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Harrassment, Racism, and Reductio Creep

street-harrassment-compliment-me-by-respecting-me

Julian Sanchez makes the quite reasonable argument that we ought to consider the morality of our actions not just in light of whether they “cause harm when considered in isolation; rather, we should also consider whether our actions are part of a system or pattern of similar conduct that in the aggregate causes harm, even if no individual’s action makes a perceptible difference to the outcome.  After a setup based on a famous philosophical experiment, he illustrates using a recent meme:

A viral video capturing the staggering quantity of  harassment experienced by a woman walking the streets of New York provides probably the clearest example.  Plenty of what the filmmakers captured involves conduct that would be crass or menacing even taken purely in isolation: following the woman, making lewd comments about parts of her body, and so on.  But some viewers—mostly male, but a few women as well—object that the video unfairly lumps these together with “friendly greetings” or innocuous compliments: “How are you, miss?” or “You’re looking lovely today.”  And in a very narrow sense, they have a point: When a stranger says something nice about my appearance, as happens maybe once a month, that brightens my day a bit, because I’m not constantly inundated by a stream of comments ranging from innocuous to menacing. The mistake the “friendly” men make is failing to imagine how the context of a hundred other “friendly” (and some markedly less friendly) remarks  may make their own far less welcome than it would be in isolation.

This stands traditional moral views on their head, making us responsible for events and feelings outside or control rather than merely our own actions and intents. But I think Julian is right that, once we’re educated on the larger context, we do in fact become responsible for how our own actions are perceived in that light.

Any pairing of intended/unintended and individual/aggregate is logically possible, but unintended/aggregate harms are the trickiest ones to address, because they require people to recognize as culpable conduct that not only wasn’t meant to cause harm, but often wouldn’t be harmful taken in isolation. What’s especially thorny here is that we consider conduct blameworthy only when an actor knows or reasonably ought to know that it is causing harm, either individually or in the aggregate.  A foreign visitor who, like the “Tokyo Breakfast” family, uses an offensive term without realizing that it is offensive is not necessarily a bad person—but is blameworthy if he keeps using it after being told.  When a harm is less obvious, because cumulative or systematic, people may resist changing their conduct because they think it means accepting a negative judgment of their character based on what they did in ignorance.

[…]

The tricky balancing act, then, is getting people to see how their conduct may be harmful, or rather, part of a pattern of conduct that is harmful in the aggregate—without requiring them to condemn themselves for not having acknowledged the harm sooner, since that will often make them resist acknowledging it. Unsurprisingly, those who’ve seen the harm tend to get tired of this kind of emotional coddling of people who seem to be in denial about what’s all too apparent to those on the receiving end—especially when addressing groups comprising a mix of those who don’t know any better and straight-up assholes who know but don’t care.  It would take more chutzpah than I can muster to counsel infinite patience, but addressing the Harmless Torturers as a distinct group may be the best way to help prevent them from joining the ranks of the assholes.

Again, I agree. Up to a point. It’s why, for example, I’ve long since stopped supporting the display of the Confederate battle flag and more recently come to advocate for the change of the Washington Redskins name and logo despite my belief that most people displaying those symbols mean no harm in doing so. That your affinity for the stars and bars is genuinely rooted in a love for a selective view of Southern culture or that the name “Redskin” conjures up nothing but a storied football franchise in your mind doesn’t change the fact that large numbers of people are deeply wounded by those symbols.

Having come of age during a period of rapidly evolving standards for gender relations, I’ve long been leery of actions of words that might be perceived as sexual harassment or otherwise unwelcome. While I remain keenly aware of how women look, it would never occur to me to catcall or even casually comment on the appearance of a random woman I’m encountering on the streets. Nor would I tell a woman I didn’t know to smile. For that matter, that’s true of even women I know casually. When a female work colleague compliments me on my dress, I almost never return the compliment. (The qualifier “almost” is there because I’ve done it a handful of times related to a black tie event, when complimenting a woman on a ridiculously expensive dress and/or formal hairdo strikes me as within bounds.)

But where does one draw the line? Commenter AQ proposes what he thinks a reductio ad absurdum: “It seems to follow from this line of reasoning that it’s just never okay for a man to say hello to any remotely attractive woman in public.” But Julian counters, “There are obviously lots of contextual nuances here, but that’s actually an excellent rule of thumb, yeah.” He disengages the thread after that point but is backed up by UserGoogol, who sees and raises AQ’s suggestion: “Even more generally, it just seems like a generally good idea to leave people alone. Even setting aside the issues of gender, people have wildly different comfort levels with social interaction. Being talked to by a stranger can be uncomfortable even without any broader social baggage if you’re just really introverted. (btw: I am really introverted.) So it would seem like the path to maximizing freedom is to allow people to control what sort of social situations they’ll be in.”

