USA: How the Media Normalizes Street Harassment, by Erin McKelle, explores how we normalize street harassment of women. The question that many of my students (especially the male students) ask is “why is it that women are so offended by compliments that are shouted at them? Shouldn’t women feel good when people say nice things to them?”
It does sound odd that anyone would be upset by compliments but when you ask them to be honest, men admit that they are not just shouting compliments; elicit cat-calls, objectifying comments and other sexist remarks usually follow the ‘nice things.’ Even so, these students would insist that they would be happy to hear such comments from women, so we tested out this theory.
In an assignment where I asked my students to experiment by doing something that is typical of the gender that they do not present as, a group of three female students sat in a park and cat-called male pedestrians. Most of them just stopped and smiled so they took their remarks to a more offensive level; they became explicit, shouting extremely provocative statements. By the end of the day, they had a notepad full of phone numbers and emails of men who approached them.
My students’ hypothesis was correct, men in New York seem to appreciate cat-calls and objectifying statements directed at them. My class came up with a few theories about why that is – maybe men find it enticing because they are not subjected to street harassment as much or because their bodies are not examined to the same extent as women’s and so the occasional cat-call is a fun attention-getter? One interesting conclusion is that men treat women the way they would like to be treated. I do not know if this can be generalized, but there may be some insight here.
In 2010, OkCupid conducted a study examining OkCupid users’ profile essays that determined which qualities their users are seeking in potential partners as well as determined the qualities they use to describe themselves with results grouped by race. They determined that heterosexual White men seek partners that possess the same qualities that they appreciate in and for themselves.
This begs the question, do people need to possess the qualities they seek in others? Is it acceptable to seek potential partners with qualities that we are lacking? Is this an offshoot of the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” Have we internalized this concept so deeply that the rule that teaches us be considerate has been translated to a list of expectations for others?