Monday, May 13, 2013

Public Property, Private Party

I've noticed a lot of discussion recently in the facebook-o-sphere about street harassment, its multitude of forms, and how ubiquitous and culturally ingrained it is. Well, since my car accident, I've fallen back into the grimy arms of public transit while my car is in the shop for (insurance-covered) repairs. Needless to say, unfortunately, I have contributions to this topic.

A couple of days ago, I was waiting for the bus one block from my house. I was at the stop no more than two minutes when an SUV pulls over, driven by the bro-iest bro-dude I've ever seen, with a woman in the passenger seat, both probably in their late 20s. I have headphones in, and he motions for me to take them down, to which I begrudgingly oblige.
Predictably: "You want a ride?"
Also predictably: "No, thanks."
Yet they're still there. "I like your hair. Who does your makeup?"
"It's nice. I'd really cum all over it."
The girl punches him in the arm playfully, and they speed away before I can react.

Because of the street noise, I couldn't quite process what he'd just said until I considered the way that she reacted and the way that his facial expression changed; it was vastly different than the rest of the "conversation," like he knew he was being a bully and invasive, and was hamming it up and enjoying it. What shocked me most was how upsetting it was, and I honestly think that the most upsetting part was not even his verbal abuse, but that I wasn't given a chance to react. By the time I realized what had happened, they were gone. To him, there was no consequence. No reason not to keep treating people like that. The woman he was with was clearly accustomed to this kind of shit. (Is she part of the problem or a victim of it or both? I'd say both, and it makes me both sad for her and angry at her, but this a whole other topic.) My inability to react basically left me very alone with the experience, and I was more shaken than I would have expected to be. I was stuck at that bus stop for twenty more minutes, and actually considered just giving up and going home because after being out for a total of about five minutes, the world was already terrible.

But I didn't, I took the bus and transferred to the metro. It was crowded and I stood at a pole, very aware of how many people were looking at me; people are always looking at me, and I don't mean this in a good or bad way, it's usually pretty neutral, but in this case I was extremely on edge. If anyone said anything I thought I would either punch them or burst into tears or both.
Then I feel a poke in the arm. Tense up, expect the worst from humanity. But, it's an older punk lady who doesn't say anything, just simply gestures for me to take her now empty seat. I thank her but say she should keep it. She insists and says she's getting off in just a couple of stops, so I thank her again and go take it. When her stop arrives, she points to me from the door, smiles, and says:
"You have a good night. You made my day just by existing. You've made me smile, so you go out there and smile too, you deserve it."
I didn't really know what to say, but I thanked her, awkwardly but sincerely. I've always had worse experiences with humanity on the bus than on the metro, and this was a day of extremes. Like as a bittersweet welcome back to public transit, the universe was like, "Here's everything. It balances, right?" Does punk lady actually balance out douchebro? Unfortunately, no, but the juxtaposition was helpful.

Something I said in passing that I'd like to elaborate on: that I get looked at a lot and most of the time I find it neutral. Alternative looking people get looked at a lot. So do "attractive" women. I happen to be both. A lot of the time I don't even notice, but when I do, I usually don't find it creepy unless I'm given specific reason to. This comes with the "alternative" part; straight guys are only a handful of the random people with their eyes on me, not necessarily the default or majority, and I think this is what has desensitized me. Women and gay guys comment on my appearance just as much as the typical dude. It's different, yes, but it makes it easier to just take a compliment at face value. Sometimes the only thing really different about a (straight) guy's comment is a look in the eyes or a certain kind of lingering expectation that I sense but cannot otherwise describe. Those are the "compliments" that I don't want to say "thank you" to, but am not sure what else to say. And I ask you, Internet, what do you when a man says, "You're beautiful"? (Oh, I got an "exotic" on the bus the day before this.) Is there a way to not say thank you without being rude? Which is different from an old lady saying it (which happens), and different from anyone of any gender saying, "I like your style." I've read a lot of blog articles out there about women's experiences with strange men's compliments, and most consider it to pretty much always be a kind of harassment, an expectation that women's appearances are for public consumption. And in most cases I agree with this. But something changes when you- or let's just say I- have a skillfully honed and intentionally uncommon aesthetic. Appearances are social, or at least the parts of our appearances that we CHOOSE are, and a lot of choice goes into mine. It feels hypocritical to be angry at public attention, and most of the time I'm not. To be clear, this is completely separate from the topic of the douche in the SUV. That was straight up verbal abuse. But the thing that gets me is, the guys with the decent, non-invasive they just have the common sense to stop talking before they go as far as douchebro? Are they that different? And that possibility makes the world pretty scary. But I am never going to stop looking like this, and I am not going to be scared away from public transit when I need it.