Being somewhat introverted myself, I don’t disagree completely with UserGoogol. I generally like to be left alone by people I don’t know and treat others as I’d like to be treated. I’m fairly uncomfortable with forced small talk with people with whom I’m in casual contact, even though with whom I’m in a short, transactional relationship.

That said, I don’t know how we can live in a world in which “it’s just never okay for a man to say hello to any remotely attractive woman in public.” Perhaps the distinction is in the “contextual nuances” that Julian mentions but does not specify in his response. For the most part, I address women I don’t know in pretty much the same way I do men I don’t know—that is, not at all unless context requires it. So, I’d say hello to the cashier at the supermarket or someone I’m passing in tight quarters regardless of their sex or attractiveness.

A dozen years ago, Julian coined the term “reductio creep” to describe “the process by which an insane extension of some principle, offered as a reductio ad absurdum of that principle, is soon afterwards realized.” We’ve had multiple instances of that in my adult lifetime with regard to race and gender relations, most of which I’m come to accept as the right outcome.

It wouldn’t shock me at all if AQ’s dictum became the normal expectation, even the law. Indeed, we have perfectly respectable people debating whether we ought to criminalize street harassment. Outlawing “physical and psychological acts that intimidate, exclude, subordinate and reinforce male dominance over women,” which I support in the abstract, quickly becomes crazy if we define those terms even in the non-reductio version set forth in Julian’s posting.

Even if we restrict the discussion to social norms and leave aside criminalization, surely there has to be room for male-female interaction in public. Even while recognizing that attractive women are constantly being hit upon and find it exhausting, there’s a biological imperative at work here. Obviously, overt leering and catcalling are inappropriate. But what about flirtation in cases where there’s actual attraction and desire to pursue a more intimate relationship? Is that verboten because there’s a good chance it’s not reciprocated?

My personal rule of thumb for workplace dating is that it’s almost always a bad idea. When introduced to the idea in graduate school two decades ago that women had the right to go through their professional lives without being pestered for dates and otherwise seen as potential mates, it struck me as absurd. But I’ve largely come to accept that notion as legitimate. The qualifiers here, though, accept the possibility that, attraction being what it is, the possibility remains that men and women who work together will fall in love. So, it seems to me that there ought to be some allowance for bending of the rules in cases where one co-worker thinks another is legitimately a candidate for being their life partner. There are still numerous obstacles, of course, in terms of senior-subordinate relationships, continued pursuit after lack of interest has been conveyed, and the like. But there still has to be some wiggle room in our rule set.

Relatedly, my current girlfriend would not be my current girlfriend if I followed AQ’s rule. We met in a professional setting, where both of us were there to work. The relationship grew very slowly, over a matter of months, progressing from extremely subtle to more overt flirtation, longer conversations, and ultimately dating. Only time will tell whether it goes further.

I fully recognize that women in my line of work going to conferences and workshops are hit upon routinely and that many of them dread that fact. Indeed, my girlfriend is hit upon multiple times a day and finds it exhausting. Clearly, the random stranger who hitting on a woman he’ll likely never see again is a creep. Ditto the married man hitting on women at conferences with whom he’ll never have a meaningful relationship. But the only way I can distinguish between my own actions and those of those I deem creeps are based on my own intentions. And that doesn’t pass the “Harmless Torturers” test.

What rule would you suggest to square this circle? Alternatively, should the circle be squared at all? Should the fact that advances by strange men are usually unwanted preclude all advances by strange men? Perhaps our dating activities should strictly be relegated to online dating fora, where both parties have clearly signaled their intention to pursue a romantic relationship and can reject suitors from the physical and emotional safety of the internet?

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Andre Kenji says:

    It´s more than a matter of gender relations. I´m a male and I don´t like people that I don´t know complimenting me on the street – It can be annoying and condescending. I did not like that video in New York because they edit out the white guys – maybe a bunch of yuppies saying hi was not threatening enough.

    But I don´t think that unwanted interactions with strangers are something that I want in my life, and most people agrees with me.

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  2. Turgid Jacobian says:

    Sanchez is well on his way to becoming a liberal, with ideas like that.

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  3. CSK says:

    I can tell you that there’s nothing more enraging (and scary) for a woman than to be followed down a street by a group of guys making slurping and sucking noises. Crude slobs are always with us, however, and I don’t see how that kind of behavior will ever be completely eliminated.

