Reframing Personal Preferences as Objective and Universal in Feminism

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Post by The Wisp on Mon Nov 03, 2014 2:09 pm

Okay, so this post was inspired by DNL's post on street harassment, but it goes beyond that topic.

I generally agree with standard 3rd-wave feminists about what problems women experience in the world. However, on a few issues -- and these are pretty much all related to dating and sex -- I feel like sometimes individual feminists, or a specific group of feminists, will frame what really is an individual or group preference as really indicating that something is inherently problematic, oppressive, etc. rather than something they don't like for cultural or individual reasons.

On street harassment, there are definitely aspects that nobody would like: the men getting angry when the woman ignored them, and that guy who followed her around for 5 minutes. However, most of the comments amounted to either generic greetings, or were sexual but didn't follow up if she ignored them. For the latter kind of harassment, I sometimes wonder that maybe this is just a case of differing preferences between middle and upper class women (tending to be white) and working class women (tending to be non-white), but because middle class women have the megaphone, they get to frame their preferences as objective.

For instance, I have a much older cousin who is half-Filipino/half-white who was raised working class in the Bronx. My mother tells me a story of when, before I was born, my cousin flew out west to see my mother. After they spent an afternoon at the mall, my then-teenage cousin asked my mother why men weren't complementing her, didn't they think she was pretty? She was surprised at the lack of harassment, but not pleasantly surprised. She seemed to enjoy "harassment", and was offended that she wasn't "harassed".

On something more individually variant, take the question of when and to what degree to sexualize a conversation with a woman you are hitting on. Now, DNL has often framed this as something you use to filter people: if you want casual sex, sexualize the conversation quickly until you find a woman who responds well, but if you want a relationship, maybe be somewhat more cautious. I have seen some feminists claim that sexualizing a conversation with a woman you just met is objectifying, creepy, problematic, etc. They weren't saying that they felt that way, they were literally saying they thought men should just never express their sexuality until they've already established a sexual relationship with someone (how that relationship could possibly form seems to be of no concern to them). I'm fine if they say they personally fell objectified, and personally don't like it, but many seem to try to reframe their preferences as all women's preferences and turn something they personally don't like into something that is ProblematicTM.

Am I off the mark here?
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Post by kleenestar on Mon Nov 03, 2014 2:17 pm

Yes, I think you're off the mark, at least with street harassment. It's not about different preferences, it's about expecting men to be sensitive to women's preferences, whatever those might be. But I think when guys push back and say "But it was just a COMPLIMENT gosh what is wrong with you" the nuance sometimes gets lost in the frustration and irritation.
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Post by The Wisp on Mon Nov 03, 2014 2:22 pm

kleenestar wrote:Yes, I think you're off the mark, at least with street harassment. It's not about different preferences, it's about expecting men to be sensitive to women's preferences, whatever those might be. But I think when guys push back and say "But it was just a COMPLIMENT gosh what is wrong with you" the nuance sometimes gets lost in the frustration and irritation.

But, then, aren't the guys who said "nice booty" or whatever, but backed off when the woman ignored them, respecting her preference?

ETA: I'm just earnestly trying to understand. If some women are okay with, or even expect, "street harassment", then what does that mean? I get a lot of women really don't like it, and I respect that, but it at least isn't clear that all women feel that way.
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Post by Guest on Mon Nov 03, 2014 2:26 pm

As a general rule, the majority of women are not going to be OK with having their secondary sexual characteristics commented on by strangers as if they were a prize cow at a livestock fair. The fact that some women do like this (or have possibly internalised the idea that being deemed attractive is their only way of having value, pick your own adventure) doesn't change the fact that it's demeaning. Simple rule of percentages means that it's not a good idea.

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Post by UristMcBunny on Mon Nov 03, 2014 2:47 pm

Also, speaking as a working class woman, while class issues do have an effect on feminism (and that is a WHOLE other conversation), those issues are not at all as clear-cut as you might think. Hence the whole "intersectional" aspect to modern feminism.