The timing was especially interesting and terrible, because the next day, I had my first non-Sideshow burlesque gig. It was for a private party, a friend of friends' bachelor party and baby shower. So, very literally taking my clothes off for a room full of men. I did a routine to Mein Herr; it was strange, relatively fun, and made surprisingly good money. An important factor in keeping it fun was that the men's cheers were somehow very clearly WITH rather than AT. 

Afterward, one guy said, "I don't think anyone has ever made Liza Minnelli so sexy."
I said, "Well, drag queens."
"Okay, anyone female."

The thing is, I'd often rather be one of the drag queens than even the sexiest woman. I don't think that playing up hyper-feminine sexuality is necessarily contradictory to feminism in any way, but I do worry that it somehow precludes my drag queen dreams. I don't think this is a logical progression, but it's a feeling I can't shake. I worry that I am indulging in super hetero, cisgendered structures and opportunities just because I can, and it's ultimately only mildly gratifying.

More opportunities have arisen for me to do burlesque, and I'm very much on the fence. I feel similarly to how I did about gogo dancing, which I totally miss, by the way, for what I feel are self indulgent reasons. Not that that's bad, I guess. But even more so than gogo dancing, burlesque has an extreme "LOOKIT ME" quality that makes me kind of wary and uncomfortable unless I feel that I have something unique to contribute (not just to a troupe, but to audiences, the world, my life, whatever), and I'm not sure that I do. Generally speaking, On the Fence is pretty much just where I live. We'll see where this goes.


In other news, it's hot as balls in here, and the ceiling fan literally just plummeted from the ceiling to its death. I'll take my cue from the ceiling fan; my work here is done for the night.


  1. I think the dividing line here is the difference between complimenting something the person has no choice over - eyes, skin, beauty - and the choices they've made, like "I like your style," "great dress," "cool hair". The first is WAY more intimate than public spaces allow, and is invasive and objectifying. The second respects the individual and their tastes.

    1. Exactly. That's basically what I meant by saying that the things we get to choose about our appearances are social. Therefore up for interacting about, whereas something we didn't choose should be (but of course rarely seem to be) off limits.

  2. I think you are over analyzing this compliment from guy thing. When I see a girl i find attractive i usually let them know how beautiful they look today. Usually not even caring for a number. i like to think it makes there days a lot better :)but i have gotten a couple numbers for randomly doing it. I know that every guy isnt that big of a douche. but there is always going to be "that type of person". i know this is going to sound harsh but i feel like i should say it anyways. Get over it, people you wont ever meet again should never effect you negatively. like who fucking cares? put your ear phones back on and enjoy your music and move on, life is short. now im not saying to be totally passive to any douche bag that crosses paths with you, especially like the encounter you had with the guy in the car. next time it happens tell him to fuck off and be done with it. sort the bad from the good and move on with your life. because you know what? you arnt ever going to see him again. so do what the honey badger does best and just dont give a fuck about it. I hope this helps, i do not mean to be offensive to you in anyway. :)

    1. I'm going to start by saying that if I were to actually take your advice, I wouldn't reply to this comment because I don't know who you are.

      Second, I have said before that when one person accuses another of "overthinking," they're usually the ones not thinking enough. And I think this is true in this case too.

      You have not offended me, and I don't think you're a douche, but I do think you're a little oblivious. And that's not a crime, but that's actually why I write stuff like this and share it, and "over analyze"- without analysis nothing changes.

      Actually, maybe I am a little offended by your assertion that "get over it" and that there will always be "that type of person." Emotionally speaking, get over it isn't bad advice; but objectively and socially, it's terrible advice. It says don't think. And yes, there will always be assholes, but they need their behavior scrutinized. Even if it's in a general sense, even if the individual I encountered never reads anything like this, someone else will. There will always be assholes but there can be hope to have fewer assholes. It's realistic optimism.

      From how you describe your own actions, I can see that you have no malicious or lecherous intent, but again, a certain obliviousness that I think is pretty common. It may not be directly harmful, but think about the things you comment on. "You're beautiful" is usually about natural endowments; face and body and the like. Complimenting a choice someone has made is different. Imagine if strangers were always commenting on parts of your appearance that you do not control, even if it's positive. You might at first think it'd be wonderful (there's a great How I Met Your Mother episode about this), but it can be invasive and exhausting, no matter what your intentions.

      And a technicality: I would have loved to tell him to fuck off. The point was that they sped away literally before I could react, which made it worse.

      This comment does help actually, but perhaps not in the way you expected. This reply is just as much for anyone else reading as it is for you, since I think yours is a pretty common perspective and gave me space to elaborate upon it. You're right, life is short; go forth and think.