    My fear about crimininalizing street harassment is a simple one. If neurotics get to set the standard, then virtually any kind of interchange between men and women will be nearly verboten. Can we all agree on what constitutes harassment and what constitutes just a brief, pleasant, harmless exchange? I doubt it.

    Let me give an example. I have an acquaintance who claims she can’t put a foot out the door without being set upon by legions of horny men. I asked her to provide me with some examples of this harassment. She replied, “Oh, you know. I go to the grocery store, and some man asks me what aisle the toilet paper’s in. Or they ask me the time. Things like that. They’re obviously trying to pick me up.”

    Call me naive, but if someone asks me where the toilet paper is, I assume they want to know where the toilet paper is. If I know, I say. If I don’t, I say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” And that’s the end of it.

    My point is–do my standards prevail? Or do the neurotic’s?

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  4. Tyrell says:

    Think about this: I hear no complaints or criticism when it is the other way around: women “hitting” on attractive guys: “hunks”, “6 pack” and so on. Yet if men make comments like that about women it will bring down tons of criticism. Where the line is depends. Some women may not like being whistled at, some love it (but won’t admit it)
    Some women say they don’t want the car door opened, the chair pulled out for them. But when the waiter brings the check, they head for the ladies room.
    A lot of women want the same pay a man gets, but not the heavy lifting and outdoor work that comes with it.
    Some women will hollar “male chauvinist” , but are doing the same things.

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  5. michael reynolds says:

    I’ve always liked women more than men, but when I was hiring waitresses back in the 70’s I did things that then seemed pretty much par for the course that would now seem – and would in fact be – creepy and totally unacceptable and damned near illegal.

    Scroll forward a few years and I created one of the earliest example of bad-ass action girl in kidlit — Rachel from Animorphs. At the moment I’m writing a trilogy which re-imagines WW2 if females were drafted alongside guys. So, over the course of geological time (I’m 60 now) I have evolved quite a bit on the matter.

    We can’t alter the fact that men like to get laid. That goes deep in the DNA and is rather necessary. And let’s not pretend that women aren’t equally interested in same. But we need to find a way to get A and B together outside of a context that presupposes women to be objects, property, subordinates, targets or even victims. Somehow I suspect this will prove to be possible for most reasonable men.

    It’s also incumbent on men to enforce basic civility when it comes to other men’s actions. We should police our gender, not leave it to the victims of our crude attentions to defend themselves.. We shouldn’t tolerate catcalling, harassment, or misogyny from other men. I don’t think we need to go around punching the jerks in the face, but a “Dude, that’s uncool,” is appropriate.

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  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Tyrell:

    How would you feel about being hit on 100 times by gay men as you walk down the street? How would you feel about them making sucking sounds or miming a pumping action toward your ass?

    See, that’s the appropriate counterpoint. You need to imagine attention that you don’t want, not the attention you do want.

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  7. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    That reminds me of one of the best descriptions of homophobia I’ve ever heard: the fear that other men will treat you the same way that you treat women….

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  8. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: It doesn’t even have to be gay men–just imagine walking down the street and being hit on by 100 women you don’t find at all attractive.

    I can even imagine getting sick of being hit on that many times by attractive women. Something that’s pleasant the first few times can get rather tiresome through constant repetition.

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  9. CSK says:

    Saturday Night Live had a very good skit about this once. Dan Ackroyd, wearing shorts, work boots, and a hard hat, had to parade up and down in front of a bunch of women (led by Lily Tomlin) yelling crude compliments and sexual invitations at him. He hated the skit. Didn’t want to do it. And he was visibly uncomfortable performing in it.

    And here’s another thing, Tyrell: A bunch of men following a woman represents danger to her. The real possibility of assault. On the other hand, there probably isn’t a man alive who feels endangered by a woman saying, “Nice abs!”

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  10. Slugger says:

    Treat all women as if they were your sister or daughter; treat all men as if they were your brother or son.
    In my life, I have failed to uphold that standard many times, but I am trying.

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  11. stonetools says:

    While I’m naturally inclined to take the liberal side of the issue, I have a real life experience here: I met my wife by striking up a conversation while waiting at the bus. Now when I began the conversation, I was just passing the time with small talk-there were no pickup lines or comments on her physique-though by the end of the conversation I had her phone number.
    Its hard drawing a line on social interactions like this. I would be inclined to draw the line at catcalls and comments on a woman’s physical attributes.
    I don’t think we should criminalize any of this, either. Let’s stick to social opprobrium.

