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Takin’ it to the Streets: She Ain't Me (The Problem of Self-Esteem)

This photo shows a young man and a young woman woman talking to each other on the street. Both appear to be enjoying the interaction.Reading posts about street harassment from around the web, I've noticed a theme in many comments sections:

"Usually it's women who are low in self esteem and lack a sense of self worth who just put up with [street harassment] and enjoy it since they need a validation of their looks." Raven

"Some women actually like having those types of comments throw (sic) at them. I've seen it happen and I felt disgusted. I guess if your self-esteem is low enough you like that attention." starxduzt

"I have enough self esteem of my own, and I don't need to accept a compliment from some slob on the side of the road to feel good about myself." Juno Eclipse

"I've actually seen girls flattered by that approach of yelling and touching. Of course they're most likely girls with low self esteem looking for any type of validation from the opposite sex." Quixotic1018

The disdain in comments like these is palpable and the message they hold is clear: if you're a girl or woman who likes receiving overt sexual attention from men and boys (in public), it's because you lack the self-respect necessary to throw off the confines of external validation regarding female sexuality and beauty. We hear this self-esteem argument in various places, including conversations about female promiscuity, girls and women who wear revealing clothing, and the reasons women become sex workers. The underlying assumption in this logic is that desiring or expressly seeking out male sexual attention is the result of having low self-esteem.

For starters, comments of this kind set up a false dichotomy of women who have self-confidence and those who lack it (as though we don't all struggle with confidence in various circumstances), which allows the speaker to denigrate and "other" women who engage with men unfamiliar to them in a sexual manner on the street, blame these women (at least in part) for the problem of street harassment, and bolster one's own sense of personal integrity and moral superiority. The logic goes like this: if women who tolerate street harassment are duped and weak, then those who don't tolerate it are savvy and strong. And since I want to perceive myself, and be perceived by others, as a strong and savvy woman, then I shouldn't tolerate (much less enjoy) being objectified or sexualized by men I don't know. Oh, if it were only that simple.

For a long time, I identified with that line of thinking, but at some point things got murky for me. For one, I started considering the implications of growing up in a society that assigns value to women and girls according to their perceived beauty and got real with myself about my own relationship to that perception. Try as I might to be a "good" feminist who doesn't judge a book by its cover (especially when that book is my own), the desire to feel pretty just would not disappear, nor would its connection to the commentary of other people whose opinions held weight for me: my partner, my friends, my family, and sometimes even strangers and acquaintances I found attractive. To receive positive reinforcement of my appearance felt good, especially as I aged and stopped fighting the ubiquity of my belly.

Naturally, this begs the question: who determines the difference between a compliment and street harassment? The simple answer is: you do. The not-so-simple-answer is that we all do... and it depends heavily on context. If John Abraham sat next to me on the subway, said "Good afternoon, beautiful lady," then asked me for my name, I'd be much more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and, rightly or wrongly, be more lenient when sussing out the situation's level of safety. But because most of the men who speak to me in the subway are guys to whom I don't feel the slightest bit of attraction, my response leans toward feeling my safety may be in jeopardy and my thought goes something like this: "Why does he feel so entitled to approach me?!" (Or, if I'm being really honest, "Does he really think I'm so unattractive and desperate that I'd bother talking to some busted dude who approaches me on the street?!" Newsflash: That ain't low self-esteem. That's arrogance.) To varying degrees, these responses are at least partially rooted in my own desire to feel attractive. So, why isn't an exploration of our desires and how they do or don't fit into social norms a more prominent feature of the way we talk about street harassment?

I think the way conversations about street harassment are typically framed now leaves little room for this kind of honesty without the fear of being judged. It's hard to go against the grain and open oneself up to that level of vulnerability. (Sidenote: my hope is that commenters on this post particularly will recognize the difficulty of my being forthcoming before crafting their responses.) Also, the type of complexity that would come up in those conversations doesn't lend itself to the kinds of quick-fix solutions contemporary feminism gravitates toward. Many times, when women do confess their mixed feelings about street harassment (especially when they're older, fat, trans, or a woman of color in a white community who express feeling sad about the fact that their kind of beauty is rarely acknowledged or valued by strangers in public, and that when it does happen it can feel nice), the responses can be pretty nasty... if it's even responded to at all. I suppose one could blame this response on low-self esteem, but it might also be a function of being real with oneself about the necessity to negotiate the space one occupies in the social hierarchy and feeling sad about having to constantly struggle with not internalizing one's lack of social value—and that takes an enormous amount of personal strength and self-worth.

We all need to do some critical analysis of the intersections of oppression, self-esteem, street harassment, sexual desire, and social desirability. And I wish we were more purposeful about doing it in a way that validates the fact that our respective points of entry are not the same, and that wasn't so quick to dismiss the experiences of folks who come at this issue from a different point of entry.

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Comments

49 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Thank you!

Thank you for voicing this! I'm sure many women would never admit getting any satisfaction out of having a stranger "appreciate" their appearance but I totally agree with what you're saying.
I've found that for me, the line between "Hey, that hot guy is checking me out!" and "Omg, did that fugly guy just yell at ME?" can get blurry. The balance between how hot I think I look in any given situation and how hot the guy in question is determines whether or not advances are pleasant or scary. Obviously flirtatious stolen-glances on the bus are a much more mild approach than yelling some sleazy pick up line, so the behavior of the potential harasser big makes a difference too. I know it's a shallow way of viewing the world but women are always under the gaze, and sometimes we gaze back.

Fantastic post, thank you so

Fantastic post, thank you so much for writing it. I think you've touched on a really key issue to public discussion on street harassment. And you're right, the line between a compliment and harassment can be very blurry at times. I will freely admit that I have no problem with people commenting on me being "pretty" or "beautiful", depending on the context. It all depends on the commenter, the situation we're in, etc etc... It's not entirely clear-cut.

Thank you.

I don't hate it

So here's the thing about street harassment--when I was 14, I found it to be kind of complimentary that some guy honked at me while I was passing. In retrospect, it was pretty creepy that some guy was doing that since I was very clearly underage in my jean booty shorts, but I don't think that outweighs the fact it gave me more of a self esteem booster than harmed it. It made me look in the mirror and go, "Hm, I do look pretty today." While that attention may have not been necessarily reciprocated or desired, it was appreciated.

