By Kelly Fox, crossposted with permission from Guerrilla Feminism.
Last week, I posted a status on Facebook that read, “My life would be 99.8% better if random men just never talked to me.”
Many female friends agreed emphatically and liked my status. Then I commented, “Also why would I care that u [random men] think that I’m beautiful? I don’t know u and last time I checked I didn’t ask for yr opinion. Unless I’m literally on fire and am somehow unaware of the fact u don’t need to be talking to me. #noscrubs2016.”
That’s when the thread exploded, mostly with women agreeing with the sentiment that random men telling them that they’re beautiful was unwanted, predatory, and almost always a gateway to other forms of harassment and gender-based violence. But some folks chimed in to add that some of these men intend to compliment women, and that some women appreciate the compliment. No shame or judgement to women who are flattered by random men’s “you’re beautiful!” As one of my FB friends eloquently articulated, it’s a complex issue, because we all want to feel desirable, we’re socialized to believe our primary worth is derived from our perceived attractiveness to men, and many of us don’t want to put unsolicited attention from men in the same category as other forms of violence against women. It’s too spirit-numbing and soul-crushing to admit to ourselves the myriad, microcosmic ways the patriarchy permeates our everyday lives.
While I do believe that sometimes random men do intend to compliment women by telling them that they’re beautiful, in my experience, and in the experiences of my female friends, this is less than five percent of the time. Ninety-five percent of the time telling women that they’re beautiful is not coming from a place of aesthetic admiration, it’s coming from a place of entitlement to, and feelings of ownership over female bodies. Ninety-five percent of the time, “You’re beautiful” leads to aggressive sexual advances, which escalate to the man threatening or enacting violence against you should you express disinterest in the exchange. No matter how kindly you tell him that you’re not interested and that you would prefer to be left alone, he will respond with some variation of, “Fuck you, bitch.” It’s safe to assume that if it takes five seconds for a man to go from “You’re beautiful” to “Fuck you, bitch,” he never intended to compliment you in the first place. If men are just complimenting us, then why would they become violent when we try to disengage from the conversation?
But this isn’t another essay about the ninety-five percent, this is an inquiry into the nature of the five percent of well-intentioned men who are trying to compliment us. I want to share a particular experience I had with a man on the bus a couple weeks ago. I was riding the bus home from work, sitting in the back, engrossed in my book, when I realized that someone was hovering over me. I looked up. A random man, probably in his 30s, was staring down at me.
Random Man: Hi, I don’t want to be creepy, but I see you on this bus all the time. I’ve been watching you for weeks, trying to work up the courage to come talk to you. You’re really beautiful.
Random Man: *Stands there, staring at me for a while*
Me: *Sits up more assertively, stares back*
Random Man: ….Okay. I’m going to go sit down now.
Even if this man was well-intentioned, and I believe he was, he still made me feel unsafe. Intention =/= impact. His intention may have been to compliment me, but the impact of his words scared me. My mind immediately went to concerns about my basic safety. He knew where I got off of the bus, could he figure out where I live? He said that he had been “watching me for weeks” and plotting to come talk to me. Was he also plotting to kidnap me and lock me in his basement? Would someone find my mutilated body weeks later in the trunk of his car?
This is the crux of the matter. Even if a particular man is just complimenting us, how are women supposed to be able to discern thatthis particular man is different than the last man who used the same line as an in to then threaten us, assault us, or verbally abuse us? For our own safety, we can’t risk trusting the “good intentions” of random men. If that hurts the well-intentioned man’s feelings, that’s unfortunate, but protecting my life matters more to me than protecting a man’s ego.
Too often, protecting ourselves means acquiescing to male attention and harassment. I would so much rather tell all the men who interrupt my reading to tell me that I’m beautiful to leave me alone, but instead I thank them and smile because I’m terrified of what might happen if I don’t.
These are just a few of the names of women who were killed for saying “no” or “stop” to their harassers. For women, street harassment isn’t merely unpleasant, it’s often a matter of life and death. Each time we walk down the street, we are playing Russian Roulette with our lives. I am routinely forced to restructure my life around avoiding potential male violence. I have had to change bus routes three times this past year out of fear of violence from particular men. The first time, it was because the bus driver followed me off the bus and up to my apartment door to tell me, “You are a gorgeous woman.” The second time, it was because a male rider on the bus started stalking me, even following me into the building where I work. The third time, it was because a man on the bus wouldn’t stop staring at me, even after I politely asked him to stop multiple times.
Even when I don’t feel like my life is in danger, random, well-intentioned men telling me I’m beautiful is still unsettling. I don’t know these men, and I didn’t ask for their opinion about my physical appearance. Well-intentioned compliments still come from a place of entitlement. These men value their opinions of our attractiveness to them so highly, that they feel they simply have no choice but interrupt whatever we’re doing to deliver an unsolicited, non-consensual monologue about our bodies, with no regard as to how that might make us feel. These men seem to think that unwanted male attention is simply the price women pay for inhabiting a female body, and that being a woman in public space means that our bodies are public property. Indeed, a man once told my best friend, whom he’d been staring at throughout our brunch: “If you didn’t want men staring at you, then you shouldn’t leave the house.”
The context in which these well-intentioned compliments are delivered also renders them highly suspect. According to my research, these compliments happen less when you’re over 40, are wearing a wedding ring, are masculine-presenting, and when you’re accompanied by other people, especially other men. To me, this reveals that these “compliments” are perhaps not so much about aesthetic appreciation as they are about perceived availability and vulnerability to male advances. These men want to “compliment” you when you’re isolated, appear to be single or at least unmarried, and heterosexual. When you consider this evidence, it becomes apparent that more often than not, “You’re beautiful” functions as a thinly-veiled power play deployed to force a woman to engage with you in a non-consensually sexualized manner. If these really are just compliments, with no ulterior motive, then why do men linger expectantly after they deliver the compliment? For the most part, these are not drive-by compliments. Men are not walking up to you, saying, “You’re beautiful!” then running away. There is a degree of expectation that you’ll respond. When that man complimented me on the bus, he didn’t sit down or get off the bus immediately after he spoke, he stood there hovering over me until even he started feeling uncomfortable.
One of the most common excuses for men’s sexually inappropriate and/or abusive behavior toward women from harassment apologists is that they can’t help themselves because they’re sexually attracted to women. But I am also sexually attracted to women, and I’m not going up to random women on the street to give them my unsolicited commentary about their bodies.Telling a random person on the street that they’re beautiful, no matter how well-intentioned the compliment, requires a sense of entitlement, ownership, and privileged self-importance that I will never fully understand.
Then, there’s the excuse from harassment apologists that “Boys will be boys!” or “That’s just how men are! They’re dopey!” I don’t think that men are dopey. I think that men are rational human beings with the capacity for empathy and transformation. I think that men can learn to be mindful of the impacts of their behavior, regardless of their intentions.
Men: if you really have good intentions, then you need to stop telling me that I’m beautiful. It doesn’t matter if you think that I’m beautiful, or if you were well-intentioned. I don’t want to hear it. There’s no way for me to tell the difference between you, the well-intentioned five percent, and the ninety-five percent who would rather abuse, assault, or murder me than hear or heed my “no” or “stop.”
If what I’m asking seems too difficult for you to manage, then maybe you need to examine whether you were ever one of the “good guys.”