Why This is Not a Compliment: Finding the Words to Define Violation.
(Originally published on October 12, 2019)
Over the past few weeks, I've experienced an uptick of Facebook invitations. Because of my job, my activism, and my candidacy I tend to accept most invitations. Unfortunately, when I do this, I inevitably experience a slew of "those" DMs. If you're a woman, you know what I am talking about.
"Hello dear, so great being friends. How is your day?"
"I am so grateful we are now friends."
And if I don't answer, another message a few days later, asking why I'm not responding, as though their decision to reach out obligates me to respond. It doesn't. Read that again: a stranger reaching out creates no obligation for you to respond. So why are these messages to problematic? Don't they seem innocuous? They aren't. We know it's not innocuous. But why not? It took me reaching the ripe age of 36 to express why this is not okay. It's not okay for the same reason that catcalling and uninvited compliments from strangers in public are not okay: because this behavior consists of boundary testing. The hope, by the perpetrator, is to create some relationship, no matter how superficial. This, in turn, generates a sense of obligation. A sense of obligation to give them time, attention and--most importantly--politeness. Once that's in place, it is incredibly easy to escalate into an actual violation. In real life, that may be a hand placed on a buttock, or a hip, or a knee, or an arm around a waist. Electronically, that can translate into an explicit message or a graphic photo.
I began experiencing sexual harassment around 10 or 11. It was ever-present at school. I couldn't walk into the cafeteria without being asked how much for a blow job and being told I belonged in the city's red light district. But the streets were just as bad. Any trajectory, from one bus to another, into the city, to my theater classes and my therapist's office, was a battlefield of boundary testing and outright violations. I was a child and it was exhausting. And if I didn't respond--because I certainly was too scared to outright reject the advances--then the escalation and sense of entitlement became evident, "Hey! I'm just complimenting you," "Hey, you don't want to be rude, do you?," "I'm just trying to be nice." We've heard it all before, from the perpetrators and their apologists. It has taken twenty five years to verbalize why this behavior is not okay.
First, as I have said many times before in lectures, while not every sexual harasser is a rapist, every rapist benefits from a society where sexual harassment is accepted or even merely tolerated. Sexual harassment is a violation of boundaries. Rape is a greater violation of those boundaries. If the ill is reduced to one of degree rather than framed as the existence of the ill itself--gender-based victimization--accountability and eradication become near impossible. The analysis will always be whether the action is "bad enough" to be punished, whether the victim had a part to play in the gravity, and whether at least some of the violation is "just something that happens." If the inquiry was simply whether a violation took place, we would have very different conversations and we would center victim's experiences rather than perpetrator's expectations of reciprocation.
Second, these "first contacts" are meant to test the waters. By accepting them as normal, we accept that women have to experience their womanhood as an exercise in "defensive humanity." Every interaction is an exercise in survival and self-preservation. Worse than that, we are denied the decency of having our experiences validated. When we say it's not a compliment, how many times do we have to defend that position? How many times do we have to explain ourselves to individuals who have most certainly not experienced the aftermath of such "compliments" since before puberty? I've certainly lost count.
Women are conditioned to be polite: don't make a fuss, don't be rude, don't be disrespectful. It is stunning how critical this is to victimization. It is also stunning how easily and brutally our failure to exhibit those traits in the face of boundary violations is punished.
On the internet, my reaction is both disappointment at how banal the experience is and rage at the pervasive existence of norms of male entitlement. But I am not scared of strangers on the internet. I tell them they have no right to demand anything from me and I block them. So far, that has worked. But in real life? Not so easy and far more scary. These "street compliments" may be just that, but they may also be the opening shot of a battle that may cost me dearly. And even if the person making the "compliment" has no plans to escalate, it is certainly a reminder of my vulnerability.
And frankly, I'm sick and tired of it. I am sure you are too.
So from now on, let's not be polite about it. In the words of Halsey, "I don't owe you a goddamn thing."