Personally (and sorry if this makes me bait to get yelled at), if some guy today in my mid-twenties honks a horn at me while I'm walking or yells "Hey Beautiful!" I'm still not offended. 9 times out of 10 I don't look at the guy, see if he's attractive, and I know he's not the kind of guy I'd want to date. I would never want to date the kind of person who screams out at random girls on the street, and most women I know also wouldn't. But I don't see it as harassment because it doesn't make me uncomfortable. It normally makes me laugh and shake my head.

I find harassment to be more when I'm sitting on the metro and someone I'm not attracted to sits next to me and starts an unwilling conversation with me and begins asking details about my life and who I am. Even then, is that harassment or is it just some guy hitting on me and I'm not reciprocating?

I have the general rule that if I feel uncomfortable, then it equals harassment. But I've never been genuinely uncomfortable by some guy passing me on the street and whistling. If that means I have poor self confidence, then so be it.

I'm one of those women who

I'm one of those women who hate being objectified by men on the street and will often voice my displeasure for their whatever rude or lewd comments have been made. It strikes me as funny that people see women who will not tolerate that type of behavior as strong or savvy. I simply don't like being looked at nor do I like having my entire personality judged by what I look like on the outside because I don't have the highest self-esteem and would rather just be left alone. I can't even accept compliments from people I know because it makes me ridiculously uncomfortable and I feel utterly unworthy of said compliments. However, I'm completely capable of taking criticism. Go figure.

I think the problem with addressing issues of self-esteem when it comes to women is that everything is so generalized. If a woman is pretty then she must have high self-esteem. If a woman is not model standard then she must have low self-esteem. To me it seems like this is a fight within feminist culture itself; to define what a feminist is and is not and to define who is weak and who is strong. We are not each other and none of us have any room to judge one another. And maybe, just maybe, the women who do enjoy this type of attention haven't been made aware of the fact that things don't have to be that way anymore or, maybe, they enjoy the attention because they did put a lot of effort into how they look and they're reaping what they see as the benefits of their hard work. You can't really say and it's not appropriate to assume that every woman who does enjoy "attention" from strangers has low self-esteem. Perhaps, we should ask those women what they think instead of making guesses.

I think you are dangerously

I think you are dangerously confusing two things. An unwanted sexual comment or compliment on your looks is not the same thing as harassment. I see that you are attempting to say just that- but instead you are saying that they are one in the same and that harassment is not what we think it is. As women may be sometimes too quick to put a label on someone they find unattractive and call it harassment- I don't think that is nearly as painful as the issue of the many women who are actually harassed, openly and stealthily on subway cars, streets, and by men they know quite well- and not doing anything about it. Not even being able to identify it. The probable amount of times you or I- meaning people who are aware and educated enough to call and associate themselves with Feminism- have been harassed and touched and then just went about our day without saying a word is staggering. Why didn't we say anything? Being in a constant state of fear is a huge women's issue and I feel the wrong thing is being paid attention to here. This is just what makes women doubt themselves when they are attempting to identify if they have just been harassed. ("People will get mad at me/ I'm making too much of it/ It's just my own ego") These hesitant thoughts is part of what exactly contributes to low self esteem. And as I do respect the thoughts you are speaking of- we have all had them and have all let our arrogance get in the way- I think it distracts and is actually harmful to the real women's issue at hand.

Thank you - your comments

Thank you - your comments fill in where the author left off and I think the two are quite complimentary.

I think the root problem with

I think the root problem with street harassment is between 'wanted attention' and 'unwanted attention' coupled with societal expectations, and not a matter of self-esteem or lack thereof. We are trained to expect to be valued for our beauty,sexiness, etc and street harassment is public recognition of that. A guy you like the look of saying 'hi beautiful,' and you subsequently feeling flattered does not equal low self-esteem, it is rather a perfectly normal contextual response.

You bring up the gross guy coming on to you and being subsequently grossed out. You equate that with arrogance, and there I am going to have to firmly disagree. Your desires are your desires, just as mine are mine, and I do not want people that I do not desire thinking that they have a right to get off with me. I want to stress that word there, RIGHT. An article I read ages ago made the brilliant comment, 'Your rights end where my rights begin,' and that has always stuck with me. The ultimate problem with street harassment is that certain men think that they have a RIGHT to say anything sexual to anyone, and possibly even that they have a RIGHT to a positive response (even when they consistently receive a negative one). I have a right to not be bothered, and no one has a right to infringe on my right to be left alone on the streets.

I want to applaud your courage in being open and honest about your responses to street harassment, as ambivalence is not a generally valued response.

Blame it on the girls

Thanks for this article.

Once again as soon as people bring attention to a wrong committed against women here come other women who have to place blame on the women. Whether or not a woman has low self esteem the man controls what he does or says to her. He's the one that decided to yell out like an idiot in the first place before she has the chance to respond.

But yes there is DEFINITELY a difference between a compliment and street harrassment.

Speaking from personal experience, I had hella self esteem issues growing up. I'm black, not skinny at all and dark skinned. Pretty much everything about me is what societ says is NOT BEAUTIFUL but I still feel extremely uncomfortable walking in my old neighborhood and hearing guys yell out "Hey sexy chocolate" and "you got a fat @ss" or other derogatory "compliments."

Now if someone stops me to say that I have a beautiful smile I don't consider that street harassment.

I think that men need to be held accountable for the things they do and people especially other women need to stop blaming women. It only serves to keep us oppressed.

Girl Power & Spice up your life!!!!

I think I'm like some of the

I think I'm like some of the other commenters. I don't see the lines blurred. There have been guys who I have no attraction to who came up to me on the street and served me a compliment or may be ask for my number. And when I decline they walk away, compliment, not harassment. Harassment when they whistle at you, when they look at you up in down, when they follow you after, you've expressed you're not interested. Yell that they want to perform type of sex act with you. When they say something that has an added racial slur to it. I personally don't think the lines blur

Same here. There's never been

Same here. There's never been a question in my mind about what constitutes harassment. When somebody, regardless of how attractive I find them, pays me a genuine compliment with a positive attitude and no entitlement to a positive response (that is, someone who says "You look great today." and smiles and leaves if I don't seem interested), it's obviously a compliment. When somebody makes animal noises in my direction and screams slurs at me when I flip them off or don't respond, that's harassment. When somebody encroaches on my personal space, doesn't let me walk away, or otherwise seems entitled to my time and my positivity, that's harassment.

from this man's perspective

First I'll have to watch the movie fat girl again to rethink the movie's message on welcomed and un-welcomed sexual encounters.

