Last week, a bunch of bloggers got into a fight over glittery boobs.
I found out about it because I read Sarah Moon, and she posted her two cents on the post that started it all. So I read the original post. Then I read Sarah’s take on things. Then I read Dianne Anderson’s take on things. Then I stopped reading because I was uncomfortable with all of it and couldn’t quite put my finger on why.
A few days later, I came back to the issue through Amy’s “Notable News” post. This time, I read all the posts and quite a chunk of the comments, and then I took a shower. And as so often happens, in the shower I finally figured out what made me uncomfortable about the original post.
The day that I first found this online argument, I got distracted by my co-worker’s boobs. She had on a low-cut-but-still-work-appropriate top, and I kind of zoned out staring. That was inappropriate of me. She caught me staring, and we had an awkward “I just realized that you are staring at my boobs, but I am not going to call you out on it because I know you’re a nice person and now that I’ve noticed, you’ll stop” moment, and then life moved on.
But what if she didn’t know me? What if I was a random stranger that she caught staring at her boobs? Then she would have no context for my behavior, and it would be a lot more difficult to attribute intentions behind my inappropriateness.
So let’s think about this scenario: I ride the bus to and from work. The bus is standing-room-only most days, but because I get on at the first stop and off at the last stop, I usually end up with a seat at some point. So let’s say that I get on the bus and sit down. Later, as the bus fills, someone is standing directly in front of me. Let’s say it’s a man. Let’s say he’s staring at my boobs.
Now, maybe he’s got an audio book on his iPod, and he’s just super engrossed in the plot. Maybe he’s perfectly harmless and zoned out and would feel really awful if I publicly embarrassed him by calling him out about the fact that he’s staring. But maybe he’s actually a creeper who’s enjoying my inadvertent free show.
I have no way of knowing.
What I do know is that this would make me uncomfortable, but I probably wouldn’t say anything. I’m not a confrontational person. I’m generally pretty insecure. So I would feel uncomfortable about the staring, but I wouldn’t say anything because I would also feel uncomfortable about making a scene.
But what if he gets off at my bus stop? What if he is walking in the same direction as me? What if he starts talking to me?
Maybe he’s just a nice, not-so-observant guy who noticed that a pretty girl got off at the same bus stop. Maybe he’s trying to work up the courage to ask me for my phone number. Maybe he’s at a boring point in his hypothetical audio book, and he’d rather make conversation while he walks home.
Or maybe he’s planning on harassing me. Maybe he’s hoping to pick me up. Maybe he’s not going to take no for an answer. Maybe he’s going to be aggressive.
At this point, I would be panicking. My apartment complex is in an area that doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic. In fact, at the time of day when I am usually walking home, there isn’t a lot of traffic period. There are apartment complexes and business lining the street, but they are set back from the road and usually surrounded by trees. It’s not unusual for me to walk home without ever seeing anyone.
At this point, I would be dearly wishing that I had made a scene on the bus. Maybe if I had been more aggressive, he would know where my boundaries are. Maybe I could have scared him off. But I started out with the assumption that I shouldn’t say anything because he’s probably a nice guy that doesn’t mean any harm, and now I feel obligated to continue with that assumption. Now that I’ve let him make me uncomfortable once, I feel obligated to let him make me uncomfortable again.
Maybe staring doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I should never feel obligated to let someone make me feel uncomfortable, because that is a slippery slope towards “She acted like she wanted it.”
Women live with the constant awareness that the men around them are probably predators. Men are not encouraged to cultivate this awareness, so to them, women who make a big deal out of a little innocent, mindless staring are crazy and paranoid. They are over-emotional. They are dressing to get attention and then objecting when someone pays attention. As women, when a guy points this out to us, we have a great opportunity to do some privilege-checking. We have a great opportunity to say, “Okay, but think about it from her perspective. Maybe the last guy who was staring was a creep. Maybe he followed-up his staring by trying to cop a feel. Maybe she thought the only way to avoid being victimized was to take the offensive.” What we shouldn’t do is buy into the privileged perspective on the situation and make the argument that it’s okay for nice guys to make someone feel uncomfortable because . . . they’re nice guys.