People's perspectives are influenced by class, race, sex, gender, sexuality, disability, mental health, age, upbringing, culture... it's a complicated mix. But a lot of the conversations about feminism are now happening online, which is a much more even playing field (while poverty and home country can impact on access to online spaces, the bar for who can get online is a lot lower than the average mainstream Westerner thinks it is). And the cat-calling thing remains an issue that women online continue to say they do not like.

Does that mean there are no individual women who like it? Of course not. There's no feminist hive-mind. And even if there was, not all women are feminists. But in every single conversation I have seen where this gets discussed - including on reddit, where several subreddits have the "can I compliment women in the street" question asked almost weekly, the overwhelming consensus remains against street harassment.

That said, it's possible that, in a different society with different behaviours, it wouldn't be so much of an issue. I mean, I can recall, looking back, exactly one instance of a guy approaching me in the street that I found pleasant. If every single one of the other experiences I'd had on the street had never happened, if all of the condescending and threatening and bullying and rude and obscene and scary and insulting kinds of cat-calling ceased to be a significant issue globally, I imagine women as a whole would feel differently to how they do now. Which can also be a Thing - there really are some women who, whether by luck or what, have only ever experienced respectful, pleasant compliments from men on the street.

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Post by Enail on Mon Nov 03, 2014 2:58 pm

The discussion we have about street comments in gender-mixed spaces tends to lack nuance because of how hard it is to get past the basic level of understanding why one might object to it, how unpleasant/threatening it can be and why it doesn't mean that no man should ever talk to any woman ever.

Talking with other women about it, yeah, it can be a more complicated issue. It's tied up with all kinds of societal ideas about value, beauty and what being a woman means, and how people feel about it is often rather mixed in a whole lot of different ways. I know when I was a pre-teen, I felt insecure because I'd never been catcalled. A year or two later, when I got my first catcall, I felt simultaneously relieved ("I count as a woman," "does this mean I'm deemed acceptable as a human being?"), scared and humiliated ("strangers are commenting on my body like it belongs to them" "everyone can see my breasts"), angry ("how is it okay to shout personal comments at a stranger"), proud ("this is the sort of power that women are supposed to have" ETA: I couldn't figure out just how that was supposed to be power, but I knew that people talked about it as if it was power) off-balance ("wait, what? how do I react to this?") and really uncomfortable in ways I couldn't put into words but were essentially "I'm not being treated like a person, and I'm 13 and grown men are telling me their sexual reaction to me."

It's possible to simultaneously feel horrible about something and yet also have a nagging voice saying "isn't this supposed to mean something good about you?," to feel relieved about its lack and yet be afraid that it says something bad about you. And yes, there are probably women who aren't terribly bothered by relatively polite, unthreatening comments, and women who actually like them.  

In terms of 'respecting people's preferences,' though, this seems like a pretty simple one. If some people like it when you do something and some people find it unpleasant, in almost all aspects of life, you err on the side of not doing that thing indiscriminately. If half the people you meet don't like being hugged and half love it, you don't keep hugging strangers without checking first. If half the people you invite for dinner turn out to hate turnips and half love them, you don't keep putting turnips in every dish without checking preferences first.


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Post by reboot on Mon Nov 03, 2014 3:03 pm

The Wisp wrote:...
On street harassment, there are definitely aspects that nobody would like: the men getting angry when the woman ignored them, and that guy who followed her around for 5 minutes. However, most of the comments amounted to either generic greetings, or were sexual but didn't follow up if she ignored them. For the latter kind of harassment, I sometimes wonder that maybe this is just a case of differing preferences between middle and upper class women (tending to be white) and working class women (tending to be non-white), but because middle class women have the megaphone, they get to frame their preferences as objective.