I guess it also depends on the guy, so it also depends on his appearance. Does this problem then becomes an issue of vanity? If is is an issue of vanity, then, are you to tell me that Bitch magazine is bitching (here comes the bitch slap) about a problem on vanity. To be honest with you, I think that's a boring subject.

So what's a man to do? What should I do? recognize where my advances might be welcome and where they won't. Then it becomes an issue of the male's self esteem (or arrogance).

My personal solution is to not behave that way. It is crass and intimidating. I just don't do it. But many times I have seen women that have struck me by their beauty that I wished that I could have turned around, reached them and said how their beauty made me feel. But then I think "what does she care about how I feel. I'm sure she gets harassed by staring morons and howling imbeciles all her life, she does not need me as another one of those idiots in her life." Men need to stop thinking that they are supposed to do that.

But then, why dress provocatively? are the Talibans right? and what constitutes provocative? is the wonder bra an instrument of visual stimulation, how should then a man react? keep it in your pants? or come hither invitation? Then it all depends on the fellow's good lucks. Back to vanity.

I depressed myself. Youth is wasted on the young.

Compliments

You can feel free to compliment women if you like. There are ways to tell a woman she is beautiful without being deragatory or making her feel like a peice of meat. I think that if you just tell her she's beautiful or stunning in her outfit that she won't take offense. Unless she's just anti-looks which in case she probably won't be wearing a wonder bra, lol

Girl Power & Spice up your life!!!!

erring on the side of caution

Thanks for this, Carlos. I think you're right to be cautious with your approach, and it's great that you've clearly given a lot thought to how your actions may be perceived. Hopefully you speak with other guys about this and encourage them to do the same. Cuz until we get past these things that hold us down, that's exactly the kind of thoughtfulness we all should be practicing.

I wanted to respond to your question about why a woman might dress provocatively with a comment I heard Maggie Hadleigh-West say a few years ago when asked the same thing: "When a woman is dressed provocatively, she may want attention, but that doesn't mean she wants attention from YOU." We dress for ourselves. We dress for our lovers (of all genders). We dress for our jobs. We dress for the hell of it. We dress for our religion. There are so many reasons a woman may wear what she wears -- same goes for men, even though we don't talk about that nearly as much -- and I think the problem arises when a wrongheaded assumption is made and acted on in a disrespectful fashion.

LOVE THIS!

Y'all deserve a medal for these amazing and insightful comments. I am immensely enjoying reading all of your thoughts.

This article also brings up,

This article also brings up, for me, the issue of how womens' desire plays into public encounters. As several other posters have said, by line between feeling flattered and feeling grossed out depends heavily on who's talking to me. I think this is something that is not often discussed, and I'm curious as to why. Maybe the idea that women are also judging men in public is uncomfortable, as our society promotes the idea that men judge and women are judged, and not the other way around. My reaction to a flirtatious comment from a man differs wildly based on the guy's appearance and age (not to sound ageist, but I do not welcome sexual advances from men more than twice my age. I just don't. I don't welcome them from high-school age boys, either). For me, in short, the distinction between being flattered and being creeped relies heavily on context. The line, "You're a lovely young lady," can be a nice compliment or totally creeptastic based on the situation. I've experienced both. (Note: this would apply, for me, to female admirers as well, but men tend to be more vocal about these things. At least, that's what I've seen.)

And yes, the self-esteem argument pops up everywhere, it seems, and in my experience is usually detrimental to women (and kids). I've been told that doing what I want to do is a result of having "low self esteem" so many times I've lost count, and in my experience it's often used as a manipulative tactic to get me to behave in a way someone else wants.

Response To Article

I am one of those who do not enjoy nor like street harassment. I used to be a ten, by other's standards, by my own I was a nine. This led to being harassed daily everywhere I went. I could not find the men who I wanted to date, because I was inundated being bombarded with conversations from men who I would not date. It was so bad, so frequent, even at the gas station. I...became unwell. I have been raped multiple times in my past, and this brought out PTSD. I became fearful to go to the grocery store. It became a condition. At the time I made money as an gentleman's club top dancer. I had to lie when I was at work and say that I liked it. But of course I didn't, mostly. I did enjoy feeling like a star, when it happened. I did enjoy being treated like a princess. But I detested a lot of the attention that I got. It was gross. But I had to say that I did. It was my job to get them to think that I wanted them, while teasing them. I was not a prostitute. I actually stopped having sex in my personal life part way through that job just so that I could scoff at everyone who assumed that I was a slut. In my personal life, my curves and lack of knowing how to dress properly at the time, caused others to think I was a slut. I just looked different in outfits then most. Now I am obese. I don't get hardly any attention. Now I know how to dress sophisticated as I am older now. But I still don't want to be groped or to be harassed. I am very scared to lose all of the weight (80 pounds) and look like that again. I was harassed badly. But I want my body back. Now I would like a compliment now and then, but not the type that I received then. So I understand someone wishing for that type of attention assuming it will validate them. There is a big misconception of the objectification being nice. It's not. It's gross and hurtful. Presently, I am white in a neighborhood of mexicans mostly. So I am the minority. I am poor and was brought up in the ghetto. I have internalized societies view on my poverty, my class status. When I was more young I was able to still think of myself internally as beyond that stigma. But it hasn't lasted. Now it hurts. Thank you for reminding me of that. P.S. I was a dancer because I saw no other way to make good money, while working part time on my own projects for my future career.

For me the difference between

For me the difference between a compliment and harassment is that a compliment would be saying that I look beautiful, harassment would be someone saying (or implying) that they want to have sex with me, that I should come over and sit on their lap etc. I actually don't mind receiving compliments from men I don't find attractive, in fact i think I'm more comfortable with it the older they are (because frequently it feels more platonic). Other factors for how threatened I feel would include whether it's one person or a group (groups being more threatening) and body language. And yes, I enjoy compliments.

As for people sitting next to me on the metro and starting to talk to me, I think it depends on whether it's a "I want to know about you" or "I want to have a conversation" kind of deal, the latter being much less creepy.

