Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

I’ve written before about how it’s actually not very difficult to tell the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. I’d like to get at this issue from a slightly different perspective by talking about the purposeful obfuscation of women’s* desires and boundaries that I often hear as a defense of those accused of sexual harassment.

What am I talking about? Things like this:

  • “Well, you know, you can never know when she’s gonna suddenly cry harassment.”
  • “Oh, women, they call guys ‘creepy’ only if they’re not attracted to them.”
  • “Oh, it’s only ‘harassment’ if they’re not trying to get laid right now, know what I mean?”

Often this is served with a large side of “Wow Women Are So Mysterious I Mean Wow Who Can Even Understand Those Women Their Emotions Just Change So Quickly Wow.”

The implication is that if a guy finds himself accused of sexual harassment or of being creepy, the problem isn’t with the guy’s behavior, it’s that the woman found him unattractive or she isn’t looking for sex or dating right now or she was just having one of those Female Mood-Swingy Things. The responsibility is shifted from the man who’s initiating to the woman who’s interpreting–from the man’s choice of words or actions to the woman’s supposedly unknowable and mysterious moods, desires, and preferences.

I can see how this is a convenient narrative. A guy who hits on a woman inappropriately and makes her upset or angry can just throw up his hands and be like, “Whoa, no idea what just happened there.” Or, worse, he can go post on an MRA forum about how women discriminate against unattractive men by calling them creeps.

Often even terrible ideas have a grain of truth, so here’s the grain of truth in this one. Sometimes people excuse bad behavior in those they really like (or who are skillful enough at manipulation to convince them it’s okay). The halo effect is a thing. That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive. (I’m tempted to call this the Don Draper Effect, but I’ve been watching too much Mad Men lately.) Needless to say, it’s really creepy to hear someone essentially say, “I wish I were more attractive so I could get away with harassing and abusing people more easily.”

To use another example, sometimes men catcall women on the street and those women are flattered. (Before you dismiss this, women have actually told me that they find it flattering. It’s rare, but it happens.) That doesn’t mean that catcalling them is ethically okay. It just means that sometimes unethical behavior gets excused. Oftentimes, really.

More often, though, women appear not to be weirded out by the inappropriate come-ons of a guy they may or may not find attractive, but are too scared to tell him so or just don’t know how to react. (We aren’t raised to react at all, remember, except perhaps a polite smile and a “Thank you,” followed by burning whichever clothes we were wearing at the time because clearly that’s what caused it.) Another guy may witness this as a bystander and think, “Seeshe didn’t get pissed off when he did it!” Right, probably because she’s too intimidated to.

While there’s some degree of uncertainty in all human interactions, even ones that are very obviously inappropriate, that doesn’t mean there’s much mystery. Sometimes women don’t get creeped out by creepy men because they feel very confident in their ability to escape the situation, or because they weren’t raised by parents who inculcated in them a fear of men who act creepy, or any combination of factors. Often they do get creeped out, because it’s uncomfortable to feel like a piece of meat on a serving platter.

Women have been trying to explain to men how this fear and discomfort works for a while now in the form of the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” argument. Many men have resisted this explanation relentlessly because they get stuck in WAIT SO YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY THAT YOU JUST ASSUME I MIGHT BE A RAPIST I AM A GOOD PERSON HOW DARE YOU mode. They miss the part that basically explains this: if you send me the signal that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries, then I’m going to assume that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries.

There is no great mystery to this. If you make sexual comments to women you don’t know or persistently pester a female coworker to go on a date with you, those women are going to assume that you’re treating them like an object to be fucked and not like a human being, and they’re going to have opinions of you and your behavior in accordance with that.