For instance, I have a much older cousin who is half-Filipino/half-white who was raised working class in the Bronx. My mother tells me a story of when, before I was born, my cousin flew out west to see my mother. After they spent an afternoon at the mall, my then-teenage cousin asked my mother why men weren't complementing her, didn't they think she was pretty? She was surprised at the lack of harassment, but not pleasantly surprised. She seemed to enjoy "harassment", and was offended that she wasn't "harassed".
....

Am I off the mark here?

OK, Wisp, I do not think you meant this to come off they way it did, but your first paragraph here is a bit classist and racist. Extrapolating the experience of a teenager, who is still sorting out this whole attraction good sexual attention/bad sexual attention thing, to all not white, not upper or middle class adult women is pretty freaking offensive. It makes it sound like harassing women who are not white and not upper/middle class is A-OK because they like it (or are less vocal in their dislike).

Nonwhite women and working class/poor women who get harassed do not enjoy it. They do not enjoy having strangers comment on their body parts like chunks of meat. They also endure a disproportionate amount of harassment from men of all races and classes due to things like use of public transit, holding jobs like maids or service workers that are disempowered, being seen as lacking resources to counter harassment, etc.. I grew up working class/poor and many of my friends from home still are. Some may define harassment differently, but no one likes being harassed.
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Post by Lemminkainen on Mon Nov 03, 2014 3:20 pm

@Wisp: I don't think that you're on the mark about the harassment issue, but "Wealthy/middle class white women dominated feminism and make their primary issues the primary issues of the movement" is a fairly important line of critique within feminism (and by "womanist" thinkers who don't want to identify as feminist because of the term's race/class associations). If you want to understand this perspective, I'd recommend checking out some stuff by nonrich, nonwhite female thinkers like bell hooks (don't capitalize her name!), Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua.

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Post by kath on Mon Nov 03, 2014 3:32 pm

Wisp, what do you want to get out of this?

Do you like people randomly demanding stuff from you on the street? Someone coming up and demanding directions or the time would also be aggressive. "Nice booty" is, as others have mentioned, treating you like a piece of meat, that you need to know about and deal with someone else's feelings - because it does demand that you deal with them, even by ignoring it. And ignoring it isn't a safe thing to do - when you ignore something, until you're well away, you're scared that's going to be made into your problem too. So yeah, I would way rather have no one comment on my body as if my body were any of their business than have to ignore things to hopefully avoid provoking additional abuse.

It makes others' opinion of you your problem instead of theirs.

"Nice booty" is also not a respectfully-delivered compliment. Shouting at someone walking past you is never polite. Then commenting on their body as if they should care what you think?

I totally think it's possible to politely approach strangers, start conversing with them, and compliment them (though their body is usually not a good topic, because it brings it back to "you are a piece of meat and you should care about my evaluation of your assets"). Hollering "hey baby" or "nice booty" or even "Hi" to someone you haven't tried to actually meet in a safe space where you can both that the time to have a conversation? Is demanding someone's attention, not being polite.

Anna Maria Tremonti did an interview about the video on The Current and had Feminista Jones in to comment, so here's that: http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2014/10/31/street-harassment/ and it speaks somewhat to these issues, not exactly to hegemony of white middle-class voices in feminism, but it has a non-white perspective on the video in question.

Also, I don't think "therefore the critique of street harassment is racist and classist and not reasonable" is a productive way to talk about class and race issues within feminism. Especially since you are a white man who seems to be saying "Feminism's critique of street harassment reinforces race and class issues within feminism, so answer to me for an incongruity I have seen one instance of, though the example is from an adolescent and is one counter-example."

