ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
[personal profile] ashwednesday
Yesterday's journey to work featured some guys calling "vous ĂȘtes belle!" and blowing kisses at me; yesterday's journey from work featured a guy exposing his penis to me. I could write a nice little blog post linking these two events, and coming to the conclusion that they are both signs of our patriarchal heritage. But that would be glib. I see quite a lot of glib writing on the internet lately. There's a strong human desire to draw patterns between events, to draw them together in the narrative of our lives, and that makes sense. But doing that simplifies complexities, which does nobody any good.

I was looking rather fetching yesterday, I think. It was a beautiful spring day, temperatures soaring, and my fitted dress was complemented by a jaunty silk scarf ("men loves scarves" says Joan Holloway, and who am I to disagree with The Joan?) and espadrilles. The guys calling out to me from their van didn't upset me. I know plenty of women dislike men doing things like that, and I understand why. For me, though, there's a difference between kinds of catcalling. "Good morning," one of them called, to get me to look round, and then they said "you're beautiful" and blew extravagant kisses to me before the traffic lights changed. I laughed pretty hard, and I felt flattered. They didn't make any overtures, or make any explicit remarks, and as such I have no problem with people marking their appreciation of people they find attractive. I have had plenty of things shouted at me that are offensive - you'll be unsurprised there are a lot of references to my boobs - or being reasonably aggressive in making an approach in a public place, and for me there's a difference between men encroaching on my personal space and trying to appropriate the way I look for a coarse kind of gratification without caring how that makes me feel, and with receiving a straightforward compliment. I'm aware that some of you may disagree, though, and if you feel like sharing your views, please do so! I'm aware that my views on what's acceptable to say in public is shaped by my extrovert nature, for one thing.

The only issue I have with getting a comment like the above is that socially this is acceptable for men to do but not for women to do. Because I think that IS linked to men thinking it's ok to shout more explicit and offensive things, to focus on a part of your anatomy in a way that is objectifying, to make you feel potentially unsafe when you walk down the street, to not think hey, going up to this lone girl in the street at night may seem kind of sketchy. Because that's a case of men having power and either not realising they have the privileged position or just not caring.

Obviously the metro guy didn't care how I felt about what he was doing. It was a pretty gross experience, frankly. The metro was very crowded - it was about 6.30pm, so not late at night - and people were crushed together. I felt a guy pressing up against me, and I wasn't sure if it was just because it was so busy. But I looked round to see that he had his erect penis out, hidden behind his jacket so it wasn't visible to the rest of the train. Nothing quite like knowing someone's getting their kicks from rubbing against you. Ugh. And I did have the brief moment of thinking: this WOULD happen on a day I feel pretty and stylish! But I put that thought aside, because I am not responsible for whatever some disturbed loser thinks about me, and he could just as easily have tried to molest some sweet old lady. Anyway, I got off the metro. I felt vaguely guilty for not reporting it, but it would have involved spending lots of time using my non-native language to no great effect, since I doubt anyone would find the guy. That does make me angry, that men can get away with doing things like that, because so often it's more trouble than it's worth to try to take action.

I dunno where I'm going with this. There are clearly lots of questions around gendered power and the public ways we express our sexualities here, but I am seeing a tendency in gender studies to answer any questions like this with a glib response of patriarchy/kyriarchy - as if we actually know what those words mean. (Trust me, we really don't.) That's almost - though not quite - as annoying as the kind of people who, in well-meaning earnestness, honestly don't see the immense amount of privilege they show by saying "I don't see gender/race; I don't care about sexuality/ethnicity/religion", often followed with a plaintive "why don't we all just get aloooooong."

And I guess I'm also saying: it's ok for me to feel flattered by a compliment from a stranger. It doesn't make me Part of the Problem - at least, not any more than we're all Part of the Problem (whatever the hell "the problem" is). And it sure doesn't mean it's ok for a guy to molest me. The thing is, I reckon everyone who reads this will be on board with thinking the metro guy crossed a major line. But I think people will be divided over whether men making any sorts of comments to women is ok - whether some comments are ok but not others, whether it's an offensive use of privilege to make any sort of comment about a woman's attractiveness, and so on. Which is sort of my point, I suppose: when you're talking about "patriarchy", you're talking about something embedded so deep into our culture that deciding where lines should be drawn varies enormously over time, space and for individuals. There's nothing simple about it at all.
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ashwednesday

January 2013

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