Careless, Conflicted Flattery

“We sometimes imagine we hate flattery, but we only hate the way we are flattered.” Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I’m not a social justice warrior. I’m not out to save the world. I’m not an overly sensitive young lady, either; I understand the difference between a compliment and a catcall. I’m just a young woman with opinions and thoughts. That’s why in many ways this is difficult to talk about but something worth discussing. Recently I’ve faced a few comments coming my way during my time in the city and it’s worth mentioning them. Not to glorify the act of harassment or catcalling but to mention the more poisonous social aspects of it.

The day had started like any other with me going to work but the deviation in my normal schedule arose from meeting a friend for a drink. This sent me to my bus stop a little later than usual but nothing terribly late: it was still light out. Two men sat down at the bus stop next to me, first asking what time it was and other comments along those lines.

“You’re really cute, even though you must be only 18 or 19.” I shirked away from the compliment mostly because it wasn’t true. I’m 25 and “really cute” is very subjective. And compliments aren’t negative, even if they can be intrusive. The older of the men was mostly a flatterer, and I was able to brush off his comments despite his insistence that I was only 18 years old. The other gentleman, however was a bit more forward. I had picked up a book, a classic tactic to show you are not interested and he kept pestering me over and over again about why his name wasn’t in my book.

Sir, that’s not how books work. This is a study of Paganism and Christianity in the 4th to 8th Centuries.

That was my reply to his incessant request to be in my book, again not understanding how books work. Names aren’t just conjured up without some form of effort. After more prodding and asking somewhat invasive questions about my age it was one about my bust that got me to walk away from the men. I went to talk to a police officer and I told him about the men that were giving me a bit of trouble and the police officer told me that I could wait by him until my bus arrived. It wasn’t until I remembered that those two men were waiting on the same bus that I was that I asked what steps I should take. I wasn’t worried about waiting in a public park and I wasn’t worried about my safety during my walk home; however on a bus with two men that have made comments to me that I rather not repeat was not something I was looking forward. The officer replied that the only thing I could do would be to take a taxi home. So I did.

I’m not going into further detail mostly because it wasn’t the comments that bothered me. What bothered me and still does is that I for my action of just taking a cab home and being entirely “too polite” to the men harassing me was shamed shortly after telling those close to me about it. I can’t tell how you many people have told me that I should have stood up more and that I shouldn’t ride public transportation because of such things. It was my responsibility. It was my onus to assure that I got home safely on my dime. It was my responsibility to stand up to these men on my own. The blame settled solely on me.

Now, I understand that in this case there was very little the police could have done. It is very difficult to police words; trust me I’ve been moderating forums and chat rooms for as long as I can remember and as condescending and terrible as it is there is some truth to being told just ignore it. I also take great offense to those that told me I should have been stronger in that moment for a simple reason: you cannot react harshly in those situations. Most of the time what a woman considers to be harassment even at her most sensitive is to some merely flattery. You can’t react in a bellicose manner to someone when they think they’re being nice. Also, riding public transportation is incredibly safe and it isn’t like women aren’t subjected to harassment in a variety of places from gas stations, to work or even in their own homes or via the Internet. Having a car wouldn’t have saved me in general, though would have in that particular moment. I don’t distrust public transit, it’s quite safe and many bus drivers are incredibly no-nonsense and helpful.

Normally, I don’t speak out about things like this, mostly because I understand they can be a bit of a powder-keg. I also realize that to many I’m being overly sensitive. They were just random comments, it shouldn’t get under my skin so much and I agree. But as I’ve pointed out I’m less upset at the comments and more upset over the response I received in the retelling of these events. We’ve socially accepted that when bad things happen to women, they somehow did something to deserve it and therefore should be responsible for getting themselves out of it. The real tragedy of this is that those comments I received though invasive and unwanted are nothing in comparison to some of the comments that have been directed at me in chat rooms I was moderating over and comments on many others face online. On a whole, I left that situation mostly grateful I could afford the cab fare home and thought about a woman that may be in a similar situation and may be less fortunate than I was who couldn’t afford a safer ride home. I thought about what it means to receive a compliment or to be a victim. What makes us victims? Is it reporting to the police? Quiet endurance or just acceptance? It even made me question some of the terminology used. For instance, I struggled calling it what it was even in this blog post but it was in itself a form of harassment and that doesn’t over-inflate or undermine the seriousness or lack thereof of that situation.

I didn’t want to make a big deal out of a random man not understanding how books work but after having person and person tell me I was somehow insufficiently strong in that scenario got to me. I met that situation the best I could, with patience, politeness and sternness and eventually entire avoidance and I think for that particular instance, that was the best way to handle it. Be kind to those around you. If they come to you and mention something distressing, even if you think they’re being overly sensitive; hear them out. Friends reach out to you for a reason, you can ground them in reality after they’ve calmed down. It’s scary out there for a short girl in the city.

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