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Why We Smile at Men Who Sexually Harass Us

by Mind & Relationships about a year ago in body
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The Sexism of Telling Women to Smile??

Why are you always interacting with them? They wouldn't keep talking to you if you didn't involve them.”

It's late at night and bitterly cold, and I'm waiting for a bus with my then-boyfriend at a bus stop. We've just left a show and are trying to get home, but our evening has been disrupted, and it's all my fault, apparently.

An inebriated man stands about two feet away, swaying like a thin tree in the wind and staring me down. I was just thinking about how he'd keep warm because he seems to be living in severe poverty and is most likely sleeping outside tonight.

I'm still concerned, but I'm also irritated, mostly on behalf of my boyfriend, who seems to be distressed by the encounter.

The man's knuckles are wrapped around a garbage can, and one finger of his other hand is beckoning me. He's already spoken about my body and appearance to me, too personal and smelling like hard liquor. He keeps bouncing from his garbage can to me and back, prompting me to engage in conversation with him. This goes on for at least ten minutes, during which time I am polite and my boyfriend becomes increasingly agitated.

It's not the sexual harassment that irritates me. This isn't scary or even unpleasant for me. Every day is like this. I get out of the building. Men converse with me. I hold my breath, am courteous, and unflappable, and then I return home. Repetition is essential. Repetition is essential. Repetition is essential.

What irritates me is that I am being held responsible for this moment, for this interaction. This isn't new to me—the it's cost of living my life and going places—but it is new to him. And he isn't happy about it.

“Just don't say anything to him. My boyfriend assures me that he will leave. His face is flushed, and he seems anxious, if not outright terrified, of what the man would do next to us — to him.

I'm not afraid because I'm following the procedures I've learned to keep us both safe. The very thing that my boyfriend believes is causing this conflict is the very thing that I know will ensure that it is resolved more quickly and without incident.

While we wait, I maintain a polite demeanour.

When I get home, I sometimes tell my boyfriend about how persistent these kinds of encounters are, how pervasive they are. He seems shocked, but I have the impression that he, like many other guys, believes I'm exaggerating.

I can't say I blame him; most people don't understand the gravity of a situation unless they've been through it themselves. This is the first time he's ever seen anything like this in public. It's never happened to him before.

And, of course, he's advised me to disregard it because that seems to be the most rational course of action. Isn't it true that if you neglect anything, it will go away?

This time, though, he is a witness. His presence by my side has little effect on the drunk man because, as much as men want to believe that simply being present is enough to shield women from other men, this is rarely the case.

For example, on a City bus, a man put his hand on my leg and physically blocked my way as I tried to wriggle away, while the man on the other side, someone's white-collar business dad tempted in by the prospect of nicer seats and outlets on the bus, looked worried but said nothing.

For instance, during a cigarette break, a customer cornered me in the alley outside the restaurant where I worked, and two college men lingered with a concerned air, but eventually decided to continue walking.

For instance, despite the presence of an extremely anxious male friend who was graciously walking me home "for protection," a man who was visibly having a psychotic break swung a padlock at me and threatened to "smash your face, bitch." He later inquires as to how I was able to stay so composed, and I simply shrug.

For instance, when I was walking with my current partner and a drunk man stumbled out of a bar and waved a golf club in our direction, he locked his gaze on me, but my partner was the one who was the most upset. I comply with the request just long enough to direct us to a bodega until the man departs.

It's difficult to be disrupted by anything that occurs so often because if I allowed myself to be disturbed every time, I'd never be able to leave the house again — something I'm reminded of whenever a man is present for an incident like this and is noticeably rattled and unsure of what to do or how to respond.

Seeing it happen this time, on the other hand, does not seem to elicit empathy from my boyfriend. Instead, it reaffirms what he already knows. I didn't dismiss the guy, and now he's here, in our midst, soaking up our time and attention like water. He spoke to me because I smiled and was friendly — though, of course, I was paying no attention to him until he demanded my attention. Except for existing as a woman, which for many men is more than enough, I was doing nothing to attract this man's leering and sexually provocative language.

“Seriously, don't be sweet to him anymore. You're causing more harm than good.”

This conclusion exhausts me because we've discussed it and he should know better, and I'm tired of holding the hands of men in my life while still clenching my fists as strangers invade my room and demand my time.

It's also demonstrably false. Since he hasn't lived it every day, he doesn't know what makes it worse. He has a lot less anecdotal evidence than I do.

For all intents and purposes, he is one of the "good ones." He took part in the event Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. The Vagina Monologues have been shown to him. He's read Judith Butler and Bell Hooks, and he's familiar with both the male gaze and the Bechdel Test. He would never go out of his way to harass a woman on the street. He will never point the finger at the accused.

Except when it happens to me, which is right now and every time. It's all all my fault. This was done by me. Because of me, the guy makes my boyfriend uncomfortable.

Being an ally has the advantage of requiring very little nuance of understanding. Is it possible to detect sexism in a beer commercial? You're a supporter. Do you lament the pay disparity between men and women? You're a supporter.

Is it fair to blame women for men's sexual harassment actions in daily situations? So...

This was one of those rare occasions in life when acts are relatively quiet but words are a seething mass.

Men who scream derogatory things about me from their cars or from the street. The men who accompany me back to my house. As I squeak by for a bus seat, the men whose hands slide up the back of my skirt. The men who, in broad daylight, wave their limp, rubbery genitalia at me. The men who have expressed their affection for me by raising their hand.

They do it, the world still seems to believe (despite so many articles like this) not because we've told them all their lives that my body is their property and my attention is their right, but because I've smiled, dressed, moved, or existed in a way that gave them permission.

Never mind that talking, laughing, and acting in a passive, respectful, and permissive manner saved my life.

