An innocent comment

Originally posted in Community Blog

“Good afternoon, gorgeous. Looking beautiful today.”

“Have a good day, sweetheart.”

“Hey. You. Buy me a train ticket.”

Three different strange men said these things to me over the course of the past summer in New York City. Each statement made me feel uncomfortable and unsettled. All made by men both larger and older than I am (I’m nineteen), the statements seemed like attempts to put me in the lesser position in conversations that I’d rather not be a part of in the first place. They also made me feel, to varying degrees, unsafe.

A fourth comment from another unfamiliar man this summer was different. It wasn’t threatening, it didn’t demand any sort of response, it wasn’t accompanied by a wolf-whistle or a leer or even a vague impression of creepiness. Yet, of the four of them, this was the comment that bothered me the most.

I was in a local drugstore, preparing for my passport photo. As I waited for the photographer to retrieve her camera, I overheard enough of the conversation between the male, middle-aged store manager and an older man with a cane to gather that the man with the cane was just recovering from something, maybe an illness or a sad life event. The photographer returned just as the manager was reassuring the man with the cane that he’d be completely better in no time — all he needed now was a relationship with a hot twenty-two-year-old.

The man with the cane agreed jovially. Pointing to me, he said, “Look — they’re taking pictures of one right now!”

Both of them laughed. The man with the cane gave me a strange look. It was strange not because it was creepy but because, as far as I could tell, it was normal — this man really thought he’d made a harmless joke, and he seemed to expect me to join him and the manager in laughing. I couldn’t laugh. Nor could I yell at him, as a part of me wanted to. Instead, I gave an unintentionally pained-looking half-smile and hoped the flush would fade from my cheeks by the time the photographer snapped her camera.

Unlike the other three comments from random guys, this one didn’t seem to imply any ill intentions, didn’t give me a gut feeling of fear. I wanted to laugh along with him, maybe make him feel a little better, this old guy who was trying to heal from something and who was not in any way acting as though he wanted more than to go on talking with the manager. But I couldn’t laugh–his comment, whether he realized it or not, put me in a lesser position in a conversation I wasn’t even really part of.

I wasn’t in love with the manager’s comment that the man needed a twenty-two-year-old, but I didn’t think it was tremendously problematic, either. But when the man added his bit about me, it felt like an insult. It implied that females around age twenty-two are interchangeable, it implied that a stranger could have the right to my passport photo, and it implied that having a photo of a woman was on the same plane as being in a relationship with one. These sentiments are inherently creepy and objectifying. And the fact that a man made a comment imbued with these sentiments to me without realizing he was doing so, in an innocent attempt at humor, is even creepier and more objectifying because it shows how deeply ingrained the attitudes are in out society. These attitudes hurt women intrinsically, and they also hurt the men who unwittingly absorb them because they hinder the men’s ability to distinguish between what is likely to elicit companionable laughter from women and what is likely to make women feel hurt and disrespected.

I walked out of the store feeling disrespected and angry and carrying a passport photo that actually wasn’t too bad, except for the fact that looking at it would forever remind me of this unpleasant interaction.

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12 Comments

  1. Posted September 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this.

    I have also been feeling my objectification as of late. I am 22 and have recently pulled myself out of an intense depression, which was apparently helping me in shutting out creepy men. The past month I’ve felt much more like myself, and consequently have been much friendlier; it seems to be that a smile = I would love for you to bone me.

    The amount of sexual attention I have received in the past month has shocked me. I don’t know if it’s cause I’m happier, cause I’m in my “prime,” or what, but I do know that the looks, flirtations, creepy comments, and awkward situations with men my own age have all dramatically increased.

    And it makes me feel…gross. Strange, an anomaly. Honestly, a little scared. Growing up I was always a weird, kind of ugly girl who spoke her feminist mind. Obviously, I repelled teenage boys like the Plague. But it allowed me to ride completely on merit, on my intelligence and dedication, especially with adult males. Now, whenever I interact with a new man I wonder if he’s thinking about giving me a job interview, or about sex.

    With guys who are my peers, it’s worse. Friends of friends have started giving out those oh-so-charming sex vibes. And I don’t want any of it. I want to be able to hang out with my friends without having to strap on the solid-steel chastity belt. I want to be able to pursue the men I’m interested in, and not have the rest think I’m prey. I want to be able to relax!

    As someone who has never had the beauty privilege before, I can already tell my 20s will continue to be interesting. Suddenly I am no longer just myself, but also a piece of meat. And I don’t feel flattered or coy or bashful. I feel nauseous. But mostly, scared.

  2. Posted September 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    It’s bothersome to be talked about that way because it comes from the assumption that women are a product that any man can purchase (men as buyers, women as sellers). It’s scary to contemplate that random guys think they have a right to you.

  3. Posted September 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, I know what you mean. I’m a busgirl at a restaurant, and there is a regular customer who none of the female staff want to be around. He blatantly stares at all of us, and finds reasons to call us over to his table so that he can stare at us more. Even though he calls us all “Ma’am” (a polite way to refer to any woman whom you don’t know in my neck of the woods), he makes my skin crawl.

    Then there’s the waiter at my job who calls me “Jamison.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Jenna Jamison, she’s a porn star. So when we first met, I told him my first name was “Jenna.” He said, “Oh, like Jenna Jamison?” And from then on, that’s my nickname. I don’t want to be associated with a porn star in this young man’s mind, but he doesn’t call me anything else.

