When I was a teenager I loved walking home from middle school. No, not for the fresh air, or the ever-changing colors of Washington’s foliage, not even for the laughter shared with my best friend, or the goofy dance moves practiced under the weight of our backpacks.
Nope. I loved walking home, winding my way through the suburban neighborhoods, because there were always trucks driving by, with windows rolled down, men hanging out of them, who would eye me up and down and call out:
“Hey baby, want a ride?”
“I’d like to grab that tight ass.”
Or something as harmless as: “You look beautiful today.”
And just like that I would feel beautiful, desirable and worthy.
I would stand up a little straighter.
I would flip my hair over one shoulder, and look back and smile coyly.
Their unsolicited attention was not inappropriate. No way, it was welcome. And it was flattering.
Their crass calls made me feel special.
Until one day, I realized that the words “you’re beautiful” could cause harm. Suddenly, men’s crass calls turned into casual comments in super market aisles, and eventually into gross grabs on city sidewalks.
These mens unsolicited actions and comments felt a lot less like flattery and a lot more like harassment. But I couldn’t make sense of it. I didn’t understand how compliments could be bad.
It really wasn’t until college, where I learned about consent and sexual harassment that I could put my finger on it.
Compliments are good. Hell, they are fucking great. When they come from the right people. When they are welcome. When they are full of awareness and appreciation for who you are. If they are unwelcome or unsolicited they are not compliments, they are harassment.
It look me a long time to unlearn the lessons of my youth. But through excellent professors, rad friends and a supportive therapist I learned new lessons and untangled the difference between flattery and harassment.
But here’s the thing about lessons ya’ll. Sometimes, even after we’ve learned them the pop quizzes keep coming. The unexpected exams. All the while providing us with the opportunity to show the world that we learned the damn lesson, and we can put it into practice.
My test came in Rome.
Walking down the city streets I faced unending harassment.
From the men who eyed me up and down from afar.
To those who whistled as I passed by.
Or the photographers who harassed women with words like “you’re beautiful” in a ploy for their time and money.
I watched other women react in a city full of toxic masculinity.
I watched women shrink backward as men stepped in their space.
I watched women smile coyly and shake their heads unable to speak the words “no.”
I watched friends giggle at one another and flip their hair as men howled.
And I felt sad.
I felt sad that these women could not yet identify the difference between harassment and flattery.
I felt sad that these men were never taught how not to harass.
I felt gratitude for the opportunity to claim my space and my no.
And I did so, with purpose, hoping these men would take a moment to examine their own behavior and praying that other women would feel inspired to turn away the harassment as well.
So when the photographers creeped up to me, I held out my hand before they could get to close and loudly said, “No.”
And when a passerby whispered “sexy” as we crossed paths in the train station I gave him the good old Italian gesture meaning: “Fuck you!”
But it’s really not enough for me to simply know the difference between harassment and flattery.
Because there are still so many girls and women out there who don’t know the difference. Who are trapped in the vicious cycle of equating harassment and flattery.
The more we clearly identify harassment for ourselves and our sisters, and the more we teach men how not to harass, the more likely it is that our future generations will learn the right lessons from the beginning.
Last week, I wrote a post entitled, More Orgasms and More Education about the lessons I did, and did not, learn in my health and sex ed classes. And ya’ll I received an outpour of comments and shared experiences!
I have a big ask…I INVITE YOU TO KEEP SHARING, if you feel safe to do so!
I think this is a hugely important topic and we need more voices in the mix.
I can not and do not endeavor to speak for your experience. I want to hear from YOU, about YOU!
I want to know what we can change in our education system to avoid equating harassment and flattery, to avoid equating safe sex, for sex with condoms, to avoid equating our partners pleasure with our own, etc.
Comments are enabled! Please use this post and last weeks post as a jumping off post!
I hope to share our experiences in a follow up post on Feminist Friday next week! I cannot wait to hear from you!
I am ready to LISTEN, reach out to my on any of my social media platforms or comment here!