And thank you for this post.

This is brilliant [but...]

This is a very perceptive -- and very brave -- piece, Mandy. Reading it was a delight. It takes serious courage to stand up and say, yes, well, I can be a bit arrogant at times about my position on the looks-ladder. And you've had some very thoughtful comments too, even those that disagree with you. I don't intend to belittle or normalise their experiences of harassment with my views.

However, for someone who grew up in India (to take just one example out of many), a place where unsought compliments and conversations on public transport can be constituted as harassment sounds like a blessed land of female safety. I don't remotely consider "Hey beautiful!" from a passing man harassing because:

a. I don't think I'm the supreme dictator of all I survey, such that other people's freedom of speech and expression should be subject the strength or fragility of my self-esteem. If I dislike compliments being tossed my way, I exercise my own freedom of speech with variety and considerable vigour. But to consider it my right to curb other people's freedom at will is, I think, a very dangerous path to follow.

b. the 'compliments' I grew up with were not "hey beautiful". They were "look at those juicy tits! Three kilos of plump delight, mmmm!", followed by mimed slurping and squishing. Or loud moans about the roundness of an arse, followed by grinding their crotches against their palms.

And on many occasions, following it up with asking her loudly how much she'd charge for an hour's pleasure. This is usually greeted with laughter from other men on the streets, or embarrassed and outraged silence. And it always ends where you have begun -- sure, those are rotten men, but men will be men, and ultimately, it must somehow have been the woman's fault. No one dares to really say the woman enjoys this, because this goes SO far beyond a potential well-meant compliment, but her clothing, bearing, and manner are immediately scrutinised and found wanting, because "Why didn't those men target the other women on the street, eh?"

In fallible logic, that. And unlike the cases you described, the woman can't even hold her head high and say, "Because I was the most attractive of the lot. So there".

*Infallible

*Infallible

This dilemma is everywhere

I really like that people acknowledge the difficulties with this and similar situations. I am going through a very similar dilemma. I am a Latin American living in Germany. In some situations it makes me mad or sad to always be seen as a foreigner or as a stranger because that's all people see in me. Then again, my friends dont see me as a foereigner at all, which is mostly nice but it sucks when we're talking about political things and if they completely forget that I wasnt born German, it bothers me too because I feel violated in my identity for only having the aspects of myself acknowledged that are easy for them to comprehend because they are the ones that are not related to my foreignness.

So depending on the circumstances, it can bother me to be seen as foreign and it can bother me to be seen as belonging.

A think that this ambivalence is present in many discussion points of the dynamics between discriminated and discriminating individuals and as much as I have thought about it, I cant come to a way to dissolve the ambivalence.

What single boys think

I've discussed this subject with long-term single guys. ¨They tell me that if they don't try talking to girls, they won't get any girlfirend : ie it's a good solution to talk to as many girls as possible to have a higher probability.

And i think THAT's a big part of the problem : i won't go out with a random guy which i know tried several other girls before me. Plus i'm not single, so i'm not looking for someone. Plus this usually happens late at night when i going HOME in MY bed.

My guy-friends don't think it's harassement, they think they have a right to go talk to a girl (and ask her if she's single, follow her a bit...) and try until they get a success. I don't know about other girls, but when someone is being honest with me, i sense it. I also sense when the guy is just trying because i happen to have boobs -_-'

I was waiting for this

I was waiting for this argument to come up. "But how can I ever find a date unless I shout obscenities at every passer by who I assume has a vagina?!"

Tell them that there is a huge difference between polite interest and harassment. Tell them that if someone doesn't seem interested, they should back off. They are not entitled to a positive reception. Tell them to approach women in different situations. Try online dating, or ask a friend to set them up, or talk to women in a course you're in. There are other options. Tell them to read Shrodinger's Rapist (http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%...) and try to see this from the perspective of the woman being approached.

suggestions for the boys

I think that it's clear that we all have to tread respectfully if we want to talk to people we don't know. Lefties come up with all sorts of fun words for this, be it "step up step back" or "share the air"... while yes, we decide what's street harassment, it's also the duty of people who are considering talking to strangers to look around, think about their particular situation, and think "hey, is this respectful and flattering, or might it be kind of scary and intimidating?"

I just talked to someone who drew to my attention that even the most "flattering" of harassment is rooted in the idea that our female bodies don't belong to us—that they're others to touch, grab, or ask for. And even if people are nice or cute when they're doing those things, I think that's ultimately a problematic position to put women into. Which is why it's crucial that we tread lightly if we decide that's something we're going to do. There are exceptions and there are moments when you see the love of your life, don't pass those up. That's stupid. But don't assume that everyone MUST want you to interrupt their day to comment on their external beauty, either. Take rejection gracefully if that's what happens.

Context is a big issue that

Context is a big issue that street harassers ignore. For me, street harassment started at age 12 with very vulgar and graphic words hurled at me from construction vehicles (mostly). By age 20, the harassment stopped almost completely. In my case, I always felt ugly and vulnerable afterward, and especially when I was younger I was always terrified the men would come back to physically assault me. When I was 18, I was out with a friend and some guys yelled something from a truck (can't remember what, something like "nice asses"), and my friend responded by waving, whereas I responded by giving the finger. When I asked her why she was waving at those jerks, she said 'They're just giving us a compliment.' It had never occurred to me that street harassment could be a compliment, and internally I had the standard 'What, are you stupid? You're better than them and where's your self-esteem?' response. But I realised that we were 18, and that sexual attention from men in their mid 20s wasn't abnormal or creepy/pervy like it was when I was 12. I still didn't like it though, because of my history. My friend very much looked like an awkward tween at age 12, and became more outwardly attractive around age 16 or 17. By that age she had started to define her own sexuality and wanted to be sexually attractive. At age 12, I was physically an adult, but mentally a 12 year old. Sexuality was not on my mind, and definitely not part of how I wanted to define myself. It's possible that if I had received that kind of male attention after I'd started mental sexual development, I might have a more positive view of some forms of what I consider street harassment.

It's Not Black-and-White

Way too many of us are a bit hypocritical on topics like this. It's harassment if it comes from a street thug, but flattering if it's, say, George Clooney. I don't understand this need from women to over-define other women. (Don't we have men to do that?)

