Spring is Sprung, but Men Needn’t Be!

How is it possible that any person could hate spring?  I love few things more than stepping out of the gloom of winter to enjoy the warmth of the sunshine with friends, tossing around a frisbee, having picnics, going for bike rides!  Spring makes me absurdly happy!

After reading a post by “Sista Toldja” over at The Beautiful Struggler entitled “Cruel Summer,” I remembered a conversation I had with a female friend a few years back.  We were getting ready to go to the park to enjoy the sun, and before we walked outside, she took a deep breath and said, “I hate this!”  I didn’t ask immediately what she hated so much, but I quickly realized what she was preparing for with her deep breath.  In the ten blocks or so that we walked to the park, nearly every man we passed stared, eyes down, some even being bold enough to lick and smack their lips.  One dude even grabbed at his crotch.  The part that amazed me is that we were walking together and very likely could have been a couple, and a few guys even felt entitled to “cat call,” commenting on her ass as we walked by!

She ignored them and asked me to do the same, and as we got to the park, we talked about it.  “It’s hard for me not to hate spring,” she said.  “It’s always worst in spring when the warm weather clothes first come out.  It’s like they’re starved puppies who are watching a meat truck unload its wares for the first time in months!”

I, of course, was furious!  My friend is being objectified, and it’s happening right before my eyes!  This needs to stop!  We men need to learn how to act!  Look at what a good, feminist, progressive man I am!!

Well, as I am so good at doing, I found myself a hypocrite today.  I was in line at a Subway, and I caught myself leering at the woman in front of me, eyes down, practically memorizing the shape of her backside.  I shook my head in frustration with myself . . . after all, haven’t I written this blog before?  I ordered my sandwich and walked a few blocks to the coffee shop where I planned to work for a few hours.  I sat down, noticing but not recognizing the girl sitting directly across from me.  When she stood up to go to the bathroom, I realized I did recognize her.  I recognized her ass from Subway.  Yeah . . . I didn’t recognize this young woman’s face, but I recognized her backside.

Sitting here now, writing this blog, I am frustrated with myself, and I want to open the discussion to my readers.  In her blog, “Sista Toldja” ponders, “How exactly should a woman respond to street harassment?”  On the other side, we men need to be having a similar conversation.

Undoubtedly my socialization that says, “OBJECTIFY HER!  OBJECTIFY HER!” is powerful considering that I work actively against such leering and yet still sometimes catch myself doing it.  So how exactly should we, as men, begin our work to change the way we look at women and to respond to the men around us who are cat calling and leering at women?  In thinking about this, I think of the point a fellow educator made recently as we talked about how we can approach healthy sexuality with the young men we meet.  He stressed that we should be careful not to encourage shame in young men who feel aroused when they see a body they find attractive?  The solution seems to be in trying to move our thoughts and actions more toward the “appreciation of beauty” side of the spectrum, but how!?

Flier You Can Give to Harassing Men. Download it and more at StopStreetHarassment.com

To me, “appreciating beauty” means appreciating a woman I find beautiful as that . . . a woman . . . a human being with whom I can build a relationship, with whom I can have a conversation.  If I find myself casting those leering eyes downward, I try to lift my eyes to look at the person in the face and smile (though I quite clearly fail far too often).  I find myself needing to think back to a blog post I wrote nearly six months ago:

For me, the line must be drawn with relationships.  If I am simply staring at a woman’s body, separating the beauty of the female form from her as a person, I am simply objectifying her.  When, though, I can appreciate how beautiful a woman is in the context of her as a person, her physical beauty mixed with her beauty as a person with hopes, dreams, passions, faults, and realities, I am taking a step toward appreciating beauty in a much more healthy way.  In doing so, though, I must keep in mind the standards of beauty laid out for the women in my life by the media and the men (including myself) and learn to see all types of beauty.

I want to interrogate that further, knowing that I can’t develop relationships with every person I meet and find attractive.  Is it possible for me to briefly admire a woman’s form without it being objectification?  If so, how long is too long before I’m start leering, staring?  How is my gaze causing women to sigh, saying, “I hate this!”?

Maybe I should simply take the advice of the Astronomical Kid and “stop staring at [his] moms!”

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11 thoughts on “Spring is Sprung, but Men Needn’t Be!

  1. Hey Jamie! Thanks for your post–as always, they are interesting and challenging.

    After reading this latest post, one thing I was wondering about is if you’ve read any of bell hooks’ book, “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.” If you haven’t, I would highly, highly recommend it! I read it a few years ago, and what she wrote was like food for my soul–her words rang so true and spoke so deeply for me.

