What to say to men who insist they should be able to say whatever they like to women

It wouldn’t bother me if I was complimented,” men often say when told that their street harassment or their comments on our appearance are a problem.

Here’s one bad-ass way you can respond. Start with a hypothetical about a friend who was in a traumatic car crash. Hanging out with that friend, we’re sensitive to what they have been through when the conversation turns to cars, or speeding, or plans for a road trip. And we definitely don’t confront that friend about their feelings and tell them what they should be okay with hearing. The key is, we take that friend’s context into consideration when relating to them.

When it comes to making remarks about women’s appearances, men will often say, “Oh, but I’m different, I don’t mean it that way.” And of course, there are circumstances where it’s okay to compliment women – especially when the woman says it’s okay, or there’s a solid friendship with an understanding about that kind of conversation.

But what usually happens is a work colleague remarks on a woman’s size, or a man offers his unsolicited opinion to a stranger in a pub about how attractive she is, or men rate women’s legs amongst each other in a fairly exclusive huddle in the office cafeteria (yep, my own 15-year-old memories there – repeatedly), and then they say they are just saying nice things.

That response is insensitive to our context, and it’s usually said in a very defensive way, in stubborn denial of the existence of that context.

Our context goes back millenniums and is complex, but it includes being treated like second class citizens where our main role in society has been to look after men as wives, being portrayed in movies and advertising as mere sexual objects that decorate cars for sale or that can be won by male heroes who violently murder all the “bad” guys, dealing with male doctors who think they have the right to tell us how many babies to have and how, being relegated to “beauty” contests while men completely dominate the opinion sections of the media, literary prizes and the required reading authors in schools, normalised domestic abuse and normalised rape and sexual abuse, having less of a chance of getting most jobs if we don’t conform to beauty standards, having low self esteem from crazy young ages  because our bodies and faces don’t conform to the beauty standards and according to the cartoons that’s the main thing that matters in terms of a woman’s self value… and much more.

Men, when you tell a woman her nose is pretty and she doesn’t like it, for example, take her context into account before you tell her off and proclaim your right to hurt whoever you want because “free speech”. Because no one uses “free speech” and “I can say whatever I want” when the car crash victim would rather steer clear of cars-are-so-amazing conversations. And for many of us – for non-white people, women, sexually diverse people, indigenous peoples, refugees, exploited workers – our history and our current lives are car crashes, that keep on going. So if we don’t “cheer up” when you condescendingly tell us to, now you know why.

Context gives words and intentions their meaning. But the words, even without the context, can be harmful. Because despite our objections, men still think it is their god-given-role in society to be our judges, to access our bodies, and to treat us with disrespect.

Feature image from: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/our-work/dcactivism/

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