The Spinsterlicious Life

Entitlement

"Why does he feel so entitled to approach me?!"

I hope that question refers to someone engaged in street harassment. If not, there may be another question that should be posed: "Why do you feel so entitled not to be approached?!"

Being approached by strangers is a universal human experience. If you go out in public, it's bound to happen sometime. If somebody starts talking to you out of nowhere, and your first reaction is to assume you're sexually desirable or that the stranger is an awful person based on the stranger's appearance... yikes. That said, a measure of caution is always a good idea with strangers AND with the people you know.

My Response

Thanks for your post, Mandy! Here is my response: http://impersonated.blogspot.com/2011/06/self-esteem-and-street-harassme...

I believe in the 3rd to last

I believe in the 3rd to last paragraph where you say "Newsflash: that ain't low self-esteem. That's arrogance," you mean "that ain't High-self-esteem."

Also...

I enjoyed reading this article and think you make some excellent points that I agree with. I think the difference, for me, in terms of 'harassment' vs. polite compliment is approach.

If a guy walks up to me and looks me up and down and makes weirdly overt comments about my body and throws in some type of "What's up baby?" comments, it's harassment to me. It feels like they are stepping over a line without knowing someone's boundaries. It's when it feels more like a sexual come-on than it does a compliment.

If someone passing by just says "you're really pretty" then that is non-aggressive and doesn't feel like harassment.

i find it very saddening that

i find it very saddening that many here want to tell others when they are allowed to feel harassed and when they are 'oversensitive', just can't take a compliment and should get over it. one even raises the question "Why do you feel so entitled not to be approached?!"
well, i'd find it interesting to ask why (some) men want or even 'feel the urge' to make comments (yes, comments not compliments cause it's the recipient who decides if it's a compliment or not) about the looks or moves or whatsoever of strange women in general? what does the man and what does the woman gain from such a comment under what circumstances? and i don't want to confuse the try to get somebody involved in a conversation because you find that person interesting and want to get to know them better with such one-sentence-and-that's-it-comments like some here do.
we always talk about the reactions of women to men's behavior and if they are right or not. when do we start questioning the behavior of men? it's not like their behavior is a natural force and unchangeable. i'm actually sick to get told how to feel and how to react to be a good woman.
this is a rape culture. and as somebody who has experienced rape i don't take any comment on my looks by strangers on the streets as compliment. they are extremely threatening and triggering. nobody of us can know what kind of experiences a stranger on the streets has, is it really too much to ask to respect the personal space of strangers that can so easily be invaded by making comments this person finds inappropriate?
if you really want to make a 'compliment' because you want to make the person feel good, consider that this person might feel better without this comment for various reasons.
if you just want to make a 'compliment' because it makes yourself feel good to be able to comment on everything and everyone you see, consider you are a privilege denying asshole.

(Or, if I'm being really

(Or, if I'm being really honest, "Does he really think I'm so unattractive and desperate that I'd bother talking to some busted dude who approaches me on the street?!" Newsflash: That ain't low self-esteem. That's arrogance.)
_______________________

Most of the guy who try to meet girls on the street try with several targets - and many don't really care if they get rejected.
You probably feel it and, as for me, don't want to receive feak compliments while walking just because the guy wants a girl !
It might be arrogance in some cases, but i don't think it's in all !
(Plus if they try several girls, the probability of them talking to you is higher than for guys who just did it once on a big crush !)

Attractiveness has nothing to do with harassment

I find it troubling that you, and several of the other people who replied, are using the level of attractiveness of the guy to determine if he is giving a compliment or if he is harassing you. For me, the difference lies in the context and the way in which the comment is said. Let's say I'm at the park reading a book, and a guy I find ugly comes up to me, asks a question about what I am reading, and then says he thinks I'm beautiful and that is why he approached me. I say "not interested" (let's say it is because I am already in a relationship) and keep reading. If he walks away, that is not harassment. That is a guy who is sincerely trying, or a guy who is really good at lying. If he persists, he's gone into harassment territory. If the same ugly guy walks by me and shouts something at me about my appearance, that is also harassment.

Same scenario, but instead of being an ugly guy, it's somebody I find incredibly attractive. The line between harassment and compliment doesn't change. What does change is how I might respond to the harassment. If I tell an attractive guy that I am not interested, and he persists in trying to hit on me, I am more likely to respond in a friendly manner than I am with the ugly guy, and afterwards I would probably feel more secure in my attractiveness, because it's nice to feel wanted by the same people that you want. But it is still harassment. And if the attractive guy persisted too much, or followed me around the park, or went from polite to mean, you can be sure that I would no longer be responding in a friendly manner, nor would I feel good about the encounter afterwards.

Self-esteem and Intimidation

I have been thinking about this subject a lot lately, since I have recently lost almost 40 pounds and therefore FEEL much more attractive than I have felt in a long time. I have always been against street harassment, but I admit that it bothered me more when I felt "fat." Receiving whistles or even "Hey, beautiful!" always annoyed me as a pedestrian, and when I felt unattractive and/or was pushing my children in a big stroller, I thought "sheesh these guys must really be desperate."

SO in my case, I did NOT enjoy street harassment more when I had "low self-esteem." I do, however, enjoy being complimented occasionally now that I feel attractive and am more confident. That seems to go against the trend of the comments referred to in this article.

That being said, whenever I receive a compliment on the street, I stop and think about whether it is street harassment. It is not an easy answer. I feel like saying, "if it inspires fear in me, then it's harassment" or "if it oversteps the bounds of normal friendliness between strangers, then it's harassment." But when it happens in a situation in which I feel in control (such as when I am riding my bike in the street and am complimented by a pedestrian on the sidewalk, from whom I can quickly get away,) then I feel less harassed and more like I have received a compliment.

So for me, if the situation is intimidating, then it's harassment. But that is my perception and not helpful if one is hoping to educate men about what kinds of compliments are appropriate or inappropriate to make on the street. I am relatively confident that most men who harass women on the street are not purposely being intimidating, though they may feel entitled to talk a certain way to strangers when they shouldn't feel that way.

Street harassment is a very, very important issue to me, as I am a community advocate for making cities more "livable," which means getting people out of cars and using the streets for more human purposes--celebrating community, playing outside, and using greener forms of transportation. If my dreams of a healthier America are ever going to come true, then women MUST feel safe on the streets as pedestrians or cyclists at any time of day or night.