    Here’s what one reader/reviewer posted about it on the Amazon.com page, which captures some of the themes and impact of the book:

    “‘The Will to Change’ by bell hooks is one of the best books I have ever read.

    bell hooks gets to the heart of the ways in which most of us (men and women, people of all classes and races) are harmed by patriarchy, as well as exposing the ways in which we unconsciously replicate it in our personal lives. Her ideas are big enough to include all people who are struggling with division, oppression, and/or general un-wholeness and unhappiness, not just women.

    She suggests that the way to freedom is for us to love each other and support each other on our journeys to wholeness. She clearly and consistently frames the struggle as one of hurting people yearning to be whole and free. This is a theory that is accessible to everyone – anyone who searches their heart, or just observes the society around them, can see that what she says is true.

    As a feminist who is married and loves men, I found her advice to be full of wisdom, with a refreshing lack of intellectual elitism. After reading this wonderful work, I am more convinced than ever that heart and soul are the primary components of our future evolutionary path. Hats off to you, ms. hooks!”

  2. As I posted on Beautiful Struggler’s blog about this issue and speaking as a guy I can tell you that it’s not really about women, but the MAIN reason why men harass women on the street is to prove to the other guys (and himself) that he’s not gay.

    You have NO idea what men will do to prove to other men that they’re not a “fag”. Believe me I know what I’m talking about. Guys would jump off a cliff if it meant proving to other guys that they’re straight. Harassing women on the street is just another way of doing that.

    Guys who harass women are not looking for sex from them. They know that’s NEVER going to happen (though they do wish by some miracle that it does) , but to other guys they’re with it prove to them that they’re straight. Nothing “soft” about them

    • Alex,

      Thank you so much for your response. You’re right . . . it’s always important to consider the ways that heterosexism and homophobia influence the interactions we as men have with each other and with women.

      Jamie

  3. Jamie, your musings got me thinking of the ways I consistently measure people physically — strangers, acquaintances, friends, family members — and assign value based on appearance. I appreciate your thoughts on this, because I imagine we all do it to some extent as humans, but don’t often stop to think about it as problematic — and we don’t know how to stop doing it. Throughout my life, beginning with my parents, I’ve had mentors who have decried the importance of the superficial in our culture, trying to help me focus instead on “what’s inside.” I’ve had the Sesame Street, “Reviving Ophelia,” and girl power self-esteem talks I’m sure are familiar to many twenty-something ladies (maybe gentlemen too). I’ve been lucky to know a lot of feminists and read a lot of books. Many of the people I love and look up to did a lot of work to help me find self worth that didn’t revolve around my appearance.

    AND YET. Every media source I’ve ever consumed, every food, drink, and body care product, every piece of clothing bought has affected me. We live in a culture that puts so much importance on the way we look — it’s a value. We base immediate judgments on our visual perception, the expectation that what we see outside will match our deeper stereotype of race, gender, beauty, size, or religion. We see what we want to see, what makes us feel comfortable. It’s so much easier if we all fit into “normal,” isn’t it?

    Pretty much the only way I fall outside the ultimate-benefactors-of-patriarchy checklist is my womanhood. Just because I am a pretty regular target of unwanted attention based on stereotyping doesn’t mean I don’t also inherently stereotype others — putting them in boxes where they exist as simple tropes, much easier to understand than a complex individual with a personal an cultural history. We’re subconsciously taught to gain power that way. Everything I’ve been taught by media has told me that the world order’s in place, and so my brain, acclimated to the structure of the boxes, can easily sort people. Luckily I’ve had great people and great experiences that have helped me to be able to think before I sort, but that initial urge continues to be there — I have to speak to it clearly and say, DON’T. I have to recognize I did it and say, STOP. I have to notice when others do it and say, HEY. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely change it, but alertness to that urge is changing me, I think.

    And now to completely 180, I ask whoever bothered to read this far: how do we express attraction and appreciate beauty respectfully yet impersonally? Like you say, Jamie, strangers don’t know each others’ personalities, and maybe we never will — all we have is the visual. Is there a way to be complimentary in the cat-call, or is it all objectification? I will be the first to say that, especially when I was a single lady, I did not mind a cute boy giving me the Look. So was I internalizing the sexualization of women in America in such an instance? What if the female in question enjoys the particular interaction: what then?

