem *at all*. For me. It HAS been a problem for the women I work with. And as disgusted as I know I would feel if it were happening to me too, I can't help but feel a little bit of jealousy. I can't help but let it fuel my low self esteem. I can't help but feel like I'm too ugly to ever get anyone's attention, even though I *know* I don't want that kind of attention. I've seen what it does to people. But part of me really really wishes someone would look at me like that... In my darkest moments I sometimes think 'if I can't even get the perverts to look at me, how will anyone I actually like ever find me attractive?'

    The worst part of all of that is that I did actually used to get that kind of attention, back when I used to walk everywhere I would have assholes hooting at me from cars. And when they would do that, I would feel AWFUL. I wanted to hide away from the world. I wanted to be invisible. But then I became invisible... I want to feel pretty, but when I feel pretty I get leered at and then I don't want to feel pretty anymore. It ruins my happiness and taints my small window of self confidence, making it feel dirty and wrong, making feeling good about myself feel dirty and wrong. And even knowing that, I can't shut up that part of me that wishes someone would look at me like that again... The part of me that feels that bad attention if better than no attention at all.

  7. Thank you so so much for posting. You've described exactly how I feel, better than I could.

  8. Great post, thank you very much for expressing how every woman in the world feels - you are awesome!