Sometimes people misinterpret innocent behavior as malicious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “irrational” or “wrong” in doing so. Suppose that 90% of the time a man I don’t know has asked me what I’m reading, it has turned into him hitting on me or refusing to leave me alone when I was clearly sending “please leave me alone” signals or calling me names when I politely asked to be left alone so I could return to my reading. One day I’m sitting in Central Park reading a book and a guy comes up and asks me what I’m reading. I shoot him an angry look and ignore him. He walks off, confused and embarrassed. He had simply thought the cover looked like the cover of his favorite book about social psychology and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Maybe we could’ve had a great conversation. Maybe we could’ve made friends. But, unfortunately, his behavior just looked too much like the behavior of the men in 90% of these situations, who ruin a quiet and thoughtful moment by using my reading as an excuse to hit on me in public. And if he thinks about this, and reads this blog post or the Schrodinger’s Rapist one, he’ll realize that it makes complete sense that I reacted the way I did, given what I have to deal with 90% of the time. It was no mystery. It was unfortunate and disappointing, but at the same time, entirely rational**.

(If you think I should cheerfully engage all of these men and tolerate the 90% who are awful in order to “just give a chance” to the 10% who are not, you don’t understand cost-benefit analyses.)

As I noted in my post about women not actually being “mysterious,” acting as though they are mysterious keeps men from really trying to understand them and puts the onus on women to stop being so damn mysterious, not on men to try a little harder to listen and understand.

If you’re a man and you often find women responding with confusion, discomfort, or even disgust when you interact with them, it might be time to ask yourself why this pattern exists***.


*I’m using a male harasser/female victim dynamic here because that’s what the conversations I’m responding to are about. Obviously, anyone of any gender can harass anyone of any gender.

**These discussions always devolve into this, but for the moment, I’m not interested in answering any questions to the tune of “Wait so then how DO I approach a woman I don’t know in public and get her to talk to me?” You don’t. Meet women at places where people gather to meet each other, or through friends, or through online dating.

***I do want to note, however, that there are cases in which intersecting identities influence how someone is perceived. For instance, thanks to ableism, a woman may respond with disgust at (totally appropriate) flirtation from a man with a disability. This, I think, is the sort of dynamic that able-bodied cis white men are appropriating when they go on MRA forums and claim that women react with disgust to anyone who doesn’t significantly resemble George Clooney. In my experience, men who are actually impacted by bigotries like ableism or transphobia tend to know that that’s what’s really going on. They’re not being rejected because they’re men; they’re being rejected because they have stigmatized identities or conditions. We can–in fact, we must–fight the fact that some people are automatically perceived as disgusting because of the prejudice that others have against them.

Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

20 thoughts on “Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

  1. rq

    “Wow Women Are So Mysterious I Mean Wow Who Can Even Understand Those Women Their Emotions Just Change So Quickly Wow.”

    In real doge: much woman, so emotion, wow!

    Thank you for this post.

  2. 2

    OK, the Don Draper Effect. I haven’t seen Mad Men so I’m not sure exactly what that what be. But I’m thinking about other material of the romance genre that is marketed as being by and for women — call it the Harlequin Effect.

    If a guy knew nothing about how to act around women, but read and based his behavior entirely around the behavior of the male characters in these books, wouldn’t he mostly come across as being an insufferable jerk? I’m talking about books and movies primarily by and for women. That’s probably where some of the complaints you’re talking about come from — men feel they’re getting a mixed message between what women say they want and how they model relationships in their own fiction. It’s probably also the basis for where a lot of the narrative that women prefer jerks/bad boys/pirates comes from.

    And I realize that much of the fiction is based around the insufferable jerk of the first half of the novel reforming and becoming decent by the last chapter. The pirate quits the sea and wants to start a family. But still, there’s always that foundation that seems to be causing the initial attraction.

    1. EK

      “If a guy knew nothing about how to act around women, but read and based his behavior entirely around the behavior of the male characters in these books”

      “men feel they’re getting a mixed message between what women say they want and how they model relationships in their own fiction.”

      If the only women’s fiction a man is familiar with are harlequin romances that feature ‘bad boys’ (and even within the romance genre itself, there’s a wider range of male characters than that) then that’s one problem. Your hypothetical man seems to think that a) the only fiction that women write are these specific kinds of romance novels and b) it’s the only fiction women read. Why would your hypothetical male who’s trying to learn about female desires/behavior/etc. read only these novels and not also classic literature, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, thrillers, historical dramas, essays, nonfiction works, and heck, even other kinds of romances written by women (including the huge amounts of slash fanfiction featuring gay men having sex with each other)? Why would he assume that reading only bad boy harlequins gives him the one key to understanding all women?

