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The Eyes Have It

February 2, 2010

I am a woman. When I step outside of my home, I have been programmed to keep myself safe from being sexually assaulted. In order to keep myself as safe as possible, I should probably follow as many safety tips as possible. I should . . .

avoid going out late at night, always go in pairs, carry pepper spray, walk around my car before I get into it, wear shoes I can run in, avoid wearing revealing clothes, hold my keys in a key fist, take a self-defense class, avoid parking too far away, always park in well-lit areas, be aware of my surroundings, make sure I always have my cell phone, never wear my iPod when running, only run in daylight, don’t make eye contact, lock my car door, lock my house door, lock my windows, get a dog, get a security system, keep a baseball bat by my bed, not list my number in the phone book, etc.

Every time I turn on the TV, I’m watching another story about a woman being brutalized on CSI, Law & Order, 48 Hours, the evening news, etc. It’s an orchestra of media screeching, “Be Afraid. Stay Inside. Everything is dangerous!”  Whenever I get an email chain letter about a scary new gang tactic or a serial killer, the perpetrators are always targeting women.  And I’m given the same laundry list of safety tips from my family, friends, police officers and media. I’m regularly warned that there are men hanging out around every corner, behind every bush, lying in wait to rape me.  And if I’m raped it means I slipped up, let the wrong man close, wore the wrong clothes, looked for too long or in the wrong way. The message is, “It’s your fault if something happens to you.” The never-ending chorus croons the fictitious message, “Boys will be boys. This is just how men are. You sent the wrong message. You secretly wanted it.”

These messages mask the reality of sexual assault, which is a major social problem. As the Rape Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports, every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Nine out of ten sexual assault victims are women. The reality is the majority of rapes happen in or around the home, and the majority of victims know their attackers.

This is a rape culture. This is a culture where men and women live on opposite sides of a thick black line dividing human existence into masculine and feminine, like two siblings sharing a room.

Let’s put aside that it’s questionable if these tips even make women safer or not. Let’s put aside the limitations of personal freedoms that our culture is proposing for women. Let’s put aside that this erases the experiences of male victims of sexual assault. Let’s put aside how much this setup controls and limits women’s public space. Let’s put ALL that aside for a moment and ask, how does this conversation affect relationships between men and women?

Women are taught to always be vigilant, to never let their guard down. This means that everyday occurrences will mean something different to them then they mean to men. It’s within this context that we reexamine the male gaze.

Let’s examine an example. Two people pass on the street. One man, one woman. The man checks the woman out or to be specific looks her up and down. The woman does not look over at the man. Both continue walking.

An example of the male gaze:

Within a rape culture, this looks different. A woman walks down the street. She sees a man walking toward her. Her defenses go up. Her muscles tense ever so slightly. She wonders for a second if she should cross the street. The man looks at her. Not just looks but seems to invade her space with his eyes. A sick feeling develops in her throat. She feels vulnerable. Her eyes dart to the side. When they pass each other, she increases her pace.

I have been this woman. I have watched this woman. I have seen my friends become this woman. I have seen my sister become this woman. I have seen my mother become this woman. Are we all suffering from paranoia? Are we being unreasonable? Well, if the never-ending chorus of cultural conversation trains me to see all men as my enemy, then why wouldn’t I treat them as such?

I live in a world where I’m constantly reminded that I’m vulnerable. That feeling is backed up by seeing my friends victimized and knowing that the majority of rapists will never see the inside of a jail cell. This fact may have something to do with the reality that we as a culture are more likely to blame the victim rather than the criminal. Or in a world where the majority of rapists are men and the majority of victims are women, we’re more likely to blame the woman rather than the man. We simply ignore women predators and male victims or violence within same-sex relationships.

So am I saying that men should never look at women? Am I saying that every time a man looks at a woman on the street that this is how she feels? Of course not. I’m not saying that I or any other woman experiences this every time a man passes a woman on the street. My argument is that this vulnerable feeling is a consequence of the socialization of women within a rape culture and that it negatively affects relationships between men and women.