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  12. Rafer Janders says:

    @Mikey:

    It doesn’t even have to be gay men–just imagine walking down the street and being hit on by 100 women you don’t find at all attractive.

    And that if you don’t respond to them, there’s a good chance that some of them will get aggressive and threatening, and turn on a dime from complimenting you to yelling out the vilest insults.

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  13. Modulo Myself says:

    Well, what makes men threatening is not that the act of being interested in a single woman or in finding her singularly attractive–it’s in treating women with contempt. People who yell hey baby on the street, or guys who go into bars looking to get laid, are actually different than someone who has wants to say something to an individual woman.

    I don’t agree that if you have something real to say, you should keep quiet; or that street harassment should be illegal.

    But I do think that the overall impression generated by men is earned. Either they are part of the problem or they think the problem is normal, or derived from actual interest, rather than a desire to dominate women. And if the feminists are right, the desire to dominate women is in fact the desire to get laid. I don’t think it’s that simple, but it’s just as simple as believing that misguided interest and desire compel irritating, threatening, and intrusive behavior against women.

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  14. Trumwill says:

    I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to attempts to legislate this. (In part because law enforcement will track with what the video’s producers chose to include and exclude.)

    But that’s different, I think, than what Walker is talking about, which is basically social norms. If women don’t appreciate compliments from strangers, then guys should… not engage in that behavior.

    Of course, all women are different and some women may like it. I’d advocate erring on the side of caution, but I’m an introvert with a more stringent sense of propriety when it comes to male-female interactions, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    But yeah, such interactions definitely have to account for the behavior of others. I can cut a guy some slack for not realizing how his behavior comes across – whether due to his own actions or the actions of others – which is why it’s important to talk about these things so that guys know. But once they know, it’s somewhere between daft and boorish not to take such things into account.

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  15. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Its hard drawing a line on social interactions like this.

    I don’t think it’s that hard at all. Casual chit-chat with a stranger standing next to you while you’re both engaged in the same activity is a very different thing from a stranger calling out to you out of the blue while you’re doing nothing but walking by them.

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  16. CSK says:

    @stonetools:

    By my standards, the story you just told about meeting your wife is charming. By the standards of my neurotic acquaintance, however, you harassed her.

    I don’t want neurotics setting the agenda.

    P.S. A lifetime of happiness to you and your wife.

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  17. Rafer Janders says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Well, what makes men threatening is not that the act of being interested in a single woman or in finding her singularly attractive–it’s in treating women with contempt.

    Well, what makes men even more threatenening if you’re a woman is that they might rape, beat and kill you.

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  18. Trumwill says:

    @Rafer Janders: Even casual chit-chat is often unwelcome. and the cumulative effect of a lot of guys having “casual chit-chat” can be burdensome. So it is, as Stonetools says, kind of tough at times.

    I remember one woman I know who lives in Boston complaining about men trying to start conversations on the subway. I was raised in a place without much in the way of public transportation, so I didn’t know that was at-all verboten. In fact, I thought that would be one of the contexts in which it would be perfectly acceptable. She disagreed, which is entirely legitimate.

    Where a lot of this gets complicated is that women want attention from who they want attention from when they want it, which is reasonable but not realistic because even well-intentioned men don’t always know. Men, on the other hand, become really overly defensive at the prospect that their attention is not welcome, for a variety of reasons (often related to the uncertainties they’re dealing with), and unrealistically believe that they should be indulged because they cannot possibly be expected to know, without appreciating the costs of such universal indulgence on women.

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  19. Modulo Myself says:

    @CSK:

    Almost any human being who asks a complete stranger about toilet paper or the time has ulterior purposes in mind.

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  20. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    True enough. Frankly, I think the rule “Don’t be an a$$hole” is a pretty good guide here. I meet and talk with lots of women, and seem to manage to avoid accusations of harassment somehow.

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  21. wr says:

    @Tyrell: “A lot of women want the same pay a man gets, but not the heavy lifting and outdoor work that comes with it.”

    Because in 21st century America, the high paying jobs are the ones with heavy lifting and outdoor work.

    “Oh, Mr. Cook? After your press conference announcing the new iPhones, don’t forget to carry those sacks of cement into the yard.”

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  22. There are obviously lots of contextual nuances here

    If you’re an equally good looking guy, it’s okay. If you’re not an equally good looking guy, you’re a sub-human piece of crap and how DARE you presume to say hello to your superiors.

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  23. CSK says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Truly? My word. I had no idea I was so sought after. Here all my life I’ve been laboring under the misapprehension that someone who asks for the location of the Globe Corner Bookstore wants…directions to the Globe Corner Bookstore. I had no idea it was my body they craved.