  3. The world is a big place, and the quotient of douches is larger in cities than small towns, obviously. I personally think , if someone pushes, you push back. I know you won't let those people think they can roll over you. That guy was an obvious ass-clown, and had he not sped away like a coward, you could've retorted back. Then again, it might have been better that the confrontation was that short. Cowards tend to pick on lone people, especially ones in an alternative scene. You are atleast safe, and the univese turned around and introduced that nice punk-rock lady. Stay strong, you are better than they are.
    As for the person who anonomously posted about "get over it". You may think you are not a douche, but, speaking up like that makes you sound like a douche. Your advice isn't really productive. Oh and congradulations on letting everyone know you get girl's phone numbers cause that's helpful. I'm sure you are a real Prince Charming.

  4. I have been contemplating this issue myself for a while now. I very much appreciate you providing an account of someone harassing you as personally, due to my sex, I have been unable to observe this problem directly. I have come to the conclusion that catcalling is a multifaceted issue that does not have a quick fix as simple as "Teach men not to catcall". I'd like to provide a walk through of my thought process for your critique as some of it mirrors yours, but some of it doesn't.

    To begin with, I identify the issue as "Women feel troubled by men calling out to them on the street."
    From a clinical point of view there are a two paths that can be taken to fix this issue. A. Get douchebags to stop being douchebags, effect the antagonist. B. Make the calling no longer troublesome, affect the victim.

    The A solution is the ideal solution, they are the antagonist after all, but there are a couple problems with that solution. It is of my opinion that there are at least 3 different motives for cat calling. They are, the douche, the chest pounders, and the romantics.

    The douches are what you encountered. Their motive is purely malicious, but thankfully I believe that they are the smallest population. They are equivalent to an internet troll. They want to ruffle someones feathers and unfortunately they chose you. This is where the common believe that the cat caller is asserting dominance, or objectifying, comes from. Unfortunately, as much as I, and most other people, would like to scour the earth of these kinds of people, they very rarely enter any sort of forum where cat calling is discussed so that their actions can be reprimanded and stopped. Basically, douches by their very nature are not reachable and will always be douches. We have to rely on solution B to deal with them.

    The chest pounders are often encountered in a group of males. The motive for these individuals is not directly malicious, but still not kosher. I would be of the opinion that these are the second most common. The objective with these individuals seems to be to create a common bond among the group through use of what is considered fundamental to a straight male, their sexuality. Basically they're saying something to the effect of "Behold, chaps, I am a straight male just like you!". Much in the same way as chanting for a sports team together; they're bonding. Problem is they're still objectifying someone to do it. They're using the individual as a means of proving themselves and that's not really cool. Luckily, these guys are fairly normal and thus reachable. If we were to work towards creating a culture were men can bond outside simplistic concepts like sexuality and sports, perhaps they wouldn't feel the need to do it in such grandiose ways. This is also where campaigns of saying "Hey guys, that's not really cool" can take effect.

    1. The third are the romantics and where we run into our issues. They are the most common of individuals involved in cat calling. They are honestly just trying to flirt; to meet women. The success of this strategy is questionable, but it is by no means malicious. So what do we do with them? Well, I believe there are two solutions, one for A and one for B. The A solution is to change the dating game. The objective of these guys, as stated earlier, is to foster a relationship, be it romantic or sexual, and they are just bluntly playing the traditionally "male" role in the human courting game of being the initiator. If we were to change the rules of the courting game (or abolish the game completely) so that women were as often the initiator as men, this might reduce the number of individuals resorting to such crass methods. Some men would be willing to take on the traditionally female role of being the passive evaluator, rather than the agressive initiator. Furthermore, we can also educate them in the difference between an empty compliment, appreciating something someone can't change like their face, and a good compliment, appreciating something like "Hey, nice fashion sense!"

      Now, about solution B. As stated earlier, solution B is affecting the cat called, rather than the cat caller. Many people are inherently against such a concept, but due to the situations discussed above, it may be the most effective. The only method of really dealing with the douche is by ignoring him. We cant really reach him and reacting to his attack is only giving him what he wants. This also has some spill over for the chest pounders. Hopefully strategy A works for them, but since we are already ignoring stupid comments on the street for the douches they wont really affect the Catcalled.
      Now I'm going to go into another strategy that is often a bit more hated as it questions the victim status of individuals involved. I believe it would be prudent to analyze why we believe all individuals who cat call are malicious and dangerous. You already covered one aspect, there is the inability to respond. The douche catcaller is in the superior position of striking and running away. However, another aspect, is there may be a part of our society, originating in early puritanical thinking, that labels male sexuality as inherently dangerous and wrong. This is exacerbated by a patriarchal narrative that suggests all men aim to assert power over women. Both aspects are inherently wrong. Statistically speaking, the number of attacks on women by strangers is VERY low, it is more likely for a woman to be attacked by someone in their house by someone they know than on the street. Male sexuality for the most part is healthy and should not be shunned. As for the patriarchal narrative, a bit of empathy would go a long way in debunking that. Men are just trying to get by, find love, and enjoy the little things in life much like women. We are both screwed over by traditional gender roles and it does nothing more than "othering" half the population when you suggest they are always the destructive ones. In short, perhaps we can change the mindset of women so they don't see complementary cat calling as destructive and thus not capable of damaging your sense of self.

