A few weeks ago, inspired by my blog post here about the challenges of using my male-dominated gym, I was explaining to the male math teacher in the classroom next to mine what it’s like for me there. His response was something along the lines of, “but doesn’t that just mean you have a kickin’ body?” I was floored, and as usual with me, my best response wasn’t formulated until hours after the conversation. Here is what I wished I’d said:
I want to make it clear, when I am explaining to you about the persistent harassment I receive, I am not tacitly bragging about my sexual appeal. I am not proud of the amount of attention my body gets, and I am usually not flattered when that attention is given. It isn’t fun, cute, or flirtatious to be stared-at, cat-called, leered-at, or followed.
At best, it’s annoying. At worst, it’s threatening and scary. When I am given this unwanted attention, I am immediately put on guard. The person doing it invariably has more power than me, is usually bigger than me, and often has a friend with them. If they are willing to cross one boundary of socially acceptable behavior, what other boundaries are they willing to cross?
So, when I’m explaining to you about how I have stopped running in my neighborhood after a couple of guys followed me for nearly a block in their pick-up truck, don’t think I’m really trying to bring attention to my ass. When I say I have changed my lifting routine so I don’t have to use the cable machine in the center of the room where I get stared at, don’t think I’m pointing out the curve of my cleavage.
It isn’t an accident that women who have faced sexual trauma are much more likely to have significantly higher body fat. (The last data I saw was something like 60-80% of those with “morbid obesity” were predicted to be sexual assault survivors.) It is a real and challenging downside to being a smaller size that I was not prepared for–it is hard to explain how often I feel less safe as a result of the increased attention. It is a near-daily pressure that I must navigate. I am not convinced it is always worth it.
It isn’t fun to be afraid. It isn’t flattering to be harassed. I have a right to move through the world and be safe, feel safe, and to go about my business without being treated like I’m an object on display.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
8 thoughts on “Harassment is not a compliment (Guest post)”
This is excellent Marjorie. Thanks for articulating so well the difference between a compliment and harassment. Being leered at is not the former and is most definitely the latter. Women move through the world differently because of men and it’s patently unfair and unjust.
Email your colleague this link; he needs to read it and understand!
That would make for interesting team meetings. . . 🙂
I do wonder though–I’m not sure conversation is enough. How does someone really *get it* when the power dynamic is so lopsided? I’ll keep working on him, but I think it’s gonna be a long process to get him to understand.
Thanks for this, Marjorie – it’s fantastically clear and I was nodding along the whole way. It’s all part of the “lighten up/sense of humour?” stuff guys always toss at women they are cat-calling, as though not only should they have every right to consume us visually and brag about it, but then also they should be allowed to dictate our responses. TOTAL CONTROL = dream of patriarchy.
The solution probably isn’t just conversation; I’m a big fan of embodied learning around this stuff. There are some terrific applied theatre techniques that can be used to do harassment and sexual assault and awareness training; they offer a safe space to experiment with ‘what it feels like’ to be in another person’s physical position and relative position of power. I have a colleague who works on this; happy to share if you wish.
Also: have you read The Power, by Naomi Alderman?
Thanks for your amazing contributions!
Hello Kim! Thank you for your comment! I agree that conversation likely isn’t enough. I was trying to figure out how to reply to bone&silver above when what I *really* wanted to suggest was that the math teacher wouldn’t get it unless he woke up in the body of a willowy 16 year-old girl and had to wear those shoes for a while. . . but then I thought maybe that was too snarky a response. 🤓 But maybe he *could* do that through theater?! What a cool idea. Of course, I presume that means the participants are already willing to take on other roles and explore their biases–a huge step for many.
I have not read The Power, but I have now added it to my library holds. Sounds fantastic! Thanks!
When I was younger, I used to get leered at on a daily basis. I totally hated it. And it’s like what you wrote, at best you are annoyed. At worst you feel scared. It is scary! Lots of people (men, especially) don’t understand that
Yes, and as Kim says above, there’s this sense that we just should “lighten up,” and not worry about it. It is very patronizing to suggest that we can’t identify increased risk successfully and should trust someone else’s read on the situation (even though they weren’t there and aren’t in our shoes) over our own instincts!
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