I noticed him looking at my legs. There weren’t many people in the train that evening, he was sitting across from me and I watched as his gaze went over my ankles, up to my knees, and further to my thighs and hips. Shameless, I thought. Then he looked me in the eye, a bit startled, smiled apologetically and quickly looked out the window. He blushed a bit, looked at me again and I grinned. We both looked away and I comfortably listened to my mp3 player until I reached my destination. I felt flattered.
Almost every woman experiences street harassment, but men often find it hard not to get defensive when women discuss this problem. “What, is it a crime to look at a woman now?” they’ll ask, “if you’re dressed in a sexy manner, aren’t you asking for the attention?”. They’ll tell us “but it’s a compliment!” and advice us not to be so sensitive. “We just find women pleasing to look at”.
But I don’t think that’s it. Street harassment isn’t just a man finding a woman attractive and expressing that. A compliment is intended to make the other person feel good, if you really want to compliment someone and they express discomfort you back off. Street harassment is a man believing he has the right to look at a woman and talk to her whether she consents and feels comfortable or not. Often, street harassment is bullying, the intention is to make a woman feel unsafe or scared. It’s not a compliment.
It’s a dark, empty parking lot. A guy walks up to me. “Five euro’s if I can wet my fingers on your cunt!”. I pretend I heard nothing and walk faster.
“You look pretty”. I force a strained smile and look away. “Hey, I complimented you! You’re really pretty. What’s your name?”. I mumble a ‘sorry’ and start walking away. There aren’t many people around and I feel uncomfortable. “Why are you walking away? Hey! I complimented you! Come back here!”. I keep walking.
He catch him looking at my legs. He continues staring for so long it’s becoming rude. I try to make eye contact, but when he finally looks at me he gives me a “how you doin'” smile and says “hey”. I look away. He makes himself comfortable and examines my legs some more. I try to cover myself with my coat.
The guy in the first example acknowledged me as a person, was sensitive to my emotional response and didn’t feel entitled to my attention. It was a compliment, something he gave for free without expecting anything in return. The second guy intended to scare me, the third guy felt I owed him something and the third guy didn’t give a damn how I felt and just used me for his enjoyment. That’s not flattering. It’s intimidating, it made me feel unsafe and disrespected.
Don’t tell me to take it as a compliment.