Hugo’s got an interesting discussion going over at his blog about men’s expectations of women’s compulsorary smiling, cheerfulness, when men walk around the room.
Here’s my response:
I’d agree that, as a woman, you’re likely going to measure your smiling/friendliness level depending on how comfortable you feel in a given location (and likely how old you are). I’d also agree that, as a woman, you learn very quickly to gauge your behavior based on the level of threat you feel. Is that right? Does it suck? Sure. But we do it. Because that’s how you survive.
When I lived in the NW and later, Alaska, I didn’t pay much attention to the “smile” comments (I get these a lot – I’m not a naturally friendly person, and I’m stuck in serious thought more often than not). Most of the “hi”s and “smile”s from Fairbanksans were friendly: men (and women) said hello and passed on by, without demanding any more conversation if I didn’t start one; no one followed me, or men sexual invitations. After a time, I became much more relaxed and laid back, to the point where I’d actually take rides with strangers and fine-tuned my “radar” so that I’d take the occasional chance going somewhere alone with a pseudo-stranger. I just didn’t find men all that scary. And I had complete trust in my neighbors. If the shit went down, I knew I could count on the vast majority of friendly strangers for help.
Then I moved to a big city. It started while I was overseas, in Durban, South Africa, and I was suddenly being cat-called at, followed, and grabbed at by random passersby. I stopped making eye contact, stopped smiling at strangers, and managed to get these male intrusions on my personal space down to 2-3 a week.
If you think that’s just a foreign country thing, wait: then I moved to Chicago. I spend 15 hours a week on the train. The great equalizer. Now I’ll get the drunken, “You’re very beautiful. Did you HEAR ME? DID YOU HEAR ME??” “Nice peice of ass!” and “Smile!” only once or twice a week. And I do better than most – I’m not little and blond. Not being the cultural ideal of “attractive” you’d think I’d not get harrassed at all, right?
Ha. It’s about power.
Age likely has something to do with it as well. I’m still youngish (24). What happens in big cities more often than not (and I can tell you this from experience) is that saying “hello” back to random strange men on the street who say hello will get you 1) followed 2) yelled at, as they attempt to prolong the conversation as they follow you.
Strange men who follow you are scary. Why? Do you watch the news? Do you see the spray of mangled, mutilated female bodies thrust in front of us? Lori Peterson? All the women Manson killed? What about television? What’s the proportion of female murder victims to male murder victims on our tv shows and on the news?
My roommate is 5’2, 120lbs. She’s from California, and spent her first couple years here in Chicago living in Evanston. When I got here, we moved closer to downtown. She was walking around the corner to pick up videos around this time last year, and passed by a guy coming out of the store. She raised her head as she passed, and smiled, merely acknowledging another person passing her. *HE TURNED AROUND* and *FOLLOWED HER BACK INTO THE VIDEO STORE*. He proceeded to try and make conversation with her. She kept blowing him off. He kept trying to talk. Increasingly agitated, she bundled up her rentals and sped to the exit. *The guy continued to follow her.* As he approached the exit, the woman at the counter called him back (bless her heart), and insisted there were several things she needed to speak with him about regarding his account.
When my buddy got home, she called the woman at the counter to thank her. “Thank goodness you called,” the woman said. “I stalled him as long as I could, but when he looked up and saw you were gone, he started swearing and ran out the door. I was seriously hoping you were all right.”
My buddy got lucky. It’s the only time I’ve ever encountered anyone in Chicago who stood up for a stranger being harrassed.
That’s the worst of the Chicago stories (there are many, many more), but I have a lot of Durban stories too (including an incident at a busstop when two men came up to the thin blond girl next to me and started threatening her with all of the sexual things they were going to do to her, and I turned around and started cussing and screaming at them and telling them they were violating our right to stand there in peace. They were so shocked they just stood there silently for a few moments and then wandered away. “Thanks,” the girl told me afterward, “I’m always afraid of standing up for myself because I’m afraid I’m going to get knifed.” I was afraid of getting knifed, too), and let me tell you – after that incident at the rental store, my buddy is a lot more careful about who she’s friendly with while walking down the street alone.
These are survival tactics. Anybody who says otherwise hasn’t lived as a woman in a big city, walking around alone (and in Durban, one *never* walked around at night without a male escort. You just didn’t, unless you had a BIG group of women. The rape rate there is 1 in 3).
Is this every woman’s experience?
No (obviously, as this little sample has illustrated), likely because of age or geography, women will have different experiences, just as men will have different experiences of interacting with women on the street. What I resent is men’s assumption that they have some sort of right to be treated better than anyone else. I don’t smile much at women, either.
Is it sexism, to not be friendly to a guy? Do I violate his civil rights by not smiling when he asks it of me? Do I physically abuse him by not saying “hello”? Would anyone ask a *guy* this?
When asked what they fear most about the opposite sex, women will say, “Being raped and/or beaten or killed.” Men will say, “Being laughed at.”
It says a lot about the rift between most male and female experience, to see those two reactions next to each other. You can sort of see them colliding here as well.
Do men (or women) violate my right to privacy by demanding that I interact with them? I’d argue that yes, they do. You can’t force me to interact with you. That’s assumption of privilege: believing that the world owes you something.
Women have a right to protect themselves. Scarily enough, that often means being very, very picky about who you’re friendly with when you’re alone. The legal system is against you.
Should it be that way? Should I be “allowed” to be friendly with whomever I want, without fear of being followed home by some psycho? Sure. That would be great. It would be great to walk down Lawrence in a skimpy skirt at 1am, all by myself, and not worry 1) that I’ll be attacked 2) that if I survive said attack and am raped/beaten/mutilated, that the judge won’t blame *me* because I was in a skirt at 1am on Lawrence.
There have been a lot of studies done about how many people will “help” you if you’re assaulted or verbally abused in a big city. 99% of the time, NO ONE WILL HELP YOU. Or, they’ll wait until you’re being beaten or raped, and then maybe somebody might slow down and consider what they should do. Maybe.
Why was I so nice in Alaska? Why did I feel so safe?
I opened up the local paper one day to find that a woman who’d flown into Fairbanks for business had been grabbed and pulled into the woods along the road.
THREE CARS STOPPED IMMEDIATELY. One woman grabbed a rifle from the gunrack of her truck, and two men chased down the jogger’s attacker before he even managed to wrestle the jogger to the ground. He fled into the woods, and within 20 minutes, there were helicopters searching the area for the attacker.
No offense to Durban or Chicago, but I just don’t trust the people here to react in that kind of way. I’m on my own.
I think that if men want to live in a friendlier society, they should take more steps toward eliminating the harrassment of women (Hugo’s points here are very valid) in their own peer groups, standing up when someone is verbally or physically harrassed, and refraining from such harrassment themselves.
It’s not sexist to not smile at men any more than it’s sexist to not smile at women. It’s my right.
That said, I think you’ll find that everyone is a lot more laid back when they feel safer. And I think a lot of men would be really surprised to realize just how many women walk around hyper-aware of their surroundings and assessing how dangerous the people around them are (particularly the men – we’re working on statistics and personal experiences).
If guys want to help change that, go for it – teach other guys how not to be assholes. Evaluate your own behavior. Talk to your female friends about it. Don’t get stuck here being pissed off because you feel like it’s tougher to get laid because random female strangers won’t smile at you. Get over it. Try looking over the fence. You’ll find a whole other set of experiences over there. Some of them might actually freak you out.