      But let’s limit our conversation to harlequin romances, for the sake of your confused hypothetical man. Why does he assume that the women who do read these books all take them seriously or think they’re the model for real-life relationships? Even leaving aside those women who think the books are trash, the ones who like to indulge themselves in a ‘bad boy reforming romance’ usually know that this is fantasy, and that these bad boys are best confined safely to the pages of a book. So, does your hypothetical male also understand the difference between a fantasy and a woman’s thoughts about her own life and its reality? A woman might love the thought of a dishy pirate in the pages of a book, but know full well that in real life this pirate would probably hurt her badly. Fantasy vs. reality: a very important difference.

    2. 2.2

      If someone is going to this type of pop culture for advice on how to act in real life, they don’t get much sympathy from me, any more than if they saw a few action films and decided they were accurate representations of war or police work. If you are older than 10, you should know better than that.

  3. 3

    I very rarely feel compelled to comment, but the trope of “you’d like it if he was attractive” always reminds me of a disconcerting moment I had years ago. I was taking public transit, and a startlingly handsome man got on. I noticed him; he was noticeable. I went back to reading after a brief moment of appreciation. He noticed my noticing, though, and then proceeded to sit across from me and behave in a seriously creepy manner. It was the kind of behaviour that’s hard to quantify – it was just off somehow – but I was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t focus on my book and finally just got off a stop early.

    I know there have been other times when the halo effect clouded my judgement, and I excused ickiness because I was attracted to someone, but it’s not automatic.

    (On a side note, I also remember a major creep who was often at Irish parties when I was a teen and he was in his thirties. He hit on all of the teens and younger women inappropriately, but we were reluctant to tell him to get lost because he had cerebral palsy. It took me years to understand that it’s seriously prejudiced to believe that everyone with a disability is perfect and pure. Every group has assholes. Every single one.)

      1. Well ok, but you said that able-bodied white men who complain about being rejected were appropriating an oppressive dynamic. But if those guys were rejected for being unattractive, I don’t think they’re appropriating anything. (I mean, they might be wrong about why they were rejected, but that’s a different issue).

        Which is not to say that women don’t have the right to reject men for being ugly. Obviously they do, just like they have the right to reject men for being in a wheelchair, or for being black. Because of course, though everyone has the right to pursue a relationship, no one has the right to a relationship. I think that’s in the Declaration of Independence somewhere.

        But even though that’s the case on an individual level, I think we can still identify patterns on a larger macro societal level, and talk about it. So I don’t see the issue with men going on forums and talking about being rejected for not being attractive.

        1. queequack, you’re doing that thing again when you turn discussions that are not about men being rejected for being ugly into discussions about men being rejected for being ugly. This is not about that. This is about men believing, inaccurately, that women accuse them of sexual harassment, simply because they’re ugly. This is not about men getting turned down when they ask someone out in a non-creepy manner. If you want to talk about something else, please write your own blog post.

  4. 5

    Now I’m going to throw one at you. Partially because of what you said, I backed way off in an MMPORG and FB (figuring, actually, I could get away with it; I was obviously doing something bad and I could simply terminate the whole thing because I’d been acting incorrectly).

    Now it turns out that I emotionally wounded two women. STOP the instantaneous reaction, you are NOT responsible for my actions in any way (I’d bet you’re less than half my age, for one thing). And emotionally wounded is an understatement–but I had to be told.

    That’s the point. Mind you, I’ve also (I found out) deeply wounded people by abandoning a friendship they’d built up with, essentially, a ‘toon’–a character in an unreal world. Problem is that it’s connected quite intimately with their self-images. I have turned people away in each way you’ve described countless times.

    And as a final, wonderful addition–actually, any relationship I’ve had with a woman has had to be initiated by her in any case.

    Why? Well, your blog has presumably answered the question if you ask that.