If you want to discuss whether the discourse on street harassment is only reflecting the preferences of middle-class white women,, which is an important discussion, how about "I know we have several women on the forum who aren't white and who deal with street harassment. I was wondering if the conversation has been dominated by white, middle-class feminists. Would any forum members be willing to speak to that?" You didn't specifically ask people who you feel might have their perspective erased to give their perspective.
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Post by kleenestar on Mon Nov 03, 2014 4:14 pm

The Wisp wrote:
kleenestar wrote:Yes, I think you're off the mark, at least with street harassment. It's not about different preferences, it's about expecting men to be sensitive to women's preferences, whatever those might be. But I think when guys push back and say "But it was just a COMPLIMENT gosh what is wrong with you" the nuance sometimes gets lost in the frustration and irritation.

But, then, aren't the guys who said "nice booty" or whatever, but backed off when the woman ignored them, respecting her preference?

ETA: I'm just earnestly trying to understand. If some women are okay with, or even expect, "street harassment", then what does that mean? I get a lot of women really don't like it, and I respect that, but it at least isn't clear that all women feel that way.

No, because at that point they've already made a potentially unpleasant and uncomfortable demand. The way to respect a woman's preference is to learn to read her body language, social context, public behavior, etc. and then judge your behavior accordingly. What you're suggesting is something like saying "Well, I'll just punch you in the arm as I walk by, but if you act like you don't like it then I'll stop." By the time you stop it's too late. You shouldn't punch someone in the arm - or shout "nice booty" at them - unless you have some reason to believe that it's a reasonable thing to do. There are ways to figure this out with high probability of success! But when in doubt, don't booty-shout.
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Post by SadisticToaster on Mon Nov 03, 2014 4:31 pm

The Wisp wrote:

For instance, I have a much older cousin who is half-Filipino/half-white who was raised working class in the Bronx. My mother tells me a story of when, before I was born, my cousin flew out west to see my mother. After they spent an afternoon at the mall, my then-teenage cousin asked my mother why men weren't complementing her, didn't they think she was pretty? She was surprised at the lack of harassment, but not pleasantly surprised. She seemed to enjoy "harassment", and was offended that she wasn't "harassed".

I'd have gone for ''culture'' rather then 'race' ( the two can overlap, but don't have to ). I'm friends with an Italian woman who, in her first few months of London, grew increasingly upset that men weren't shouting at her across the street ( and would get increasingly made up and dressed up everytime she went outside to try and get a reaction from someone ) because this is what she was used to.( if you've not been to Italy - street compliments over there are quite harassmenty ).

Assuming you live in an area where shouting "Oi beautiful , I love you" at every woman who walks past is considered bad form - then don't do it. You'll miss out on some women who do like it - but to me this is a better option then upsetting a load of people because you guessed wrong about their preferences.

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Post by Conreezy on Mon Nov 03, 2014 5:44 pm

If some women are okay with, or even expect, "street harassment", then what does that mean?

I think one explanation is internalized misogyny, like the woman who claims she "hates other women" because they're all "obsessed with drama.  But not me, though, I'm one of they guys" because feminine traits are not regarded as well as masculine coded personality traits.

I have seen some feminists claim that sexualizing a conversation with a woman you just met is objectifying, creepy, problematic, etc.

Some might make that statement with more caveats than others. There's quite a bit of leeway in social interactions. Still, I would generally agree that jumping right into sex talk will put people off.

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Post by Mel on Mon Nov 03, 2014 7:10 pm

You've gotten a lot of good responses, but one point I want to especially emphasize is that some people "enjoying" something doesn't have anything to do with whether that thing is problematic on a societal level. When someone says, "Street harassment is not okay," they don't actually mean that every individual woman who gets catcalled is not okay with it. They mean within the larger context of society, given the way men and women are socialized, the fact that catcalling happens has an overall negative effect.

To use a parallel you may be able to better relate to: there are some men who "enjoy" being shamed for showing emotions. Who, if asked, would say that being told not to cry and called sissy if they showed their emotions and so on helped them become stronger and more in control, and who would not have wanted it another way. But you can see that this doesn't mean telling boys it's wrong for them to cry and insulting them if they do is still detrimental overall, both because many men will find it harmful as it happens and because those who approved of it for themselves may be missing things that would have made their lives better but that they're just not aware of, right?
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Post by nonA on Mon Nov 03, 2014 8:25 pm

I think one explanation is internalized misogyny...

