Why Women Find "Compliments" Offensive

It’s the second annual Anti-Street Harassment Week, and the discussion about what constitutes street harassment — and whether it can ever be a compliment — seems more relevant than ever.

This week is the second annual International Anti-Street Harassment Week, and it seems unfortunately well-timed: Just last week, Politico reporter Dylan Byers tweeted: “How did it become so difficult to call a woman good looking in public?”

Byers’ remarks referred not to street harassment, but to those who criticized President Obama for calling Attorney General Kamala Harris the “best looking” in her field. Still, the logic behind his question is all too familiar to any woman who’s experienced street harassment. After all, the perpetrators frequently insist street harassment isn’t harassment at all — it’s a compliment, and if women would just lighten up, they’d be able to recognize that.

What people like Byers (and others who dismissed the flap over Obama’s comment) fail to grasp is that, for many women, the objection to so-called compliments can have very little to do with the words themselves, and much more to do with the expectation behind them: that whomever the speaker, and whatever the circumstances, and wherever the comments are made, the woman recipient in question should be flattered.

Yesterday, political analyst, feminist activist, and writer Zerlina Maxwell took this discussion to her Twitter account after posting an article about street harassment she’d written for Ebony. Her comments soon provoked a number of questions and attacks, many of which revolved around this very theme: Why can’t a girl just take a compliment?

But this is a question that relies on a great many assumptions, among them the idea that women can’t tell the difference between a compliment and harassment, or that there isn’t a difference in the first place. It is a question that can be asked only by someone who hasn’t experienced street harassment or who denies that it exists — at least not to the extent women say it does.

An excellent segment on street harassment by comedian W. Kamau Bell, from his show Totally Biased.

The exact percentage varies, but every available statistic holds that the vast majority of women — estimates range from 90% to 99% — have experienced street harassment, almost always as an ongoing occurrence that frequently begins before puberty does and doesn’t cease until decades later. The vast majority of women, therefore, are intimately familiar with a kind of “compliment” many men fail to recognize for what it is: not a compliment at all.

A large part of what makes street harassment — which is used loosely, here, to define an appearance-related comment or noise made by a stranger in a public place — offensive is the fact that it’s never left at just that. Most women who’ve experienced street harassment have also experienced at least one harasser who is persistent, who either views a nervous “thank you” as an encouragement to continue, or who responds to being ignored (or definitively rejected) with insults, threats, and, on occasion, physical violence. (The #endSHweek hashtag provides numerous examples of women whose experiences with street harassment turned violent.)

To view what women call street harassment — be it a “nice legs” or “smile, gorgeous” — as a compliment is both to think of these words in a vacuum and to assume that any woman, at any time, should be grateful for the attention of any man. The word “smile” on its own may not rankle, but the idea that someone could believe himself entitled to the expression on my face — or a thank-you, or a date, or sex — does.

Comments like Byers’ (“how did it get so HARD for me to say the exact words I want to say, with the exact consequences I want them to have?”) belie a strange belief: that commenting on the appearance of a woman in public should be both easy and deserving of a positive response. They assume a strange universality among women, a uniform female disposition that should recognize she’s being honored and be thankful. But why would anyone think that? There is absolutely no reason for me to believe that any man I don’t know, should I encounter one I find attractive on the sidewalk, would be receptive to and appreciative of my yelling about his ultra-toned arms (or whatever it may be). I don’t know him!

Men who believe the reverse is true need to dig a little deeper (and be a little — or a lot — less defensive) and ask themselves why that might be. It is beliefs and assumptions like these that contribute to the pervasiveness of street harassment, and the discomfort (and anger, and fear) of women who experience it.

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