  4. Posted September 12, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for commenting and for your sympathy. mikigo, ugh, I’m sorry to hear you’re going through that, and Jenna, that sounds like something you might be able to talk to your boss about….

  5. Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Ugh, I remember being called “jail bait” by a military guy with a group of friends at a package store on base when I was 19. It disgusted me, first of all, because I was standing right in front of them and was very clearly within range of hearing their comment; and it pissed me off because I was an adult, not “jail bait” for anyone.

    All I could do was turn around and say, “I’m not ‘jail bait’ and you’re rude,” before I walked out. The cashier was a middle-aged woman who laughed out loud when I retorted. It made me feel good to say something back to the jerks.

  6. Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been there, it sucks. I think the best thing to do is respond immediately, verbally. “that’s rude” in this instance maybe. With hobo panhandlers I’ve learned to not look them in the eye and always respond with “I can’t help you.” this is part of the armor I developed in the big city. Being detached in this way is necessary I think. If I want to make a charitable donation it won’t be to some rando to spend on malt liquor so he get wasted andpee on my street.
    As awful as it is to have go deal with panhandlers, women have the added burden of dealing with more “respectable” men who behave the same way as street conmen. Don’t be shy to say “that’s sexist,” “leave me alone”. Don’t brook any arguments.
    It’s so demoralizing to be street harassed (happened to me just the other day in a small town while on a bike ride). It’s worse when at first it seems like a nice man might be paying you a compliment or asking for directions but ends up being just rudeness.
    Other than speaking up the only other thing you can do is tell your men friends about the experience, why it was awful for you, and that men who say such things are acting like creepy scum. This might be more effective.
    Best of luck.

  7. Posted September 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Personally I have no issue talking to “hobo panhandlers” (jeez! Really? Never minded passing along some change, food or drink if I had it, a cigarette when requested) and can breeze right by most street harassers as long as they’re just yammering and making those stupid leaky tire sounds (I have more important places to be!) I have zero patience for ones who get pushy, persistent, grabby, or following. I take particular insult if this is done in my husband’s presence, as a few have done. I think some think because he is visibly disabled, he can’t stop them or I’d rather go off with someone else…they’re very WRONG on both counts!

  8. Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Listen I knew being honest about my experiences would bother someone. I’m glad you don’t mind being bothered by strangers. But living in San Francisco it became a real invasion to me.
    Street people come in all kinds but drunk drifters who rudely demand change are the most offensive people I come across. I thoght “hobo panhandler” was a way to describe that particular type of person because unlike “homeless” for example people don’t self identify as that, being such old-fashioned words.
    I was saying casual sexual harassment remind me of the most offensive people I’ve come across.

    • Posted September 14, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      On our anniversary I was accosted by a “drunk drifter” who tried to grab me, and of the neighbors who came to me and my husband’s aid (I had dislodged myself, but it’s good to see that sense of community! Male allies and all that…)–of the support was another guy who has recently been put on the streets and has been doing odd jobs around the neighborhood while he gets back on his feet. People who get into these hard places–I may not always know how it happened, and I may not always have means to help them myself—but I can’t outright characterize them all as looking to get wasted on malt liquor and pee on our street (honestly, street-pissing has been a bigger problem from these combination hipster/frat boy types who come out here looking for loft parties or whatever.) My husband & some of his bandmates have worked with groups like Picture The Homeless(in NYC) or Take Back The Land (Florida) and people’s lives, stories, and personalities are so varied.

      I’m not even sure why it got on to panhandlers, I mean the post seemed to describe harassment from men in all walks of life.

  9. Posted September 14, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    More than any other story I’ve read on this blog, I can relate to this one the most. I am also 19 year old, and I’ve recently moved to Chicago from Florida to begin college. I also happen to be a very, very caucasian girl with, ahem, some junk in the trunk. Walking to and from class on my urban campus, I get at least two “hey baby where you goin?” comments a day. These I usually just ignore- these encounters are still so bizarre to me that I haven’t yet learned to react in any other way than speeding up. What bothers me the most though are the looks.
    Even in my just-rolled-out-of-bed finest, I still sometimes get this look. It’s hard to put a finger on it, especially because this look crosses all age or racial boundaries. It’s a look that I most closely associate with walking past a particularly well displayed store window- it is an object, a display arranged there for your viewing pleasure. You consider what it would be like to buy and own the product that this window is advertising, but eh, you have somewhere to be.
    None of these men make advances, or say anything- at most they turn their heads to watch my ass as I walk away. Still, there is something infinitely more disturbing to me in this look than in throw away “hey baby” comment- it is that these men look purely for their own pleasure, as if they could have me if they really wanted to, but choose not to at the moment. My friends, even the female ones, seem to find these looks and comments amusing, as if I should take them as compliments to bolster my self esteem. But really, they are the one thing that keeps me from completely falling in love with this city- I will never feel completely safe here.

  10. Posted September 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Alicia- I totally get it. Last weekend at Target, two dudes in the linen section were discussing what they needed to buy, and when I entered the isle, one of them said, “What I need is a bed warmer. Where do I get one of those?” And looked right at me. I’m not sure what they intended- did they think I was going to laugh? Offer to help them out? A friend of mine said they probably didn’t have an end result in mind- they just felt like they could say whatever they wanted to a young woman, and I think that’s true. I just wish I knew what to say that would put them in their place.

  11. Posted September 20, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    ““Hey. You. Buy me a train ticket.”

    …Huh?

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