There’s a lot of discussion right now, both in the real world and online, regarding complimenting women in public, street harassment, rape, and rape culture — to the extent that even much-beloved children’s performer Raffi is weighing in.
The Steubenville incident and the heartbreaking cases of young girls committing suicide after being raped and then bullied about that rape are the most obvious examples — but the truth is that if we want to stop rape, if we want to teach people that “no” means no and only a clearly stated “yes” means yes, we have a lot of work to do well before we get to the question of actual rape.
This week has been Stop Street Harassment Week, and needless to say, anyone who’s spent time on the topic (especially if they’ve tried to place it in the broader context of gender violence) has been faced with an onslaught of resistance, ranging from the befuddled (“why is wrong to compliment women?”) to the frightening (slurs, smears, and threats of violence – the yoozh). But as Zerlina Maxwell put it on Twitter yesterday: “Imma need ya’ll to maybe for a second see the connection between objectification of women’s bodies and rape culture. Fire up ur neurons ppl.”
Bottom line, as with all things, we need to have a sociological imagination. It’s not enough to look at ourselves as individuals interacting with individuals — as Dr. King wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” The fact that you are a nice guy, who would never hurt a fly, who wants only to say something nice to a woman who happens to be passing by, is simply not enough.
We need to ask ourselves questions about the social context in which we live and act, starting (in this case) with: Why do you (nice guy) feel you have the right to intrude in a complete stranger’s day? What is it about your life as a man and her life as a woman that puts you in that position? Would you do the same thing to a man? Why or why not, under what circumstances, and what would change those circumstances?
And the questions keep coming: Who is that woman? Has she ever been a survivor of gender violence? What is her place in the society you share, and what expectations are put on her? Indeed, on all women? How often are women used as objects to achieve the ends of other people or society at large? What happens when a woman doesn’t respond to catcalls and other “compliments”? How many women feel unsafe just walking down the street, because they cannot know when a “compliment” might turn into something else?
On and on and on. Every moment of our lives leads up to the one in which we find ourselves right now, and every relationship we’ve ever had goes into every moment. You are not one person talking to one other person — you are each parts of a single garment of destiny, an inescapable network of mutuality that stretches out across all the years and all the miles of all of humanity.
When you comment on a woman’s body in a public space, you’re contributing to a culture that everywhere tells us: Your bodies are not your own. When you comment on a woman’s body in a public space, you’re telling the men around you that women’s bodies are public. You are perpetuating a cultural expectation that women do not enjoy the same human autonomy enjoyed by men — that women are not, quite, fully human.
Do you mean all of this when you say “Hey, nice dress!” Probably not. Did the President mean to scratch the surface of this when he complimented his good friend Kamala Harris on her appearance when they were in a public, professional setting? Almost certainly not.
But nothing we do — nothing we do – exists in isolation. Everything we do comes from somewhere, and everything we do leads somewhere. It’s not fun, or comfortable, or possibly even terribly interesting to think about our interactions this way, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
If we want to teach ourselves to commit less gender violence, we have to start by teaching ourselves to treat women as fully human. And if that means you can’t randomly compliment some complete stranger, so be it.