Personally, I write about this because it pisses me off. It pisses me off how quickly I can be reminded on a deep, guttural level how vulnerable I am. It pisses me off how much of my time and energy goes into deciding how and when to leave my house. It pisses me off that there’s a voice inside my head constantly telling me to be aware of my surroundings. “Know where the exits are. Never relax.” It pisses me off that there’s an invisible barrier between me and the men in my life. It’s always in back of my head. We must collectively take on the responsibility of shifting the dialogue away from minimizing and denying women’s experiences and ask some difficult questions about how we’re gendering men and women.

“It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”–Sally Kempton

Rebekah Carrow enjoys crafting and is currently turning a table that was thrown away into her coffee table.

21 Comments
  1. February 2, 2010 10:54 am

    Thanks for this post. It pisses me off too. I just wrote a book about gender-based street harassment (out in August) and I discussed each of the issues you talked about in it because things like rape culture and the male gaze and the socialization girls get from a young age to fear public spaces and the victim blaming that happens when they are victimized are never discussed enough when mainstream media ever decides to talk about “catcalling,” let alone more insidious forms of street harassment. Instead it’s just framed as “compliment or creepy?”

    It’s so hard to educate men that this is our reality as women. I’ve had countless convos w/men who have gotten defensive and blocked out all reasoning about why it is inappropriate for them to “compliment” women they don’t know in public (without at least saying hi and starting a non-sexually charged convo first) or whistle at one etc. It immediately goes to victim blaming over what the woman wore or how it’s men’s free speech to do so or how women “like it” when they do it or how they would love it if women harassed them and it’s all compliments and fun and games blah blah blah. I’ve concluded we really need male allies more than ever for help with these types of discussions. The burden shouldn’t be on women alone to try to get men to see their male privilege and to not see women solely as sexual objects. Anyway, obviously i have a lot to say on the topic if i wrote a book, so i’ll end w/that and commend you on speaking out. The more that people impacted by street harassment and rape culture speak out, the more we can raise awareness about these issues!

    • Alek permalink
      February 9, 2010 11:45 am

      “””men who have gotten defensive and blocked out all reasoning about why it is inappropriate for them to “compliment” women they don’t know in public (without at least saying hi and starting a non-sexually charged convo first)”””

      Does this apply to all women in the world? I personally love it when a woman approaches me, and tells me I’m hot, or asks me if I’m interested in meeting her friend.

      So now you’d say I’m projecting from my male self… But the truth is, a lot of women like being approached with a compliment. In fact, most dating books written by women, for men, state that you approach women with a compliment.

      You’re now saying that’s always inappropriate. Please have some compassion for us men. We get so many conflicting messages, and everything is always blamed on us. If we approach we’re perverts, if we don’t we’re wusses. If we approach non-sexually we’re told we’re desexualized wimps… If we approach with directly expressed interest we’re told we’re harassers.

      What about all the women who give the exact opposite advice from you? How do you re-conciliate those two?

      I know this is hard to believe, but men are really flexible. If society says to men “just don’t approach women in public, period”, most won’t. Its the mixed messages that screw men up. Your sister says you’re not a real man if you don’t do x… Your coworker says all women hate x… And then a woman’s organization says men doing x is the root of all evil in society… and then an ex tells you she dumped you because you never did x.

      I like your focus on getting male-allies… But I’d suggest getting a coherent message as well. I can’t seem to find 2 women who have the same definition of what is appropriate… And that’s a cool thing. The problem is that when you do something that’s out of one woman’s definition of appropriate, you’re automatically a pig-a-hole that needs to be hung… Men are out there crying out “ok, ok we get it, you’re not satisfied with how we approach thing… but make up your mind and tell us what to DO, not what not to do”.

      If you gather up all the recommendations from women on what not do, and you apply all of them, you need to pretty much lock yourself at home and never make any contact with women.

  2. Julie Bartkiewicz permalink
    February 2, 2010 11:26 am

    Unfortunately I could not agree more with this article.

  3. February 2, 2010 8:28 pm

    Depressing and outrageous, but true. I have known people who were abused by men in their lives too and that sure doesn’t help my perspective any. It ticks me off big time when people make any implication that a woman might’ve done something to encourage a piece of trash into molesting her. The pig would have anyway, molesters are what they are, and that is what they do. If there weren’t any women around they’d do it to trees.

