Saturday, December 03, 2005

On Wolf Whistles

Interesting how something that can be a compliment can also become extremely frightening. I'm talking about compliments to a woman (or a man) for good looks and the phenomenom of street harassment. There is more than a fine line between the two. It's possible to compliment someone with a nice smile or an admiring look. To make loud and rude comments about a person's breasts or penis (does this happen?) or buttocks implies that the caller feels somehow entitled to make such public judgements. It tends to make the object of the comments feel debased, dirty and vulnerable, and if there is a group of commenters who act menacingly the whole thing becomes a nightmare. Lots of women experience this shit almost daily.

One Christmas vacation during my graduate school years I was almost alone on campus because I had a conference paper to prepare and couldn't go home. I had to use the main library daily. This caused real problems for me, because the university had used the opportunity of a quiet campus to have some building work done in the entrance hall of the library, so it was full of men taking their elevenses and lunch breaks and dinner breaks, looking for something interesting to happen.

That something interesting to happen was me. I have never received so many comments on my boobs (commendable, and should have various things done to them), my eyes (deep as lakes etcetera) and my buttocks (not telling you what was said about them). Not only did I have to listen to these comments but I also had to do a gauntlet through a group of these men at least twice every day. I was scared shitless as polite bloggers say.

Things were not improved by the fact that I didn't respond to the comments, even though their nature got more heated and accusatory as days passed by. It wasn't enough that I allowed the comments, it seems; I was expected to acknowledge them, too. I ended up pretending that I don't speak English at all. And yes, I know that was stupid but I was still a fledgling feminist and didn't think very clearly about my options.

This is not my only experience of street harassment. The incidences are too numerous to even remember. But in this one I was scared, because the power balance was badly against me and because I felt that there was some real threat of physical assault. But I was also thinking how I probably looked like a privileged bitch to these men and how that punched their buttons or something. The usual women-must-be-responsible-and-understanding-crap. And there is also a real problem in being polite and middle-of-the-road. I'm confessing it all here so that you can do better, my dear readers.

In any case, my point is that something that may look like a compliment is not one when the subtext is about power to judge another's body, possibly even about the power to take that body by force. A new blog about street harassment takes the discussion further.