    That being the case, my deepest apologies to any man I may have harassed by asking for directions to the nearest subway station. Really, guys. I just wanted to…find the subway.

    😀

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  24. stonetools says:

    Sigh, this is all so complex.
    Maybe we should go with the Saudi Arabian standard, where women are completely closeted away from strange males, thus having no unwanted interactions with male strangers at all.

    Or maybe not.

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  25. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Modulo Myself: Correct, that’s why they have store clerks. And even that means you don’t ask a female clerk where the condoms are.

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  26. Modulo Myself says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    This is true, and I’m not trying to diminish physical violence.

    But I think focusing on committed acts downplays the psychic violence that women have to deal with.

    Just think: women are told as a matter of course that a man will say anything to get laid, thus though you think you can trust a man, it is just an act designed to get what he wants. This is basically the textbook definition of a psychopath, and this is what gets tossed out into the ether whenever a woman mistakenly goes home with a guy and wants to fool around but doesn’t want sex. She might even have known him; she might even consider him a friend.

    It’s fundamentally insane, and yet, it’s basically what is considered the baseline for masculine behavior.

    It’s not, though. I like sex and am attracted constantly to woman. I’ve had way more than normal average of sexual partners, and have many quintessentially masculine issues in relationships. But I’ve never once found myself in a situation (not even on the unfortunate occasions in my life where I’ve done coke) where I’ve wanted or desired a woman who did not in return desire me. And I’ve never been so ‘caught up’ in the moment that consent became ‘blurry’.

    Gay culture isn’t perfect, but most straight men would benefit from seeing what mutual pleasure and interest look like, and then compare it to the bleak terrifying picture that emerges from the straight male mind.

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  27. Rafer Janders says:

    @Trumwill:

    Even casual chit-chat is often unwelcome. and the cumulative effect of a lot of guys having “casual chit-chat” can be burdensome. So it is, as Stonetools says, kind of tough at times.

    Well, yes, I was referring to mutual chit-chat. If someone doesn’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to talk.

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  28. Trumwill says:

    @Rafer Janders: The only way to initiate chit-chat, of course, is to risk disturbing the person who wants to be alone. Which is the rub.

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  29. Trumwill says:

    For what it’s worth, I have asked women if they know where X is many times. I’d ask men, but they are usually as clueless as I am.

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  30. James Joyner says:

    @CSK and @Rafer Janders: As I hope I make clear in the OP, “a group of guys making slurping and sucking noises” is obviously harassment. Ditto “a stranger calling out to you out of the blue while you’re doing nothing but walking by them.” But the logical extension of the argument, which Sanchez accepts as reasonable, is that no man should ever initiate conversation with a woman in public. That strikes me as a bridge too far even though I buy the premise on which it’s based.

    @Tyrell: This is frankly ignorant of context. It’s true that women will frequently comment on men’s bodies amongst themselves and even occasionally do so in a way that would be considered catcalling if the situation were reversed. The latter, however, is so comparatively rare is not to be worth discussing whereas it’s a daily fact of life for reasonably attractive women in urban environments.

    @michael reynolds: I’m in a hundred percent agreement with you on all of this, including my own similar evolutionary path. Being a few years younger—and thus starting out later in the evolution of the broader feminist movement—I may not have had as far to travel but the things I said and thought 25 years ago are certainly embarrassing at this point on my journey. But when Sanchez and company are advocating goes beyond mere civility, much less “a context that presupposes women to be objects, property, subordinates, targets or even victims.” And, again, I don’t think it’s crazy talk—it just takes a perfectly reasonable idea beyond practical reasonableness.

    @Slugger: “Treat all women as if they were your sister or daughter” is a good general rule but, unless you’re very different from me, not particularly useful in a romantic context.

    @Trumwill: “The only way to initiate chit-chat, of course, is to risk disturbing the person who wants to be alone. Which is the rub” pithily describes the conundrum I’m trying to work through here. From a strict utilitarian perspective, the rule should be “Never initiate chit-chat with a stranger,” since it’s likely true that a majority of such interactions are going to disturb someone who wants to be left alone. But that strikes me as a lousy world in which to live.

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  31. MBunge says:

    @Modulo Myself: But I’ve never once found myself in a situation (not even on the unfortunate occasions in my life where I’ve done coke) where I’ve wanted or desired a woman who did not in return desire me.

    Bull. George Clooney has asked women out and been turned down.