Wasn't this the same explanation given for why muslim women might prefer to wear a veil? I'm a bit leery of how "those women in those cultures only think that way because they've been brainwashed by the patriarchy" gets used about any counterexamples.

Although it's kind of irrelevant for Wisp, unless he comes from a culture where that level of expressiveness to strangers is the norm.


More specifically to Wisp, Hollaback and related phenomena are a bad example to use. Your social interactions with strangers walking on the street are inherently limited by the simple fact that random people on the street probably don't have your same path. (Unless you want to be the guy who walks next to the girl for ten minutes. Don't be that guy.)

If you want to talk about something else like approaching someone who seems to have free time, then yeah. You do run into a lot more women with more varied attitudes than the default "don't" you hear from much of the blogosphere. That's less about young, affluent white women controlling the conversation directly, and more about simple social desirability bias.

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Post by Enail on Mon Nov 03, 2014 8:40 pm

Street harassment and approaches are not the same thing, and I would really appreciate it if you could avoid conflating them or turning a conversation about the former in abstract into the latter in specific. Wisp's question was about where the line is between personal preferences and general acceptability, not "how do I approach people without commenting on their booty."
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Post by Conreezy on Mon Nov 03, 2014 8:41 pm


Wasn't this the same explanation given for why muslim women might prefer to wear a veil? I'm a bit leery of how "those women in those cultures only think that way because they've been brainwashed by the patriarchy" gets used about any counterexamples.

I would put that as brainwashing by religion, which is staunchly patriarchal a lot of times.  (Admittedly, I use the word "brainwashing" instead of conditioning because I mean to imply a negative connotation towards the pressures of religion. That's a whole separate discussion, though.)  

But being leery of accusing explanations as to exactly why a person might have personal preferences is fine, I think, so long as cultural conditioning is not completely ignored.

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Post by Enail on Mon Nov 03, 2014 8:58 pm

<mod>Conreezy, please be careful how you speak about other peoples' religions and cultures. While it's okay to talk about the existence of cultural and religious influence, using terms like 'brainwashing' for peoples' culturally- or religiously-influenced choices is inflammatory and insulting. </mod>
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Post by Conreezy on Mon Nov 03, 2014 9:15 pm

Enail wrote:<mod>Conreezy, please be careful how you speak about other peoples' religions and cultures. While it's okay to talk about the existence of cultural and religious influence, using terms like 'brainwashing' for peoples' culturally- or religiously-influenced choices is inflammatory and insulting. </mod>

Check, sorry.

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Post by The Wisp on Mon Nov 03, 2014 10:02 pm

I appreciate everybody's responses, they've been helpful.

kath wrote:Wisp, what do you want to get out of this?

Well, I find street harassment to be gross at a very visceral level. However, I've also been thinking about things like cultural relativism and the variability of people's reactions to things in a subject unrelated to this site, and it got me to thinking about how that perspective meshes with street harassment.

Also, I apologize for the racist and classist generalization, that was unfounded.
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Post by kath on Mon Nov 03, 2014 10:58 pm

Yeah, I would say a good first step in those cases is to ask the people whose perspective you don't know. And to wait to come to the conclusion until after a review of the perspectives you can gather of people who are non-white, which are probably myriad given the internet.  If you didn't do that, why jump to "it's the hegemony of these perspectives" first? Because it seems like that claim suggests that actually, doing that thing is OK.

The perspective Feminista Jones had was that catcalling wasn't great, but she was more concerned about dealing with more aggressive forms of street harassment. I think that makes sense - as a non-white, she gets more of the more serious harassment than white women would tend to get, and I'm sure other types of privilege such as class also impact the street harassment one gets, and make you less worried about "hey sexy" compared to getting groped as you walk down the street. That is clearly a more serious violation. But they are both violations.