Never mind the times when a man went from seemingly warm and charming to frightful and frightening in the blink of an eye, as if he were flipping a playing card, when I even hinted that I didn't want to speak.

Never mind that once, a man at a bar whose advances had simply become too much to bear spit in my face when I explained that I was only trying to read alone.

Never mind that asking a lecherous man on the corner not to fuck with me one day when I was tired of being treated like a commodity prompted him to show me his knife and tell me to be grateful for his "compliments, fat slut" prompted him to show me his knife and tell me to be grateful for his "compliments."

Never mind the inferences that can be drawn from a plain no:

You don't think you're good enough for me? or So you're a lesbian, right? or Didn't anyone ever teach you that ignoring people is impolite?

Surprisingly, no, and in fact, I'm constantly told to do the exact opposite.

Then there's the issue of gratitude: shouldn't you be grateful? Isn't it nice to have so many people interested in you that they disrupt your day? Wouldn't it be wonderful to be showered with compliments at random times?

However, the answer is no, since the vast majority of the words I hear are not intended to be kind. They're designed to corrode.

Many men feel invisible in the world, which is due to both toxic masculinity and their peers. When your ears are full of "compliments" that sound more like warnings, every step forward becomes noise, and every interaction becomes a potentially dangerous or unpleasant situation.

We're advised not to pay attention to sexual harassment because it's coming from a good man. We are supposed to recognise the difference right away and respond accordingly. Since there is no correct response, we always get it wrong.

Men, on the other hand, are the ones who tell us how to manage these circumstances. When, in truth, it is we, the victims, who have the most knowledge.

It happens regardless of what I'm wearing, how I'm doing, or how I'm moving around the world. It's not something I do or how I behave. It's just my presence — that's all!

Often it's done for the best of intentions. That isn't always the case. Often it's with no other motive than to disrupt and interject — someone really has something they want to say or do to me and sees no reason why they shouldn't.

It's not a matter of if, but when and how much it will happen. How many times have you done it today? How many more will I have to do this for the rest of my life? How many of them will turn sour? How many of them would put my life in jeopardy?

I can't get it to stop or turn down the sound. What I can do is make sure it doesn't get any worse.

As a result, I smile. I even strike up a conversation. And I'm charming and nice, even swallowing hot stomach acid to spit out the words "thank you," because these are the acts that, through trial and error, have proven to be the most effective.

The indignation is subdued by a slight smile. A reciprocal wave keeps things civil. The man outside the drugstore is deterred from following me any further by a forced chuckle. When I'm stuck in line, a full-fledged conversation helps me figure out if this person is aggressive or just overly polite.

It's inconvenient and ineffective. It makes me apprehensive and cautious. It makes me think about every interaction I have in public.

This is inherently unfair; it is a pleasurable pleasure for the men who threaten me, who invade my space and claim my time and attention, who give themselves permission to touch me. They believe they are being heard, seen, respected, and validated.

In the other hand, it has the opposite effect on me.

And yes, I am aware that by doing so — by using courtesy as a tool of self-defense — I am actively facilitating and promoting the action, as well as contributing to the issue.

But my body is not a frontline in this war, and my personal safety is not a commodity I'm willing to trade to put an end to it because it will continue even if I cash it in.

I'd rather get home safe at night than take on the task of ending male entitlement when it comes my way, because the fact is that my compliance doesn't trigger male entitlement, and my lack of compliance isn't enough to avoid it.

I won't be able to correct centuries of conditioning, approval, and even motivation if I avoid using politeness as a shield. I'm not going to convince a man who believes my body is his to own to rethink a lifetime of experience that tells him otherwise.

I'm not going to end anything but my own life.

If I refuse to comply, I will almost certainly be harmed. The most likely outcome is that nothing will change, and that instead of being annoyed by harassment, I will revert to active fear or worse.

As a result, each day I make the decision to accept being a part of the issue for the time being, knowing that my contribution is the tiniest. I often want to be a part of the issue because the solution, "only avoiding it," is also a part of it.

Asking women to "just forget it" is, of course, another way of telling them to be silent. We'll be safe if we keep quiet. They'll leave if we keep silent.

Many of the men who don't bully women or help themselves to our bodies will feel better about their own silence if we're silent.

The tiredness overwhelms me on this specific night, with this specific man who should know better because he prides himself on knowing and hearing women, and I can no longer be a part of it.

“No, he won't,” I say. He won't leave us alone and won't go anywhere, so 'engaging' is one of the best ways I know to keep myself safe.”

And with that, we're off.

I unload all of the little bits of indignity that I have carried around with me for all of these years for the entire bus ride home (the bus finally arrives). And I don't give a damn if he hears it or understands it because I mostly just need to say these stuff. These are only a few of the items I've listed so far.

“Harassment is not the same as offering a compliment,” “telling women to be quiet will not fix the problem,” and “blaming my conduct is exactly what we mean when we say ‘victim-blaming.'”

I've repeated this exact storey many times to many men in the years since that night, in part because being quiet — or simply denying it — does not make women safer, and I need you to know that.

I just want you to be aware of it.

When men tell us that not all men harass women, I remind them that all women (really, all) have endured this at least once, and most likely many, many times more.

And no matter how many times we've been the victims of this — no matter how many times someone has touched us, screamed at us, beat us, raped us, spit on us, stalked us, harassed us, or propositioned us — we've been told to just forget it.

We don't have the luxury of ignoring harassment, let's face it. Since that is what keeps us alive, we participate and be kind.

It's now up to everyone to participate.

If you're tired of reading about women being abused and hearing our articles about it, it's probably because you've been avoiding it, and we don't think you should have that luxury.

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About the author

Mind & Relationships

Writer, Director and Producer of @sirenVD | Author of #DepressionToMotivation

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