    What I am explaining to you is that there are a number of men who don’t try anymore at some point to relate to women AT ALL except professionally (no, I’m not talking about a ‘sex worker’)–at the grocery store, at work, whatever–and leave it, because they don’t go to bars. I’m sure you could never meet me in the vaunted Real World although I have more than enough to travel to New York–calm down, I’m not offering to meet you, you haven’t asked, and my automatically shy reaction would turn you off anyway.

    Schrodinger’s cat? me.

    1. 5.1

      What are you talking about? Why do you keep talking to me as though we know each other? Which “instantaneous reaction” am I supposed to “STOP”? What does my age in relation to yours have to do with anything? Why are you making weird claims about how your “shy reaction” would “turn [me] off”? This is weird. Please stop commenting in this manner. I don’t understand what you’re saying and whether you’re agreeing with me or accusing me of something or what.

      1. Wow, you made your point. My apologies for the intersection; I don’t know you and never could–because of the mannerisms you describe of women who don’t want contact which I generally display.

        Have a good life, you’re a good writer, goodbye.

  5. 6

    It seems that some men are going beyond complaining that they can’t tell why some particular woman has a bad reaction to what they do, but act as if they can’t even be expected to understand the most basic and obvious aspects of social etiquette at times. “You mean it’s not okay to proposition a random stranger for sex? How am I supposed to know if someone doesn’t like being propositioned for sex randomly by some guy at the library if I don’t do it?” (My answer is that for people looking for casual sex, there are actually subcultures built around just that.)

    I can never be sure whether there is genuine confusion or a conscious decision not to get it.

  6. 7

    “That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

    But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive.”

    Yeah, this is probably true, at least in many cases, but maybe not always the case. Being a straight guy, I’m sometimes profoundly uncomfortable when women that I’m not attracted to flirt with me. Not because there’s anything wrong with their flirting, just because I’m not attracted to them.

    So I can easily see how my innocent flirting with a woman who doesn’t find me attractive can be very uncomfortable and creepy to her (to say nothing of the added factors of social male privilege and even physical strength being reasonable concerns for her).

  7. Ben

    I’ve read and enjoyed your blog for a number of years but I do think you often come across as speaking for all women when of course, like all of us, you speak only for yourself. I live in a reasonably backward and bigoted country, cat calling is something I find offensive but it’s part of the culture here and I know when I bring up the fact I don’t like it I’m not speaking for a significant amount of women here who apparently like it for some reason. You mentioned this and said these women’s preferences don’t excuse unethical behaviour. You think it’s unethical, I think it’s unethical but if women want to engage in that then as a man I’m aware I don’t have the right to condemn it, I’m not sure you do either.

    You mentioned on another post your own personal dating preferences and how you prefer to get to know someone online first over more traditional dating. This article I’m commenting on here seems to rely on the assumption that this is the way everyone should operate, to the extent of suggesting men should refrain from talking to women outside of designated meeting places, through friends or online. This is a preference for a type of social interaction which you obviously hold but I’m not sure it’s anyone’s place to be suggesting that everyone should behave towards women the way you want them to behave to you. Women aren’t all the same and (according to the female person sitting next to me) she likes it on the rate occasions someone asks her about what she’s reading, regardless of their gender. Telling men not to do this appears to me like a way of telling society to behave exactly how you want them to behave, which ignores other people’s cultural values.

    1. EK

      Women aren’t all the same and (according to the female person sitting next to me) she likes it on the rate occasions someone asks her about what she’s reading, regardless of their gender.

      I would also prefer getting asked about what I’m reading, rather than, “Hey honey, I’d love to shove my cock down your throat” kinds of comments. And, if I don’t feel like starting a conversation or continuing it, I’d like the other person to respect that; it’s kind of freaky when they persist over and over in talking to you, and touching your arm or hair, even when you tell them, politely but firmly, that you’d like to get back to your book. And some follow you around the train car, or they get off at the same public transit stop and follow you, or they respond to your lack of attention (because of course they think they’re entitled to it) with abuse. (Will you be a crime statistic, you wonder? You call on the arsenal of strategies you’ve developed over the years to deal with these kinds of situations.)