  4. Thanks for this post, Jamie! I especially appreciate the reference to your having written this same post before. It is so tempting to think that once we have had the insight that a particular behaviour or way of thinking is wrong, we have solved the problem, and this is so not the case! It is a forever journey, and rather than expecting to get there we need to plan to keep going and challenge ourselves. It reminds me of a post I read recently on one of my feminist parenting blogs, about another uphill battle to live one’s feminism:
    http://mistressofboogie.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/ive-been-thinking-a-lot/

    I also want to point out, now that the above commenter has raised the intersectionality of feminist concerns around street harassment with homophobia issues, another intersectionality that comes up for me when this issue is discussed, and that is one around race (I do include both the race of the harasser and the race of the harassee in this concern, although right now I am primarily thinking of the harassee). I have learned over the course of my life as a white woman that while street harassment is for me a regular annoyance and occasional serious day-ruiner, it is for most of my friends who are women of colour a constant stressor and something they have to think about/worry about/dread/fear literally every time they step outside. It is a whole different order of magnitude of problem.

    I have done some thinking with some of them and in conversation with bloggers/other texts about this issue and why it is the case, and some obvious reasons jump out, but I think it is worthy of more reflection and would also *love* to see a post about this from you, since you do both feminist and anti-racist work and do both from a position of examining your own privilege.

    I think for me, realizing the extent of the problem for friends of mine made me really angry about the street harassment behaviours–much more than my own experiences ever did. It also made me aware that I am actually (without knowing it) in a position of relative privilege in this situation and wonder what I could do to leverage what privilege I do have toward dismantling the oppression. I think I had maybe become (barely) used to the level of harassment I deal with but once I realized that the world is full of people who have to deal with 10-20 times that amount of dread about moving around public place and daily or nearly-daily miserable day-ruining reminders of their own powerlessness to stop people who want to objectify and violate them…well, trying to multiply my feelings by a factor of 10 or 20 made me imagine a life that feels entirely unlivable to me.

    I hate intersectionality. As if one form of oppression weren’t enough to live with. It is hard for me to write about this problem because of how profoundly powerless it makes me feel, but I did want to draw your attention to this question, and hope that if you have any thoughts to add to a conversation about this issue, you will share them with us.

    • Hey, Carolina,

      I would love to write about that topic, but I feel like I can’t speak to this reality nearly as well as a woman of color might be able to. Do you want to speak a little more about what you understand to be going on in the levels of harassment that white women receive on the street relative to the amount women of color receive? I would love to hear more!

      Also, I have been thinking more and more lately about having guest bloggers post on the site from time to time, particularly if I know there is a topic I want discussed but don’t feel qualified to speak about. Thus, if you know of anyone who might be interested in posting on the particular experience of being a woman of color in relation to harassment, that would be amazing.

      As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. You speak to the very reason that any anti-oppression struggle is everyone’s anti-oppression struggle. With few exceptions (myself being one of them), most everyone has ways in which they are oppressed in one of their identities. As a result, intersectionality only amplifies and compounds the hurt in this oppression. Thus, we all need to be working to eliminate power relationships that encourage oppression against anyone because all oppression is interrelated.

      Be Well,

      Jamie

      • Oh, yeah, no…I wasn’t asking you to speculate about women’s experiences.

        I meant I would like to see you reflect on the intersection of race (mostly your race but also the race of women you find yourself seeing or not seeing in ways that do or don’t objectify their bodies) with your own experiences. When you have these moments like you describe above, how does your racial identity or the privilege it affords you impact your experience? Do you think it affects your feelings that you are/aren’t entitled to think of people this way? Your greater or lesser need to assert your subjectivity by objectifying? Do you catch yourself this way as often when you are looking at women of colour as when you are looking at women lacking colour (so to speak)?

        I can think about if I know anyone who would like to guest blog, but I suspect everyone I know of who reflects on these things through writing has already blogged the crap out of this topic elsewhere. I’ll let you know/put you in touch if I think of someone.

        C

  5. Wow . . . yeah, Carolina . . . that would be a great blog to write, but it’s going to take a bit of reflection on my part first. Let me mull that over a bit, and as I feel prepared to write a blog, I would love to reflect on that topic!

  6. […] I clearly have my shortcomings in my efforts at being a feminist.  However, as part of the many brave voices who declare […]

  7. […] written about this topic a few times before, but I brought some new insights to my EF piece.  Hope you […]

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