Because of this, I used to feel that ANY unwanted attention from a man could be perceived as intimidating and therefore harassment and was therefore inappropriate. But THEN when I do get the occasional compliment that makes me smile, I feel like a hypocrite for thinking that.

This issue is so complicated for me as a woman, and I agree that we get decide when it crosses the line, which is perhaps when we begin to feel intimidated. But what then, should I say when men ask me if it's ever OK to compliment a woman they don't know on the street? I'm not sure how to answer.

Thank you for posting.

Thank you

I was kind of disturbed by the hot guy/ugly guy differences, especially to see it on Bitch.

I think in that first

I think in that first scenario you have a right to just read your book quietly and not be approached! Would that guy have approached you and tried to get you to date him if you were a dude? No, of course he wouldn't. So you are having your ability to enjoy yourself and be independent in a public space compromised because you're a woman.

Sounds like patriarchy at work to me.

I have a couple of responses

I have a couple of responses to this, and I'm not sure which one best shows my thoughts on your reply, so I'm just going to go with both.

1. Yes, if I were a dude reading a book in the park, other dudes would come up to me and hit on me. I live in San Diego (which is a pretty gay-friendly city), and the park I go to is right on the edge of the neighborhood with the most gay-friendly atmosphere. So yes, men do hit on other men in places like the park. Women also hit on other women. A man approaching a woman to say he is attracted to her isn't a sign of the patriarchy. A man getting pissed off at a woman because he assumes all women should be thrilled to have positive attention from a man - *that* is patriarchy at work.

2. I find that I am approached on a regular basis by all sorts of people who have absolutely no desire to date me, and has nothing to do with my gender. I often knit (and crochet and spin yarn, but most often I knit) in public spaces, and many people will stop for a minute to talk to me about it. Some of them are knitters themselves and want to talk about the project I'm making, some people have never seen a knitter before and want to know what I am doing, some people tell me that their grandmother used to knit and they love that people still do it because it reminds them of bygone days. I once had a very interesting conversation with a man on the trolley who told me that he used to crochet hats when he was in prison, and they were in high demand with the other inmates. Except for other knitters (who sometimes want to find me on the knitting social networks), none of these people have ever asked for my name, and after our brief exchange of "It is a sock, thank you, I love how the pattern looks too," none of them have ever expressed any desire to continue the conversation or meet me at a later time. (And from what the male knitters I know tell me, they experience the exact same thing - people come up to them to talk about what they are making.)

People approach other people they find interesting, which sometimes is code for attractive and sometimes means "whoa, what the heck is going on with all those pointy sticks and that yarn?" This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I think life would be pretty boring if we never met anybody outside of people we already knew, or are were in class with, or worked with. The part that gets problematic is the instigator not following the other person's lead when they indicate they don't want to be bothered.

Well it's nice that you are

Well it's nice that you are comfortable being propositioned by men you have no interest in, and I hope you have fun with that. But that doesn't mean it's fair to expect the rest of us to accept it. I wish I could somehow delete the invisible sign that sits over my head and says "Men, please send your sexual advances my way". If I am going to the park looking to meet guys for a relationship I won't be sitting reading or knitting, I will be propositioning guys myself! (And I won't be propositioning the kind of guys who are going around bothering women trying to keep to themselves, either)

You say the problem is if the man doesn't accept that the woman doesn't want to be bothered. That is obviously a problem, and a bigger problem than the more generaal problem I am talking about, but I think the unwanted advances is a problem. I just don't see why it is, yet again, my job to educate men who should be capable of telling that the woman who is sitting quietly on a bench enjoying the sun and reading isn't using the park as some kind of singles bar.

I think your past experiences

I think your past experiences are leading you to have a lower tolerance for feeling harassed than my past experiences have led me to have, so we are never going to agree on what is an acceptable amount and type of communication with strangers.

Yes, that's true. But I

Yes, that's true. But I think men have to be like Carlos and err on the side of sensitivity. If I thought there was a chance somebody would take my comment as harassment I wouldn't make it.

attraction & context

Hi Diane. Thanks for your contribution to this conversation. I think you *should* find it troubling that perceived attractiveness influences one's ideas of what is and isn't harassment. I find that troubling too. I also find that attraction is a part of the context that determines what is and isn't harassment to the person being approached in a public space -- and how quickly they make that determination. I hear you on the differences as you experience it, which is not necessarily the experience of other folks, so I am not comfortable with saying your viewpoint constitutes what is definitively harassment. Certainly if someone's advances are rebuffed, yet that person continues to persist, we are in agreement that the harassing behavior is no longer looks-dependent.

Feeling versus Being

You've actually just clarified something form. The attractiveness of the person talking to you doesn't define what behaviors constitute harassment - but it *does* make a difference in determining at what point you actually feel harassed. I will put up with a lot more bullshit from a guy I find attractive than a guy I don't. The same goes with how harassed you feel - after having five guys pass you by in the street and smile at you, the sixth guy starts to feel like more of an imposition, even if it isn't strictly harassment. Because I don't often get propositioned by strangers in either a polite or incredibly rude/offensive context, I most likely have a higher threshold for feeling harassed than a woman who gets catcalled every time she walks out of her house.

So dependent on setting,

So dependent on setting, context and personalities! I work in a boutique and take pride in my clothing and my appearance. It's my job to help other people look as good as they can, so when someone tells me something like "Man, that outfit is really working!" or "You wear that hat so well!" it validates my own skills and gives me confidence in advising customers. Lines are crossed when customers say things like, "I'd like to chase you around today." Recently I have been thinking of the difference gender plays in harassment. Like Maureen from Rent, "Girls, boys, I can't help it baby!" A regular customer, known for being tough as nails and very picky and yes, kinda mean, recently insulted my (male) boss after he bent over backwards trying to make her happy. I, however, was called "baby" and "sweetheart" and "darling." If a male customer ever used those pet names with me I would not tolerate it. Why was it ok for a lesbian to say those things? Is it less intimidating because she's a woman? At the end of the day, I still feel objectified, regardless of the gender of the speaker.