My hope is that a campaign condemning all of it would hopefully discourage both "hey beautiful" and public groping, but if I were presented with evidence that the campaign reduced "hey beautiful" but not other forms of violence against women, or if it increased the incidence of that other violence, the approach would need to be changed.

The Wisp wrote:
On something more individually variant, take the question of when and to what degree to sexualize a conversation with a woman you are hitting on. Now, DNL has often framed this as something you use to filter people: if you want casual sex, sexualize the conversation quickly until you find a woman who responds well, but if you want a relationship, maybe be somewhat more cautious. I have seen some feminists claim that sexualizing a conversation with a woman you just met is objectifying, creepy, problematic, etc. They weren't saying that they felt that way, they were literally saying they thought men should just never express their sexuality until they've already established a sexual relationship with someone (how that relationship could possibly form seems to be of no concern to them). I'm fine if they say they personally fell objectified, and personally don't like it, but many seem to try to reframe their preferences as all women's preferences and turn something they personally don't like into something that is ProblematicTM.  

Am I off the mark here?

If you want to discuss this further, I think links to feminists saying this would be helpful for me. I haven't see the perspective that you should never express interest in someone that could lead to a sexual relationship - " literally saying they thought men should just never express their sexuality until they've already established a sexual relationship with someone (how that relationship could possibly form seems to be of no concern to them)."

What I think is the difference in what the blogs I think you are talking about might be saying, and what you are understanding them to say, is that building chemsitry and a spark of sexual energy - the talk that would make the two people want to have sex - doesn't require any conversation that is explicitly "sexualizing". You're checking in on the comfort of your partner throughout an interaction - so you can tell if you're taking the conversation in a direction that makes them uncomfortable, and don't charge down the sexy road without checking in about how they feel about it.

Additionally, I think you may be confusing language that sexualizes the woman - IE, language that talks about her as someone you have the prospect of having sex with - talking about her body or how sexy she is - with flirting that is sexy, but not sexualizing. I think these are two very different things, and I'm not sure I will explain the difference well, so please do ask for clarification if it's not clear.

In this case, I think seuxalizing the conversation means making it about your sexual satisfaction, before they have any reason to believe you will be concerned about their sexual satisfaction. It's making comments that are overtly sexual outside of a context where that has been mutually consented too.

I'm OK with my husband staring openly at my cleavage. I know he cares about my sexual satisfaction too. He can make comments about my T&A (ones that are nice, not ones that are backhanded compliments or body shaming, but are certainly explicitly sexual). We are in a relationship where the sexual nature of the relationship has been consented to by both of us, and if I thought it was inappropriate given the context (like, he was doing that when other people were around), that would Not Be OK.

If those comments came from anyone but him, it would be super, super inappropriate, disrespectful and creepy. Because I don't have a relationship where I have consented to that kind of sexual talk. Furthermore, it makes their sexual feelings about me a thing I need to deal with. Just asking me out on a date doesn't - it doesn't say "all I care about is sex, and I don't care about your opinions on that". But making sexual comments about me without that being an expected part of the relationship does make your sexual feelings about me my problem.

Either party needs to get consent to turn the discussion that way, and I don't think it's particularly confusing to think that you would make comments about someone's body when you're having a sexual relationship with them that you wouldn't when you weren't, and how you would make the change between those two states is to talk to them about the nature of your relationship when it makes sense to take that next step. It's no more complicated than dating already is (which is very).

Again, you can be sexy without sexualizing a conversation. So you would go from :
1. have a conversation that is sexy with someone - kindles a spark
2. decide that the two of you would like to have sex
3. check if they are comfortable with you talking about their body / sex in a sexualized way - explicitly sexual, which is likely to be a component of many sex acts
4. talk to them in a manner that is explicitly sexualized.

My husband sure didn't talk to me that way before that was a part of our relationship that we both agreed to.
kath
kath

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