    I prefer it when crime shows have women as perpetrators and not because of some stale old issues surrounding pregnancies either. But women who stalk men, or other women, or they end up killing a rival over some corperate ladder-climbing. And I don’t like the shows that start out with a man as being a victim, only to have it revealed later that he was some disgusting womanizing, molesting pig, because that means his victims were the killers and they’re the ones who get jailed for ridding the world of a piece of garbage. I don’t like it when shows have women perps who turn out to have become that way because they were horribly abused, either? There aren’t enough representations of the real picture out there, that some people just torture and kill because they are simply that evil. Forget the excuses.

  4. Alek permalink
    February 8, 2010 9:20 am

    Interesting article. Makes you think.

    I have a question. When is it ok to look then? I see a woman I like, how do I initiate communication? Randomly walking up to a random womna who hasn’t let you know she wants to be approached is inappropriate. Ok. But apparently sometimes just looking to see if she’s interested can be taken as being inappropriate.

    So when is it right? I might be wrong in interpreting the article… But what I concluded from this and similar articles seems to be that relationships should only be started if the woman initiates first, and men should never initiate. Please don’t be too hard on me. I’m confused.

  5. February 8, 2010 9:57 am

    The best thing to do IMO is to start out just being friends through having things in common and just go from there. If you’re just looking for it, you’ll probably send everyone who isn’t, running for the hills. As your friendship grows, study each other’s body language, see if the one you like really cheers up around you, get some input from people who can recognize signs that maybe you aren’t picking up on. It isn’t always the woman who has to make the first move, or always the man. Of course if you’re desperate and are looking for women who are also looking for a date, you might try dating sites, there are tons of them out there. And no, I’m not on any of them, I’ve got more fun things to do than look for romance. 😛

  6. Alek permalink
    February 8, 2010 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the answer Capri. Now here comes the follow-up question.

    I have the two friends who look like male-models. Whenever we go out, we get stared at by women. A lot of them even do the “hover” thing… Where they find an excuse to stand next to you. Like we’re in a store, we’ll change locations 3-4 times, and they’ll always end up standing next to us and staring.

    In clubs its a lot more agressive, them pinching our butts, running up to us and dancing off of us… butt bumping… The full set. This doesn’t happen as much as when I’m on my own, just when I’m with these guys (they’re really handsome and popular).

    Is that ok? Is it ok for women to do that to us? If its ok, then why the double standard? If its not ok, are all the women who do this harassers and doing sexual assault? Should we turn them in?

    I’m not being sarcastic. I’m either completely ignorant and missing some big piece in the story, or there’s a double standard in interpretations.

    • Alek permalink
      February 8, 2010 3:22 pm

      Btw, all these women are strangers who’ve never met us. Interestingly enough it happens even more when we go to a foreign country, where obviously no one knows us.

  7. February 8, 2010 5:41 pm

    No, IMO it isn’t okay for these women to treat you and your friends like a prized piece of meat any more than it is for men to do it to women. Needless to say, the club scene isn’t for me. Yuch. You guys have every right to tell these fawning women to go take a hike if you don’t want their attention.

    • Alek permalink
      February 8, 2010 8:57 pm

      1) But we do like their attention, and its actually women we are interested in meeting.
      2) It happens in the supermarket, the bank, the street, etc…
      3) I’m flattered women can be attracted to me over 90% of the other guys in the place. Like I said, I don’t get as much attention as my handsome friends (i’m below average looking actually), but I still get more attention than 90% of other guys in any given place… And its solely based on my style, walk, charisma and presence.

      I don’t go to clubs often, I just mentioned them because women are even more aggressive there (grinding, butt-pinching). I’m mostly referring to public places and staring.

      My point is this. Is deciding you like someone before you meet them always wrong? Is the only viable and “right” option to be attracted to people after you’ve known them for a while?

      When I was a geek I used to hate it. I went home crying over all the rejection. And no, I’m not afraid of admitting it. I cried, and I cried, and I cried for many years. Women would treat me like dung before they even got to know me… They snubbed, mocked and ridiculed me. I thought they were superficial and mean. I thought it was unfair people decided whether you were worth getting to know before even talking to you. I thought “first impressions” were mean and unfair.

      But now the exact same type of women are all over me, and what I changed was how I come across. I don’t feel like a piece of meat, in fact I’m flattered. I’ve worked hard to get to a place where I’m the guy that stands out in any room. I’m the exact same person physically as when I was the geek everyone snubbed.

