"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Thursday, June 28, 2007

On Ogling and Appreciation

[This is cross-posted to my blog]

There was an article today in the Toronto Star about Hollaback Canada, and about the wider issue of when it is and is not appropriate to ogle people on the street1. The article was titled "When does looking become a leer?", and touches on something I started writing months ago, and never finished. First, though, if you are a woman in Canada, I would recommend that you bookmark Hollaback Canada, and next time you're sexually harassed send in a submission to shame your harasser. If you're in New York City, visit Hollaback NYC, and if you're elsewhere look for a Hollaback site linked from there. If there is no Hollaback site for your city or region, start your own!

One of the difficulties many men have with feminism seems to be a perceived attack on their sexuality. For instance, men who consider pornography an intrinsic part of male sexuality are likely to get pissed off when someone asserts that porn is wrong as a rule. On an even more extreme angle, some believe that fantasies involving rape, pedophilia or bestiality are perfectly okay, and that anyone who tries to suppress these "perfectly normal" urges is denying them an essential part of their sexuality.

What I want to examine is a milder, but similar, issue. The question I want to ask is: where is the line between sexual objectification and aesthetic appreciation? Somewhere along the continuum from sexual repression to sexual overtness, I feel, there must be an acceptable middle ground. It should be obvious that, at one extreme, externalizing every little sexual impulse we have by yelling "hey baby" at women we pass on the street is wrong. At the other extreme, completely denying our own sexualities2 by refusing to look directly at women is unhealthy. Is there some middle ground where we can acknowledge our own sexualities without contributing to the environment of oppression and abuse of women that we live in? Is this continuum perhaps flawed in some meaningful way?

Here's where I'm coming from: I am sexually active, in a committed relationship, and I enjoy looking at people I consider beautiful. However, I have a great dislike of making others uncomfortable, and I know that being checked out by a stranger does make many people uncomfortable. When I do look at someone in a sexual way I don't (I think) do it in an objectifying way: I take care to not look at them as a sexual object, there for my enjoyment, but I do take advantage of the fact that they have certain sexual characteristics that happen to be where I can (visually) enjoy them.

So whenever I do feel like taking an eyeful of someone I am conscious not only of how I look at them and what I am thinking, but also of how I might be making them feel. I generally wait until they will not notice me looking, or else look away quickly. I also make an effort to keep other people in the area from feeling uncomfortable at having an ogler in their midst: I don't want someone to think "ugh, that creep is staring at that person over there -- will he be staring at me if I turn my back?"

So I go to all this trouble to reassure myself that my looking at someone isn't misinterpreted as lechery and objectification. One might ask: is it really wrong to look at someone one finds attractive, intriguing or whatever? Well, yes and no. Or rather, it can be. The important thing is, as it often is, to take into account the feelings and reactions of everyone involved and to remember that, as in any social interaction, both parties are participating.

I spend a fair amount of time watching people watching people3, and a few things occur to me as ways to differentiate looking and leering, ogling and appreciation. I find it least offensive when the observer:

  1. engages the other person. Rather than staring at a woman's chest or rear as she walks by, it can be less threatening -- and certainly less gross -- when a guy looks her in the eyes and smiles a bit. This acknowledges her part as a conscious participant in the interaction (note that saying or doing something for the sole purpose of getting a reaction is not engaging someone meaningfully). Where this gets a little creepy is if the smile is too intense, or lasts too long (see point 2). The observer has to use his discretion and remain aware that the other person has feelings about the interaction, too.

  2. doesn't linger. Without reciprocation, a short glance is about the limit of respectfulness in most of North America. Beyond that we're in the realm of staring, which is not only rude, but can send an "I might be dangerous" signal. I've seen people give a quick little smile, and I've seen people grin uncontrolledly. The second is creepy. The first can be kinda hot.

  3. makes no imposition. In general, any speech falls into the category of imposition. Really, there's no way to verbalize "I find you attractive" to a stranger that doesn't come across as creepy or worse. This is doubly true of actions such as standing in someone's way and forcing them to walk around you, and actually having the nerve to touch them is right off the chart.

  4. has no expectations. Here's the punchline, which a lot of people seem to ignore. Nobody is going to sleep with you because you looked them up and down on the street. No woman has ever been suddenly filled with a desire to sleep with a man who leaned out of his car and yelled something incoherent at her. And, perhaps barring the stupidest of the stupid, no man has ever thought she would. When it comes down to it, this sort of behaviour is not an expression of sexual desire, but of dominance. The only times I've seen people act respectfully while looking at others like this is when there is no implied expectation that something more might, or ought to, happen.

It is true that when someone gets dressed up to look nice, they are often pleased when they get some attention in exchange. Even if they haven't put any effort into it (or perhaps especially so!) it can be nice to notice that someone has checked you out. But at some point when the checking out is persistent, lewd or otherwise inappropriate, it crosses the line to harassment.

So here's where I'd like to hear from people. What, to you, is the line between looking and leering? What should one bear in mind, what should one take into consideration?

