A Simple #MeToo Guide for Looking at Women on the Street: Glancing Vs. Staring
I don’t hold eye contact, I don’t look for more than a second and I don’t let my gaze linger. I do all these things out of respect for one simple fact.
I live in New York City. When I walk down the street, I see literally thousands of women a month walking past me. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes. The range of interactions has some variability, but 95% of the time, it works like this: Many of the women I glance at are intentionally not looking at me.
They are avoiding all eye contact, seemingly staring into some specific spot on the street that does not contain a man’s eyes. If they glance and notice I’m looking at them, they look away very quickly. What I see in that moment is someone being careful. Very, very careful.
So, let me try and make this simple. I glance at women. I don’t look at them for more than a second or two. I never stare at them. I may glance at them because they are lovely, or interesting, or fashionable, or simply in my path. I may glance at them for the same reasons I glance at men: to judge their intention as they approach me, to see if they’re texting or looking, or to insure I don’t get run over.
But to look longer at a woman you do not know? Or to stare? That is a different thing. For the very same reason I do not make and hold eye contact with men I don’t know, I do not look overly long at women, or even children I don’t know, because it represents an intrusion. Something for which I do not have permission.
When I see any woman walking down the street, avoiding all eye contact, I feel a deep sense of empathy. As men, we need to be asking ourselves, what kind of world have men created? Millions of human beings, proven, beyond a doubt, by neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology, to be highly social creatures, have ample reason to intentionally avoid looking back at us.
I don’t look at women for more than a second and I don’t let my gaze linger. I do this out of respect for a simple fact — -women don’t feel safe. No matter how “civilized” we insist western society has become, there exists a real and present danger for women, a threat posed by aggressive men. What’s more, men who tell you they don’t believe men are “so abusive” are simply lying. The sad fact is, we men understand exactly how abusive men are.
As a boy, I feared and avoided eye contact with bullying teenage boys. Junior high school was literally a daily exercise in avoiding being assaulted. My issue has never been with women. My issue has always been with men, who, to this day, are far more likely to represent a violent threat to me. I track men much more carefully than I do women for exactly the same set of reasons that women do, because men like to project power. And some men like to project power by verbally or physically abusing others.
And before you take that deep breath and launch into a list of the ways that men are also victims of rape and physical violence, don’t bother. I have written about that fact numerous times. I’ll write about it again right here. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey | 2010 Summary Report. page 2 states that:
“More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
Yes, men face a range of risks and threats in the world, but as a man, I have never had to live in fear that if I hold eye contact for too long with a women I don’t know, she will approach me and start an abusive conversation putting me at risk for being sexually abused or raped. Why? Because on some level, I always felt I could stand my ground physically; that the threat of my resorting to violence would protect me.
But most women simply do not project a credible threat of violence. Men who run the gamut from sly sexual microaggressions to openly harassing women on the street, in bars, at schools, or in the workplace, are about projecting their power. They are bullies. They are also cowards, often using the additional economic pressures of the workplace to force women to acquiesce, to tolerate, to signal acceptance of such men’s sexually abusive dominance. Often on a daily basis.
The #MeToo movement is born out of women’s rage against alarming and unwanted sexual approaches by men. The challenges of being harassed on the street are multiplied a thousandfold in spaces where a woman’s financial security is at risk. Men like Harvey Weinstein abuse women in contexts where women’s careers, networks or social standing are at risk. The implication is, “be a good sport, or you may be out in the cold.” In that moment, sexual abusers are holding women’s futures, families and professional success hostage. It is a coward’s act by men who are beneath contempt.
Which brings me to the narrative in the business world that says women who assert themselves in the workplace are angry or bossy, while men who assert themselves are simply being effective leaders.
Overlay this narrative onto the #MeToo movement’s explosive confirmation of widespread sexual assault in the workplace. Now what does the angry woman narrative say to us?
Women who don’t use “soft power” who don’t play the “sex for success” game are labeled angry women. Not only are women expected to defer to men as leaders, they are also expected to dole out little flirtations and sexual thrills to their male bosses and co-workers. And when this expectation gets a fierce “no” from women?
THAT is the issue that really makes their male co-workers reactive. That is the source of the negative narratives about strong women in business. “She always angry. She’s having her time of the month. She’s a lesbian.” It’s the power to shut down sexual teasing. It is the EXACT moment when men’s implied dominance is erased. And of course, it’s sexual. Of course that’s where bullying men locate their dominance.
Men need to understand how the world looks for women, it is as follows: Acknowledge a man in even the slightest way and risk being approached. Say “no thank you” and get shamed, verbally abused, or possibly physically assaulted.
And for women who do get assaulted and have the courage to report it, the questions start. Insipid little questions like “What were you wearing? Did you signal interest? What time of day was it?”
As human beings, we all face a basic conundrum. We have to go out into the world and communicate our availability as a potential romantic partner, attract the attention of individuals we view as viable and not attract the attention of individuals we don’t find appealing. For women, doing this in the world is no easy task. It’s like trying to garden prize orchids in the middle of a rugby match. And the more you signal your assets as a potential partner, the more attention you attract from persons who’s attention you are not seeking.
A women’s effort to appeal to a prospective romantic partner, whether that be through style of dress or public behavior is not, and should never be, an invitation for unwanted attention. If you are man, for god’s sake have some empathy, some heart, some human decency.
Any man who continues to approach a women who is indicating “no thank you” in stronger and stronger terms, is being aggressive and abusive. And as long as there is widespread abusive behavior by some percentage of men in the world, the rest of us will all be forced to limit our social interactions with women in order to try and make the world feel a little safer. Which is a damned shame. This is making the world a lonelier place. This is adding to our culture’s epidemic levels of isolation.
So, thanks to the jerks of the world for that. You’ve made the rest of us men have to prove on a daily basis that we are not you. (Like I wanted to spend my life undoing your abusive work.) But that’s the way it is. And as men, we need to acknowledge that fact, that we must actively undo the damage done by abusers in both in our personal interactions and our larger social discourses.
We must step in and make a difference when we see men being abusive.
Don’t make this about you. #MeToo isn’t scary and it isn’t difficult. Acknowledge the ongoing facts of the world. As a person who supports a robust and honest discussion of men’s issues, I acknowledge that men face many cultural inequities and challenges. But it is not white knight behavior to advocate for a culture of civility and non-violence toward women. It is simple common decency.
Until all of us men, every single one of us, take action to create a culture of responsibility for all men’s public and private behavior toward women, we will rightfully be held to account for the men among us who behave like animals instead of human beings.