Recently, I got in an disagreement with a man about the state of street harassment that women face. He professed that it’s all just flirtatious compliments that women were just too sensitive to understand. A lot of the women he was arguing with kept trying to explain male gaze, rape culture, and a lot of other things to get through to him that the his experience was not representative of that of a woman’s experience with these things were.
Let’s say I’m a transgender man who lived the bulk of his 42 years presenting as a woman. It’s true. I am. Let’s say I, like many of the women out there, have a lot of experience with street harassment, and unwanted male attention, which is true. Now let’s say I present primarily male now, and get hit on by inclined men on occasion, which is also true.
This means, when you tell me that street harassment in the form of “Hey babe! Nice rack!” is just a compliment, I think I might be in a unique position to to say, it’s absolutely not. There is a distinct difference in the two experiences. On the surface they might look equitable, but there is a lot more going on here.
When a guy hits on me as a man, it’s very flirtatious even when they come on strong. I feel perfectly safe telling them that I’m not interested. I’ve never had a backlash from a man when I tell him no thanks. Sometimes, they are really kind about being turned down, and sometimes they are embarrassed. I’ve never had any of these guys start screaming abuse at me the minute I tell them no.
I’ve also never had a guy follow me down the street in his car yelling at me when I present masculinely. I’ve never had a guy follow me off the bus, and then keep a loud, crass, running commentary about my “assets”. I’ve never had to fake being on the phone to get the guy following me all over the grocery store to leave me alone because I had to go out into a dark parking lot in heels, and wasn’t sure I could run away.
Aggressive flirtation is one thing, but the the aggressive edge that many women find themselves confronted with isn’t flirtation, but outright aggression. It’s an implied threat. This is why so many women stoically ignore a street harasser. They have no idea if they confront that jerk if he’s going to explode at them.
I felt my verbal sparring partner was willfully ignoring these differences, but then again, he might never have seen any of this in play. A lot of men seem truly horrified by this behavior when they witness it. It’s a bit of masculine privilege that you can walk through life and never know that your feminine loved ones deal with this.
There is a very real visceral difference to the two behaviors. When a guy hits on me, as my now manly man self, I feel he is treating me as a potential partner. I find he looks me in the eyes, to see how I react. I am someone who he wants to react favorably. I feel that my consent to the flirting is very much desirable. I am a possible hookup, or a possible date.
When I used to present as female, my consent to this “flirtation” wasn’t even a concern. Not one of my endless number of street harassers ever looked me in the eyes to see how I felt. Often, they would look to their buddies, because I was just an object or prop in their antics for each other. I was not a person to be thought about in these scenarios.
That’s the real difference. In one scenario I am treated as a person, and in the other, I am an object.
That’s why, despite having a cursory similarity between the two behaviors, at the core of it, they are nothing at all alike. It’s not just a compliment. It’s not even flirting. The difference in the way flirtatious men act and aggressive verbally abusive men act is stark.