      And its not sexual. Me (and my friends) are always the person to get asked for directions or be assumed to be the manager/owner of the store. I get asked for directions on the street by foreigners/travelers like a dozen times a day. When we walk into stores, other customers assume we’re the managers… And its all based on how we come across.

      • Alek permalink
        February 8, 2010 9:07 pm

        But, to summarize…

        Is being attracted to someone just from first impressions, before you’ve become friends always wrong? Is this the only valid strategy:

        “Befriend someone in safe social environment, as you become friends, decide whether you’re attracted to them, and then slowly see if she/he is interested, and if so move it forward”

        I’ll be honest, I prefer that strategy too. But is the being-attracted-on-first-glance approach always wrong? Is it always a sign of something wrong or a backhanded, gender-restrictive, patriarchal-imposed mechanism?

  8. February 8, 2010 9:49 pm

    I think the being friends first is the only real option. Falling in love at first sight, well, that’s more like being infatuated at first glance and it’s shallow from both genders. It’s an outmoded thing the media still promotes over anything really meaningful and when it runs rampant, you get the crazy guys who can’t keep their hands to themselves and their pants on, and the gals who swoon and fight over Edward Cullen and want to marry him while they snub real guys.

  9. Alek permalink
    February 9, 2010 6:55 am

    I mean, I really agree with you Capri… In the sense I see what you mean. Like most problems I see in gender relations come from this. If only people started following the “friends” first strategy, things would be so much better.

    Heck, women spend an entire lifetime chasing this hollywood or romance novel fantasy where a prince comes and sweeps them off their feet… Men spend an entire lifetime of rejections and resentment.

    When they both could benefit from what you recommend… Men and women should come together as friends first. The same way you would befriend anyone of your own gender… And then, over time it can grow into something more.

    I’m just wondering if demonizing the old strategy is really the best way to get there. I think it just causes negativity.

  10. February 9, 2010 12:10 pm

    Well, I certainly wouldn’t call you a wuss or desexualized freak if you didn’t compliment me. And the compliments I appreciate are the ones I get from either gender on my music or writing, or even my personality or how I handled this or that. As for chat rooms, I do not like it when the guys give other guys cyber-handshakes while giving every girl/lady/whatever the irc script says, a rose or hug or kiss. Just give me a handshake like you would to any guy, and never compliment me on my figure whether you are a girl or a guy. That’ll make my back go up. As long as either gender makes it clear if they want to flirt or not, there shouldn’t really be such a misunderstanding. Either you want to flirt and you like flattery, or you don’t. And if you do like it, don’t complain if somebody flirts. If you don’t want that, make it clear and those who want dates rather than friends should get the message. I set very clear boundries and like to think I’m being realistic about it. I don’t hate men, but don’t want them getting the wrong idea about me either just because I might laugh at a joke or do something that any friend would do that ideally shouldn’t be mistaken for interest in a crushy way.

    I don’t buy into the extreme feminist idea that we live in a “rape culture” finding that term to be utterly offensive slanted and erroneous.

    But people do need to be careful, men and women alike. There are lots of other violent crimes being committed, men get robbed and shot, too.

    No one ever deserves to get attacked unless they are the one who tried to commit an attack on some innocent person first. No one is blaming anyone, or no one should blame anyone who is innocent and falls victim to a violent crime.

    So you’ll have to decide, do you like flattery and flirtation? If so, don’t complain to me if somebody drools and tries to flirt back. But people shouldn’t start touching until they start feeling mutually comfortable with each other.

    Hmmm, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m starting to feel like a second-rate Dear Abby, I don’t have all of the answers and am getting a bit tired of what seems like going nowhere with this discussion. If it feels inappropriate, tell the person to back off. Man or woman, whatever. Just try not to confuse yourself and others around you if you can.

  11. Alek permalink
    February 9, 2010 1:01 pm

    I’m sorry that you feel like Dear Abby, but I wasn’t seeking advice. I have no problems with this personally. I have chosen extremely simple rules in life, I never initiate anything with women first, I let them do everything.

    I’m discussing the original article… This discussion isn’t about me or you. I’m discussing the article and society and phenomenon.