1 Thanks to HBCanada for the tip-off. You can also read some asshole's response, sent anonymously from a throwaway Hotmail account. I really don't feel like going through this email line by line and pointing out exactly what's wrong with its "if women don't want to be harassed they shouldn't dress like sluts" rape-apologist reasoning. Perhaps another time.

2 Note that here I am specifically referring to men who are sexually attracted to women; the dynamics of objectification among gay men are very different.

3 I used to like sitting in public places and watching people go by. At some point I discovered that it could be much more amusing to watch other people as they watch people go by.


Dave said...

This morning I read a related article in The Onion: Construction Worker Still Hasn't Given Up On True Love. Heart-warming.

jeff said...

Very interesting post, Dave, on a couple of levels. First of all, this follows in our pseudo-tradition here at FA in discussing sort of 'day-to-day' feminist topics. I think it would be easy for somebody to play down the importance of this sort of thing--both the impact that invasive oglers can have on the lives of women and the impact that making a concerted effort to not be invasive can have on one's life.

I know that I have struggled with this stuff personally for a while now. For a while I think I erred on the side of caution a bit too much--as you note, actively *not* looking at somebody can be creepy as heck. Lately I've come to recognize that all of this stuff varies with context (location, time of day, in a group of friends or strangers, etc.), and that, sometimes I'm going to be seen as a bit of an ogler; what's invasive in one context isn't in another, and what is respectful in one context is overly shy in another. Which doesn't mean the effort and awareness aren't needed, just that it's going to be complex. I think your four main points are a good base from which to begin, and then make adjustments based on context.

Also, I find Hollaback really useful, but I find just talking to my friends who are women about their good and bad experiences quite helpful, to understand both the depth and the range of good and bad behavoir.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

Dave said...

Thanks, Jeff. And it's good to be back :)

One thing that I realized was missing from this post, though (once it was pointed out to me -- thanks HBCanada!), is the fundamental idea that underlies its points: What is harmful about ogling someone is not even necessarily how or when it is done. What is the root problem is that women in our societies are sexualized first, before any other kind of interaction. Leering and ogling, the privilege that allows us to not even think about it, is a potent demonstration of that problem.

Our societies have made it an automatic reaction to the appearance of a woman to size her up and evaluate her as a sexual object. And this is true regardless of her judged worthiness as a sexual partner. This, funny enough, is touched on satirically in the Onion article I linked. What we as men ought to work on is not only our outward seeming -- trying to reduce the amount of discomfort we cause -- but also our socialized tendency to automatically sexualize women.

Dave said...

This was left on my blog by someone whose company firewall didn't allow them to post here:


Author : christina B
I read and wanted to respond on Feminist Allies. However, I am at work and my computer won't let me access that page.

With respect to "doesn't linger," this holds true if she returns the glance but looks away quickly and doesn't respond. I do this often to let people know that I do feel them looking at me and I am NOT interested. If I were interested, I would start talking to the person myself.

I disagree that there is no way to verbalize that you are attracted to someone politely. I think this comes under the "has no expectations" category. I have been complimented by strangers on the street, in a very direct manner (eres muy guapa, you are very attractive). The person who complimented me immediately returned to the conversation with his friend and kept walking. It was a compliment, not a proposition and I took it that way.

Hollering things from a car, whistling, etc are not about expressing an attraction to the woman. They are about treating women like sex objects in front of friends to prove masculinity.

Obstreperous B said...

Love the post, but I do disagree that street harassment is about "externalizing every sexual impulse". I'd argue that it's at least as much about hostility and dominance behavior as it is about genuine desire. I'm not sure it's even on the same continuum as a simple glance at someone you find attractive.

And as a counter-example to Christina, there is nothing any strange man could say to me about my attractiveness that would not piss me off. Were it not for the leerers and harassers out there, this would not be the case, but, well, they are out there, and any stranger who makes comments to me is going to fill the rest of my day with seething, impotent rage. Just sayin'.

Dave said...

Obstreperous B, thanks for the comment.

I agree that the sort of leering and harrassment that we're talking about is not just a question of sexual impulse. Sexual harrassment, like sexual assault, is about dominance the vast majority of the time, about asserting one's position in a perceived (or actual) hierarchy. The "externalizing sexual impulse" bit was mostly rhetoric designed to help describe the spectrum I was discussing. I probably should have taken more care to make that bit more relevant.

I wanted to frame this behaviour alongside the sort of behaviour that is more sexual than aggressive, though, and this was one of the challenges of the post: how to condone the act of noticing and reacting to attractive people while still condemning the act of belittling and asserting dominance over them.

Thanks again for your comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Jim G said...

I have trouble with leering / ogling attractive women. I rationalize it as "having an eye for beauty," and that "I stare at sunsets and flowers also." But I know I have made women uncomfortable and so I try my best to keep my eyes on the straight and narrow.

We may consider 2000 year old (and older) tenets in the Bible, the ones regarding not being lustful, as out of date. But the mere fact that this is a problem at all for both parties shows us that A. people were not that different 2000 plus years ago, and B. we should not be so quick to discard all religious rules.