Take It As A Compliment
Trigger warning for discussions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape
Why can’t you just take it as a compliment?
Honestly, in the years that I’ve been writing and talking about street harassment (specifically against women), I’ve heard this one a lot. Normally, I’d just brush it off with a roll of the eyes and a getting-on-with-my-life, and yet, it remains: whenever I complain or even just mention being harassed by men in public, someone is almost always there to ask me why I can’t just take a comment or a gesture or whatever it might be as a compliment, a sign that someone finds me attractive. I’d love it if someone said that to me, I hear. They’re just trying to be nice. Maybe they went about it in the wrong way. But they intended no harm.
And honestly, I don’t even necessarily disagree with this reading of most instances of street harassment, from a point of intent if not impact. I believe that most of the men who do this kind of thing (I’m talking about men as perpetrators here specifically, because that’s been my experience) aren’t doing it as part of some global patriarchal system meant to terrorize women and make them feel unsafe. I believe that there are at least a handful who are genuinely trying to offer a compliment or start a conversation and just fumbled it in an uncomfortable way. I don’t believe they’re cackling their way off from the encounter, group-chatting their misogynistic cabal of woman-haters to confirm their latest triumph.
I don’t know if that’s true, of course, because I never stick around long enough to find out. Because I’m scared. And again, I can hear the bafflement at that statement: why is someone calling you hot or whatever it might be in the street frightening? It’s words. Maybe a little crude, yes, but not scary. It’s hard to explain why, if I’m out for a run and someone catcalls me from their car, I come home a bit shaky and freaked-out. When that guy chatted me up on a train and “jokingly” blocked the exit when I tried to get off, I could feel the blood draining from my face in panic. These aren’t objectively experiences that should be much more than annoying.
And they wouldn’t be, if that’s all they were. But they’re not. Public harassment is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to existing as a woman in this world on basically any level. When a guy catcalls me from his car, I’m not just thinking about him: I’m reminded of the same dehumanizing language the man who sexually assaulted me used. I’m remembering the guy I caught peering through my window when I was getting changed, the fact that the police weren’t able to catch him. I’m remembering the guy who sent me a series of messages telling me that he was going to “catch me” while I was out for a run and rape me. I’m trying to work out how much danger I’m in, if any – how far I am from people, how close he is to me, how quickly I can get out of there if I need to. I am reminded that living in this body is always going to make me a target.
And I know I’m not the only one. 97% of women in my country have experienced sexual harassment. 20% have been victims of sexual assault, with about 5% being victims of rape (and these figures are based on reported assaults, with actual numbers estimated to be ten times more than that). For those that haven’t suffered an actual sexual assault, stories of women being murdered while going about their daily lives in public are everywhere: just from the UK in the last year, Sarah Everard, Julia James, Ashling Murphy, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman were all murdered after being approached by their attacker publicly. When this kind of harassment happens, it’s not just our own traumas that we’re being reminded of, but the shatteringly horrible knowledge that women have been killed doing the same thing we’re doing. Maybe, this time, it’s going to be us. Maybe you’ll be the one they hold the vigil for next.
That’s why I can’t just brush it off. That’s why it makes me feel so fucking awful, that’s why I can’t smile and nod and thank them for their attempt at a compliment. It’s another entry into an endless diary of dehumanization and sexual objectification that women get subjected to from the moment they exist in anything close to a “woman’s” body. Regardless of intent, or the perceived minor nature of those things, they don’t exist in a vacumn. And that’s why I’m never going to be able to take it as a fucking compliment.
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