    My issue is where people take their personal preferences and try to impose them on all of society. In an attempt to defeat sexual-harassment, movements like this go too far and end up pretty much making a confusing mess out of all flirting and dating. I don’t see any solutions in the article, just a cocophany of blaming, confusion and negativity with no constructive solution provided.

    • Alek permalink
      February 9, 2010 1:14 pm

      Personally I offer a simple solution I got from talking to a female friend. I was telling her how this woman approached me, and asked me out…

      And she cried out how she wishes she had that courages since “men are all wusses who don’t hit on us anymore” (followed by many exclamation marks).

      The solution I have is simple. Why not empower women to make the first move. Its a very simple solution. It removes all confusion in men, and then things are clear.

      I propose that we work on empowering girls so that they have the confidence and self-esteem to go for what they want. At the same time, we teach boys that they never approach or initiate with women first. That way, no boy ever violates women. Simple.

      Men can no longer be the violent enemy, if society isn’t still forcing them to be pursuers, hunters and initiators. And science and anecdotal evidence shows men cope with being pursued much better. So why not EMPOWER women to do all the pursuing, initiating etc?

      That seems to me like the clearest solution.

      • Alek permalink
        February 9, 2010 1:20 pm

        Of course, at the same time, we teach all boys to let girls do the pursuing… and to let the girls do all the pursuing. We stop telling boys that they’re not “real men” if they don’t pursue women. The aggressor role should be removed for boys. Give it to girls… Whom I believe are by nature the ones who initiate.

        I think man-as-aggressor is societal construct that was invented during the patriarchy to employ men of low attractiveness in the system. Just about most evidence about human mating seems to show that the natural thing is that women be the aggressors and pursuers. The reason that men being agressors often ends up with women feeling violated… is because in nature (early humanity, before civilization)… only rapists were the ones to initiate. By the natural design if a man initiates first he’s doing what’s biologically linked with rapists.

        The problem is that women are still trained to expect men to be aggressors… while at the same time they resent it. Its a nice confusing mess. A mix of society and biology.

  12. February 9, 2010 1:18 pm

    Ah. Yes, there is polarization going on and there wouldn’t be if people didn’t go to extremes on what should be a non-issue today. But I think the media has a lot to do with promoting negativity especially when it comes to gender and race wars. Ditto for chain letters. And I have seen women acting like absolute jerks, then trying to excuse their behavior by claiming they were victimized, when they were the ones doing the victimizing. I’ve seen men doing the same.

    • Alek permalink
      February 9, 2010 1:24 pm

      Oh ya, definitely… I think its the media too. It loves polarization. Well, elites too… Its called “divide and conquer”. They fund this gender-war so they can keep us in mutual resentment, so we are easier to rule.

      We were put on this earth to come together in love… War is un-natural for the genders… It was placed onto us.

      – Most men feel resentful and like they’re taken advantage of by women, and that women have life easy, while men are victims.

      -Most women feel resentful and like they’re taken advantage of by men, and that men have life easy, while men are victims.

      The truth? We’re both used by the system that’s pitting us against one another so we be little worker-bees. That’s why extremists on both sides are given the loudest say. The media doesn’t feature moderate, sane representatives. It always features extremists so as to polarize.

  13. February 9, 2010 1:27 pm

    Yes, you know, Alek, I think you’re on to something. I’ve always thought it was incredibly sexist and backward to insist that men always be the first to pursue. I’ve seen chain letters, the media, and believe it or not, recently some female bloggers bemoaning the fact the men they were interested in were too “whimpy” as they put it to text them first! What the freaking!? Get with the 21st century, girls!

    I made the first move when asking some guy I liked to a recital. Only I found out later from someone else that he stared at another girl the whole time. 😛 I didn’t invite him anywhere after that, but wasn’t sore at him. He had no idea I liked him. And it took a year of being friends with him for me to even get to that point. I wasn’t waiting for him to ask me out first. It just took me that long to start having any feelings for him in that way. Well, he’s happily married to someone else, who was as in a hurry to marry as he had been when they met. I never let on or let my feelings get out of check which turned out to be best for all concerned. But yes, the girls shouldn’t always expect the guys to make the first move, that’s for sure.

  14. February 9, 2010 1:30 pm

    Yep, I think you summed that up right.

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