Triggering

Yes, lines are blurry, context and intuition matters, as well as how comfortable or uncomfortable compliments/harassment makes you feel. At the end of the day for me as a woman who has experienced sexual abuse, it is downright terrifying. Compliments and gazing from men, no matter the sincerity, triggering terrible feelings. I see how it is free speech, but it is the mindset that they think I will enjoy this "compliment" that bothers me, that they believe they can say this to me without considering my experiences. I see it as ignorant and disrespectful. Also, what about women harassing men? Do women ever feel the urge to comment on a man's beauty? I think men know when they are harassing women as opposed to a man sincerely trying to approach a woman. However, I am much more keen on a man reaching out to me on a more intellectual level than "Hey, you are beautiful". That should come later.

Five thoughts

Wow, great comments so far. This is the first time I’m commenting on anything on the internets, so bear with my verbosity… I felt the urge to write because there were some issues that I felt weren’t addressed in the article or the comments yet, namely

  • the probability argument (guys commenting on more girls’ appearances to eventually get laid),
  • why on earth guys do this,
  • the attraction argument, and
  • the gender asymmetry thing (guys do it, we don't, or if we do, strange things happen).

So here it goes:

As for the probability argument: It seems to have counterproductive effects. Example from my own life: It takes me 20 minutes, give or take 5, to walk to uni from my apartment in the East Village every morning. On the walk (and I have changed streets), I get catcalled anywhere between 2 and 6 times, depending on the weather. Catcalling, compliments, comments, whatever you want to call them happen at intervals of 3 to 5 minutes, and by the time guy 5 whistles at me, I’m not thinking “hey, here’s a hot one for once, I’ll get with him”, but I’m ready to punch him in the face. And for all of those who think that there’s a correlation of guys saying things and the perceived attractiveness of the women, there really isn’t. I get catcalled as much when I’m dressed up and look lovely, as when I’m ill and just pop down to the pharmacy, all the while sneezing and blowing my nose, to get some medication.

Now, this opens up a new question: Why do guys catcall? I really doubt that they wanted to make out with a woman in her late 20’s who was sneezing all the time (could make for interesting sexual encounters, but somehow I don’t think that this would have been too appealing). So, if it’s to get with us, why target people obviously in the throes of hayfever? Or girls who are taking their own kids out? Do they want to become dads so desperately, or like family-minded gals who’ll cheat on their partner? Or, if it’s just to pay a compliment (to mums, people in relationships), why not do this when we’re walking down the street with guys? I’m sure that someone’s boyfriend would love to see the attractiveness of his girl recognized. But the guys don’t compliment us when we are with other guys. So, this is why I don’t think that catcalling exists to either 1) pay us a real compliment, or 2) to actually get with us (functional argument).

Someone brought up the gender asymmetry aspects, so here’s three thoughts on this:

(1) I’ve never seen a woman catcall a man, and when I tried this myself (I look very straight although I’m a lesbian, so that even when I try to butch up I look like in ill-fitting drag, so men never know that I’m not straight), I got really weird or aggressive responses! When I whistled at a teenager, to reproduce age difference (I’m 29), he ran off downright scared (poor kid, but I deliberately targeted a secure looking hottie). When I whistled at a businessman in his late 30’s, he looked shocked, then angry and started shouting at me. I whistled at a construction worker who had shouted “nice legs” at me the day prior, and he shouted “wow, she’s desperate” to his colleagues. This gender asymmetry (they are allowed to shout at us, we aren’t allowed to compliment them) is something that should ring alarm bells, my friends!

(2) As a lesbian who’s recognizable to some girls via gaydar (thankfully), I must say that I’ve never been catcalled by a woman. Also, when I asked my straights, beautiful, guy friends, they say it has never happened to them. Any situation where guys get to do something that potentially bothers us and we don’t get to do it in return, I get suspicious (FGM, anyone? Headscarves? And to over-sensitive people: No, I am not assuming a similarity in degree between these three occurrences).

(3) Considering that rape and sexual assault happen all the time (my life so far: 4 attempted rapes, thousands of catcalls, hundreds of gropes, no respect for my sexual orientation when I tell men that I’m quite positively gay), I simply cannot see catcalling, compliments or comments on the street as anything but harassment. If someone truly thinks you’re cute, then they can approach you and try to strike up a conversation on non-sexual grounds. I mean, that’s what we all do when we fancy someone, right? I don’t approach girls I think are cute with “Hey sexy, how about a roll in the hay later on?”, but with “Oh wow, you’re reading ___, what do you think of her last book?”

Oh, and last remark before closing this verbose comment: It looks different abroad. I’m European and have lived in 7 countries on three continents so far, and in terms of annoyance / scariness of public yelling by men towards me, I’ve compiled my very own, non-generalizeable ranking: France, US, Germany, UK, Italy. In Greece and Japan, nobody catcalls you! In Japan, they grope you, but in Greece, somehow, nobody has catcalled or groped me. So, question: If we believe that guys in different countries behave differently, what do we make of this?

In response...

@ Tired Hedonist – this is my first post too – thanks for the inspiration!

In reading your response, a lot of what you said really resonated with my own personal experiences, so here is my (somewhat) lengthy response.

Although I don’t walk as much as I should (a product of living in LA, perhaps), I also tend the get the same kind of attention when walking/driving/inhabiting a public space by myself. Yeah, not any “hey beautiful”s or whatever, but hissing, obscene gestures, dirty comments, and even some comments that I don’t even comprehend/don’t want to understand (my knowledge of innuendo is kind of limited... maybe this is a good thing).

I echo (emphatically) that my “state” of conventional attractiveness can really vary—but that the type of attention I receive is the inverse of what I might expect. I could be unwashed/runny nose/eyes red and swollen/wearing crusty old gym clothes and covered in drying sweat and I swear… the attention is even more intense/forward. However, when I’m all dressed up/looking my personal best/feeling great, no one really bugs me. Maybe I’m more actively giving off the “don’t mess with me” vibe (when I’m not struggling to breathe/get in and out of the store without dripping gym sweat all over the place), but still—what gives, right? Could it be the change in confidence I feel when I feel/look better?