    In addition, what element does class play in this issue? I mean, this whole discussion doesn’t really seem to be about barmaids, waitresses or other working class women. The street harassment in particular appears to very much be about women from upper middle class background dealing with men of lower social status.

    Mike

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  32. Rafer Janders says:

    @MBunge:

    The street harassment in particular appears to very much be about women from upper middle class background dealing with men of lower social status.

    No, it’s about women from every class background, upper to lower, dealing with men of lower social status. Poor and working class women get harassed just as, if not more than, middle and upper middle class women.

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  33. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    You were perfectly clear. I was merely reinforcing your comment with a personal anecdote of my own.

    But my question remains, and I see no way that it will ever be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction: Who establishes a standard for harassment, and what will constitute harassment? I don’t want such a determination being made by someone who thinks every fleeting encounter with a man constitutes an assault.

    When the spirit moves me, I teach at a university. Admittedly any college campus is a hothouse that’s in no way representative of real life, but some of the rules governing male-female (or same sex) social transactions have grown horrendously Draconian. We have a huge bureaucracy to deal with “perceived sexual harassment,” but no definition of what that is. So it can be anything. And that’s not good.

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  34. Pinky says:

    You figure this stuff out by the time you hit puberty – be a gentleman. I hit puberty a long time ago, and the rules haven’t changed. I wasn’t there at the bus stop with stonetools, but apparently he and his wife both acted appropriately. The guys in the video didn’t. I have trouble imagining that the toilet-paper woman entirely understands etiquette, either. The heckler’s veto and the reductio ad absurdum don’t apply – can’t apply – in social interaction. Society requires some decency.

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  35. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: Concur. The reductio creep move towards requiring a written consent be filed and notarized for each move toward intimacy—every time!—is simply bizarre to me even while I sympathize with the impetus. I think there’s a level of street harassment that crosses the line into criminality; but most of it’s just garden variety rudeness.

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  36. Pinky says:

    As to the video itself, I’ve noticed something about men. We don’t understand how an attractive woman can be unhappy. We’re happy when an attractive woman is around, so we mentally assign magical powers to them. I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s true. Now, clearly some of those guys were harassing her. But some of them were responding to the instinct to “fix the problem” of an attractive woman not smiling. If she had had a more relaxed look on her face, I bet she would have gotten less responses. (The tricky thing is that some of the guys who were instinctively responding to her out of decency were also harassing her. That’s the difference between the objective and subjective. That’s where etiquette is needed.)

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  37. Pinky says:

    @James Joyner:

    a level of street harassment that crosses the line into criminality

    The five-minute walking guy?

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  38. Modulo Myself says:

    @MBunge:

    Sorry, I’ve been turned down, obviously. I’m not remotely George Clooney.

    What I meant was that in certain circumstances, women have learned it’s easier mentally or safer physically to go along with a man, but that for the man, it is about 100% obvious that this is the case. In my personal experience, in my hardcore going-out phase, I met women in bars, went back to their place, and fooled around without having sex. Whenever I hear about the ambiguities of sexual encounters, I think back to my experience, and there was not a single time, no matter how drunk I may have been, that I was not aware of what my partner wanted and did not want.

    The weird part–what does not make sense to me without sex being an issue of control–is the fact that it’s assumed logical that a man would want to have sex with a specific woman who wanted to fool around on a couch but not have sex with him. Generally speaking, someone not wanting to do activity X with you should affect your desire to do activity X with this other. It should take it off the table for both parties. That it does not, or that there’s some sort of gray area involved, means basically that the feminists are correct about men.

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  39. James Joyner says:

    @Pinky: Possibly.Unprovoked vulgarity, also maybe. Groping, certainly.

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  40. CSK says:

    In my book, groping falls under the category of sexual assault. It’s a felony.

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  41. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: Probably so, although there are probably varying degrees of “copping a feel” that fall sort of assault in most jurisdictions. That’s a moving target as well.

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  42. Rick DeMent says:

    this is where the the decline of old-school etiquette and manners is a real travesty. What we use to practice as ” etiquette and manners” in the Emily Post model are often criticized as outdated and nothing more than polite fictions that are arbitrary and in most cases mildly deceitful. And while this may be true, damn it if they weren’t useful.

    The idea is certain interactions that would clearly signal what the intention of the speaker was so that neither party would suffer embarrassment. In this way a man could approach a woman on the street with …

    “How do you do”?

    The woman would then answer “Fine thank you” , flash a smile and be on her way.

    The gentleman would know at this point not to further the conversation. If the Woman wished to open up the dialogue further she would add the phrase “… and how are you today?” That would be the invitation for the man to continue the conversation.