      Sorry about it being in two parts.

  5. I certainly agree that everyone is screwed by traditional gender roles; in fact, that's basically what this whole blog is about. However, I would argue that this is absolutely not about shunning male sexuality. It's about dealing with a crappy, stunted mode of expression.

    I'm glad that you acknowledge that the last suggestion is an unpopular one, but you know, there's good goddamn reason for that. I hate to spend so much time talking about gender as binary, but for the sake of a concise discussion it's relevant. So, here goes: historically, if we're getting into that, it has been women's role to bend and adapt around cultural "defaults" of men, not the reverse. And this last suggestion perpetuates that. And I think that is a step in the wrong direction, or no direction at all, really.

    Though the ratio of types of "cat callers" you describe may be accurate, here's the problem: unless someone is an extreme over-the-top douche or the men really are in a big group, it's often impossible to tell them apart on the spot. And should it even be my job to try? It's important that "the nice guys" understand this. It also suggests that the victim is somehow "up for grabs" merely by existing out in the world.

    I appreciate the thought that went into your comment, even if I disagree with much of it.

  6. I completely understand that men's idiotic behavior (whistling, cat-calling, and even compliments) is menacing. Being a woman is tough anywhere, and being an attractive woman by herself surrounded by male troglodytes can be downright dangerous. But dude, you have to come to grips with the fact that your style practically commands some of that attention. I'm not saying it's right, so I don't want anyone getting all worked up. But an attractive girl dressed "alternatively" sends a clear signal to men, even relatively intelligent ones- that she wants to stick out of the crowd perhaps because she wants attention from them, so the man may very well try his luck.
    I would pose the following advice; do you have to dress like that all the time? If you know that dressing like that invites men's attention, including potentially violent ones who may be insulted by your rebuffs because of their fragile egos, why would you continue to put yourself in that position, especially in places where you might expect even more of it? It's a free country and you should be able to dress how and when you want, but don't forget that humans are just sophisticated apes. We live in a world of 7 billion people, so good luck teaching the majority that behavior such as what you experience is invasive; there are always going to be men that think that it's okay to give women that kind of threatening attention.
    As for the girlfriend of the guy in the truck, I do find it a little ominous that some women condone what we've been discussing or even find it funny. My intuition is that they may be scared of rejection/aggression by their mates for not pretending to be okay with it. When you think of people as primates at their core, it begins to explain an awful lot.

    1. I discussed in the post how dressing alternatively does change things. And for the most part it changes things for the better, not worse, even if the quantity of attention is larger (because it includes women, children, old people, not just cat calling dudes). I would never compromise my aesthetic as a response to the assholes of the world. Frankly I think that's just the wrong response, and a way of blaming victims for their abuse (which is not to say that this kind of thing is ALWAYS abuse). The farthest I go is deliberately not wearing a skirt that somebody could see up on a metro escalator, and basic things like that.

      So I guess I should clarify, when I write in my comments about street harassment/cat calling/complimenting, I am speaking more generally, not just about my own experience, but about a much larger cultural phenomenon.

  7. When I think of the term "catcalling," I think of the "hey, baby -- nice ass!" instances, and I think that's never acceptable. Telling someone they have pretty eyes or lipstick is more paying someone a compliment. And even then, that compliment can be seen as an aggressive move. A lot of recent gender relations discussions in the skeptic community have centered on the concept of "Schroedinger's Rapist" -- the idea that a woman can not tell just by looking at a man whether he's a nice guy or a predator. And because that distinction can't be made, it behooves men to take extra care in approaching and dealing with women. What no one has mentioned so far is the existence of any possible non-verbal cues that would signal your interest in these men. If a "Romantic" (as techcasualty labels them) wishes to engage an unknown woman, perhaps he should make an effort to catch her eye to see if there's even an *inkling* of interest in evidence. If so, by all means -- approach. If not, let the woman get through her day, dude, without yet another man vying for her attention. I'm sure she just wants to ride the bus in peace.

    1. All astute observations, Scott. I like the term "skeptic community," which I've never heard; makes me think of a message board moderated by Scully. But really, the world needs more questioning and less assuming. Thanks for your contribution.

  8. This is a great blog. It mirrors some of my own experiences and frustrations. It's a shame that there is no end to those who won't try to see things outside of their own perspective.