I’m ALSO wondering what the catcalls are REALLY all about (in my case, I get a lot of hissing, “clicks” and kissy noises or obscene looks/gestures). I agree—I don’t think it’s about getting with us or doling out little boosts to women’s self esteem (as messed up as that may seem, it does seem like a possible intention). It reminds me of a bit by David Cross (of Mr. Show) referencing a guy in a garbage truck hollering at women. He posits his reasoning as, “you might get a hundred ‘no’s,’ but then you just might get that one girl that wants to f#ck on a pile of trash.” Okay, obviously not…but after being on the receiving end of these endless "comments" and ploys for attention, I was starting to think “maybe there’s some truth to that…maybe some dudes are deluded enough to think that one lady will be like, ‘let’s do this.’”

But of course, stand-up comedy aside, I think it’s actually the opposite: a majority of these guys are using sexual remarks and innuendo to belittle women/assert dominance. As you mentioned, turning the tables even made one guy remark, “oh, that’s desperate!” to a group of friends/other guys. If I even “dare” to look a “commenter” in the eye, I get the most obscene looks/feeling of filth ever… (or in one case, exposing himself to me…so humiliating because he obviously was getting off on my shame/hurt/horror). And the fact that this happens primarily on streets/public spaces makes me think that location and dominion has a lot to do with it, too.

I’ve also lived and traveled abroad (mainly in Mexico/Central America) and have experienced a lot of the same hissing, clicking, obscene remarks that I get in LA, but with more touching (from quick grabs to guys coming up and putting their arm around me and laying down their “game”) and reticence to take my refusal at advances to heart (I’m bi, so saying, “I have a girlfriend” has been more of a challenge—it seems—than when I am dating a guy and say “I have a boyfriend”…but the “doesn’t matter to me”/”no me importa” response is very similar--even saying "I'm NOT INTERESTED" gets the same response, which makes me so frustrated/mad). When I first moved to Costa Rica, I was told to "expect" the hiss and to just not go anywhere alone, especially walking around... even though "they don't mean any harm" or "just ignore it" was a common refrain, women are perceived to be at fault if anything DOES happen.

In the US, I think that if pressed to explain themselves—and perhaps a number of ladies do like this particular type of attention—but I don’t think that’s why a majority of the men that engage in this kind of behavior act the way that they do (for women’s gratification). Again, I think it’s to assert some kind of control over the space, the way that women interact/feel in public and influencing how comfortable women can feel in their personal independence. At least, that’s how I’ve started feeling about the whole situation as of late.

I’ve definitely gotten (and been flattered by) the occasional confident, well-intentioned, well-spoken woman or man who’s come up and complimented my personal style, my glasses (okay, swoon. I do like that…) or my beauty in positive way. Even though I have a partner now, I still appreciate the sincerity and the flattery. But by and large, my experiences of male attention don’t make me feel good or flattered. Those experiences have been on the street (or bar/grocery store/bus/etc.)… as if my just “being there” was too much for them not to comment on or call towards. Like many of you who have commented, I felt shame, humiliation, disgust, and discomfort. I also felt paralyzed—unable to do anything other than ignore the attention (because I didn’t want to give any attention/power/validation to that remark or commenter).

Like you say, “I simply cannot see catcalling, compliments or comments on the street as anything but harassment"-- I definitely agree.

I think it's variable on

I think it's variable on whether comments from men on the street can be taken as compliments or harassment. Stuff like

Choice of words: Wow, you look beautiful vs. I'd tap that ass, you whore.
Tone: Clear and level, confident or shy but with a distinct note of respect vs. mocking or smug, like they're doing you a favor by acknowledging your very existence.
Quantity: One man vs. a pack of grinning dudes, nudging each other.
Your particular mood that day: Feeling flirty vs. I just want to get through this day and go home to my family.

Any particular woman could find her standards of compliment or harassment between this two extremes. It just depends on the individual. I wouldn't blame a woman who was deeply offended by "Hello gorgeous, what's your name?", and nor would I blame a woman for being flattered by "Nice tits!".

This isn't exactly helpful for people trying to find the line between complimenting and harassing, but it felt nice to write.

So perhaps this is not the

So perhaps this is not the same thing but the idea that we should not think of women who have enjoy "sexual harassment" gets me thinking, what about women who enjoy rape? (or perhaps more likely the idea of rape)

If the "victim" enjoys the "sexual harassment" and that makes it not sexual harassment then does that not consequently mean the phrase "It's not rape if she enjoys it" is true?

Isn't that kind of a dangerous view point?

it definitely is dangerous

it definitely is dangerous and i thank you for pointing that out.

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***trigger warning for talk of rape***

but please don't confuse fantasy with reality. one can enjoy a fantasy without ever wishing for it to come true, since in a fantasy you are still the one who is in power even if you dream about giving it up. many rape survivors have rape fantasys because it can be a way of dealing with or even overcoming the traumata. in a fantasy there doesn't have to be and obviously can't be consent cause it only affects one person. so even if we call it "rape fantasy" it's not really about rape since nothing happens against your will.
so to fantasize about rape or even "play" a rape scenario in a bdsm context (which always includes consent) should never be confused with a real rape case. it's rather about taking back control. ( http://www.pandys.org/articles/BDSM_healing.htm )

the lack of consent is what makes rape rape. and i do believe that too few people even realize that it happened to them because they are unsure about their own feelings and borders and don't know how to create consent. so i believe, one doesn't have to feel raped to be a survivor of rape.

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in my opinion the lack of consent is also what makes harassment harassment.

being approachable is not the same as getting commented on. a situation in which as stranger is asking me after the right way or what time it is is not comparable to the situation in which a stranger is telling me what he thinks of my looks. in the latter case he is invading my very personal space without asking me for my consent that is just not simply given just because i am visible to him.

i find it very problematic that so many women here are trying to justify harassment just because they don't feel harassed and don't reflect at all about their own consent in those situation.

Thanks for the article! I'm a

Thanks for the article! I'm a bit new to street harassment--I grew up in a suburb where this never happened and just moved to a more working-class neighborhood in New York City, where I am distinctly a racial minority and feel a lot more vulnerable. All but one of my street harassment experiences happened in the month I've been living in NYC.. I suppose it could be viewed as compliments by some, since it's just been comments like "beautiful lady" or "how you doin', gorgeous" muttered while passing by. I'm lucky enough to have escaped groping or vulgar comments so far, and these comments obviously aren't the worst it could get, but they still make me uncomfortable for the most part. I'm not sure what to make of it.