    While this example seems antiquated, and it is, the point is that the rules of engagement really need to be defined and not so much agreed upon, because no one agrees on everything, but it needs to be at least known so any behaviour that goes outside those corners can be identified as at least boorish if not beyond the pale. We as a nation have lost the value and usefulness of etiquette and manners and that is a tragedy.

    If you ever want to see this in action , just watch old episodes of Columbo. The character alway carried himself with excruciating fealty to a brand of etiquette and manners that even in the 70’s and early 80’s were completely out of fashion but used it brilliently to disarm his unsuspecting suspects.

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  43. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think a problem here too is that we live in a society in which men are expected to take the initiative in starting romantic relationships (although that’s changing).
    The problem here is that some women seem to want it both ways-they want the attention from the guys they like to but want no attention from guys they don’t like.
    I think part of living in an open society in which guys are expected to initiate romantic contact, women are going to get unwanted passes and this is something women just have to live with.
    OTOH, if guys want a society in which women are open to romantic passes, then they need to understand that they are going to have to be respectful and pleasant.
    In such a society too , misunderstandings are going to happen quite a bit and people will just have to be adult about it. Maybe both men and women are going to have to be thick skinned about these interactions and not take things so personally.

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  44. Trumwill says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    What we use to practice as ” etiquette and manners” in the Emily Post model are often criticized as outdated and nothing more than polite fictions that are arbitrary and in most cases mildly deceitful. And while this may be true, damn it if they weren’t useful.

    This, 1000 times this. The ambiguities that exist due to the lack of structure do two things: First, they lead a lot of well-intentioned people (particularly of the male sort) who do not have good instincts to cause offense or irritation that they do not mean to. Second, they allow ill-intentioned people (particularly of the male sort) to hide within the ambiguity to avoid getting called out for their poor behavior.

    The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to come up with rules that everyone would agree with. What is genuinely harassment to one woman simply isn’t to another, and it’s hard to set rules that say that one of them – either of them – is to be considered wrong.

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  45. James Joyner says:

    @Rick DeMent: @Trumwill: I think this would solve 99% of real world problems. Of course, the sort of people who are harassing women on the streets were never observing Emily Post rules.

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  46. Trumwill says:

    @James Joyner: No, but it would be easier to call them out on it.

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  47. Just Me says:

    As a woman I think some of the offense is ridiculous (I don’t think being arrested by a man in and of itself is harassment or cat calling).

    I do think some crosses a line and I. Some contexts can make me feel uncomfortable. I think the advice to treat women you don’t know as if she were your mother, daughter or sister is a good way to determine if you are being appropriate.

    Just using good mannERs is a good idea.

    Also, there are cultural differences with regards to talking to strangers in public. Where I grew up in the south you were friendly but respectfully so with strangers as well as friends. Where I live in New England people are more reserved (my kids who are cut rally more New Englander than southerner often tell me I am being too southern). I also think there are varied rules for rural Cs urban settings. In big cities people generally don’t want to be approached by strangers cat call or not.

    My daughter, who lives in Boston now says she must have some kind of “she’s safe to talk to” magnet because she gets approached often by people in the subway looking for directions regarding stops etc. she doesn’t view these questions as harassment and is always glad to help. So maybe she has a little of her southern mom in her.

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  48. Pinky says:

    @Just Me: A quote from the tv show Scrubs:

    Patient: If it’ll make you feel any better, I’m uncomfortable with this whole ‘touchy-feely’ culture anyway.
    Elliot: Thank you!
    Patient: That whole ‘kiss hello’ thing… Ew!
    Elliot: Yeah, I don’t like anyone touching me unless we’re gonna have sex. Even then, I don’t want them to overdo it.
    Patient: So, where in Connecticut are you from?

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  49. Gustopher says:

    As a fairly introverted man who mostly just wants people to leave him alone, I am entirely sympathetic to the “just don’t talk to women on the street” rule of thumb.

    In Seattle, every single supermarket has a homeless person selling the Real Change newspaper, at least one organization trying to get you to donate to save the Pacific Northwest tree octopus or something. I just want to buy some milk without being bothered. It’s like a tiny, tiny sliver of what women have to deal with, except without the threat of sexual assault.

    So a rule of thumb of “just leave women alone on the street” seems reasonable. Let them make the first move. And, as a correlary rule of thumb, you can violate this twice a month — you won’t contribute too much to the general creepiness level and you might have picked up some signs the woman is interested.

    That said, I say hello to literally every cute dog I pass because I am obviously a crazy man who wants a dog. A quick “hi puppy” and sometimes I get a bit of petting time. I also pet stray cats.

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  50. Gustopher says:

    @stonetools:

    The problem here is that some women seem to want it both ways-they want the attention from the guys they like to but want no attention from guys they don’t like.

    I think there are a lot of situations where women in general just don’t want to be hit on at all — on the street and at the office are two biggies. Being able to go through the basic parts of your life, without having to deal with other people’s demands on your attention just seems like a reasonable desire.

    I think part of living in an open society in which guys are expected to initiate romantic contact, women are going to get unwanted passes and this is something women just have to live with.

    “Unwanted” is a very broad term, ranging from the “this particular pass will be rejected” to the “help, help, I can’t get away, we’re trapped in an elevator and this man will not stop talking about my boots.” The pass versus the trespass, if you will.

    I’m thinking that the mythical handkerchief code is the right way to go here. Sure, it was for gay men, and sure it didn’t really exist, but some clear, public indication of “only interested in strangers who know the difference between there, their and they’re; ages 32-37; full head of hair; plays a xylophone; must be a fiscal conservative; can name at least 14 state capitals, but not one of those crazy people who memorized them all; no furries” would be nice.

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  51. Tyrell says:

    @James Joyner: Comparatively rare: well, it is quite common at the local swim club, the beach, bars and clubs, and the gym. Most of the talk is done within a couple or group that are hanging out.

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  52. James Joyner says:

    @Tyrell: But that’s a different thing that loud comments aimed at random women walking by on the street, day in and day out. I don’t expect people to stop admiring the opposite sex (or, the same sex, if that’s how they’re wired) or even to stop commenting amongst their friends. Street harassment is a different thing altogether.

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  53. Trumwill says:

    @Pinky: I’ve only seen a few episodes, but from what I have seen, Elliot is one of my favorite female characters on any sitcom.

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  54. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:

    So I see you’re mocking the noble endangered Northwest tree octopus. Do you know that we share 82% of our DNA with the tree octopus? Do you even care that two of their eight arms are used for holding onto their young which they tenderly nurture except in cases where they eat them? Have you ever witnessed the majestic and leisurely spectacle that is the Great Annual Tree Octopus Migration?

    You probably want to stab a penguin in the eye, too, don’t you? People like you make me sick.

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  55. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s a rare bosom or bottom that has escaped my notice, but common decency (and a sharp-eyed wife) have taught me to glance without causing offense.

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  56. Tyrell says:

    @James Joyner: Well, I do agree with that: the street noises and any sort of lewd or suggestive comments are out of line.
    I remember when I was in high school years ago the pe teacher caught some boys whistling at some girl. He raked them over the coals and assigned them the choice of calling and telling their mothers or staying after school for a week of clean up duty. That was one time when I was thankful that I could not whistle.

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  57. MBunge says:

    @Rafer Janders: Poor and working class women get harassed just as, if not more than, middle and upper middle class women.

    But that’s not what this discussion seems to be about. I’m sure the male behavior is constant but do poor and working class women respond to or are affected by it differently?

    I am not, of course, trying to excuse or diminish harassment but there do seem to be some issues of class here that are being glossed over.

    Mike

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  58. Franklin says:

    @Turgid Jacobian: Random note, but I give up on math when I come across things like your name.

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  59. Grewgills says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    That quote is the best thing to ever come out of Andrew Sullivan’s mouth.

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  60. Grewgills says:

    @MBunge:

    I mean, this whole discussion doesn’t really seem to be about barmaids, waitresses or other working class women. The street harassment in particular appears to very much be about women from upper middle class background dealing with men of lower social status.

    That is rather how the catcalling video came off because of editing, but that is not the conversation. Women of all walks of life deal with this daily and experience it from men of all social strata to varying degrees.

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  61. grumpy realist says:

    Speaking as a woman, let me tell you–catcalling is creepy. So is the “smile!” order. I had a business partner who tried that on me just one too many times, at which point I unleashed the dragon and flamed him for a good ten minutes.

    I don’t think men realize exactly now nerve-wracking it is to walk along a street and have to deal with all the unwanted attention. If we say anything positive, we open the door to the guy thinking he’s been given a green light. If we don’t say anything, we’re liable to get accused of “disrespect”. And if we give back an “eff you!”–well, you can imagine how some of the male louts out there would take that.

    You worry that we’ll laugh at you. We worry that we’ll get killed by you. Keep that in mind when plaintively moaning about “just wanting to be friendly!”

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  62. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: Imagine that the reason she’s looking the way she is because she’s just been told her mother has terminal cancer. She may have a very good reason for her expression.

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