      My point is, this is about so much more than simply striking up a conversation with someone in public; a genuine conversation requires the willing participation of at least two people. This isn’t about that. It’s about insinuating yourself into their time, attention, space, whether they want you to or not. If they squirm, they squirm, what do you care? If they perceive you as a genuine threat, which you very well may be, what do you care?

      I’ve also lived in some backwards, bigoted places. Women’s views of cat-calling do differ. Some prefer it in comparison to the more hands-on harassment (the kind that prompts the designation of separate cars for women on trains). Some women smile at the cat-calling or just ignore it, because to openly express displeasure with the cat-callers could invite escalated harassment or violence; many women are conditioned to just accept it, and play along with whatever cultural script there is, even if they don’t really like it. And heck, some might indeed enjoy it, depending on the kinds of comments made, their tone, and other contextual factors (there are some contexts where whistling and cat-calling may come across as less threatening, and others where they pick at your vulnerability and possibly signal danger).

      People (which includes women) indeed are different. One would hope that, in any interaction with another person, you recognize them as an individual and respect their boundaries. If they seem receptive, you could see where things go and maybe they’ll develop in a mutually favorable way. But if they aren’t receptive – including if they tell you so explicitly or turn away from you to keep doing what they were doing before you interrupted them – you should learn to respect that too.

      If your approach to anyone (man or woman) is genuinely considerate – if you really see them as a person – this will come across even if you make an initial faux pas. If your approach to other people is, “how can I score off of them or use them for my own ends regardless of what they want” then this will also come across. If someone tells you they don’t like something or are radiating discomfort over it, but you keep doing it over and over because it pleases you… examine yourself. Don’t hide behind excuses and start nitpicking abstract definitions.

      This isn’t even specific to dating. I would hope that in any situation, like when you’re trying to make friends in a new city, you wouldn’t go around hounding people when they clearly don’t want your attention. Would you throw your arm around the shoulders of a male stranger and say, “I just know we’ll be friends! Let’s watch the game together!” then follow them home as they try to push you away? (or would you be afraid of them punching you…?)

  8. 9

    “That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

    But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive.”

    Even if the latter was the case… some behaviour is good in certain situations and bad in others. I have no problem with my boyfriend hugging me from behind, but if a random person did that it would be harassment or even assault. Similarly, if a person I find attractive compliments me in public, I will feel different about it than if a (to me) unattractive person compliments me. Now if the person had no way of knowing whether I find him (or her) attractive, it would indeed be kind of mean to call his behaviour harassment if I would enjoy it from someone else. However, the fact that these guys claim “well if I was attractive (to her), she would like it” means that they KNOW they aren’t attractive to the woman they are approaching but go ahead with it anyway. Approaching someone not knowing how they will react isn’t harassment. Approaching someone KNOWING they aren’t interested in your proposal IS harassment.

  9. 10

    I have had to deal with this due to an instance in the workplace where I was basically cornered and dry-humped by a much older unattractive man. I really battled with coming forward due to my own mental battle in realizing that his extremely forward groping could have been more appealing if it were a man I had been attracted to….still extremely forward, but the outcome would have been more like something from a porn flick or something, where it turned out to be a nightmare only due to my attackers physical appearance and I still know this. I did turn him in, and it was agreed upon to sweep it under the rug as it could have caused a transfer to be inflicted on me?
    But more currently an occurance of the same ball park yet differing entirely has affected me due to a phone call proposition by my daughter’s bff’s father( &neighbor). I considered the his wife to be a friend, not incredibly close but we didn’t have alot of neighbors involved so closely as they were, living accrossed the street and having our daughters be inseperable as best friends. I helped them on numerous occassions and many times was understanding of their difficulties and harships at times in areas which other neighbors may have called child services in effect of. Then the dad found out the mom had been unfaithful and he calls me, the single mom on the block, and propositions me to meet him at a hotel in affect for revenge in his wife. There were several things wrong with the situation being she was my friend, they were married, snd mainly EVEN IF HE WERE SINGLE I WOULDNT HAVE TOUCHED HIM WITH A TEN FOOT POLE. In case there is any misunderstanding, he was unattractive to say the least, and I had to try not to laugh because he had apparently seen my kindness over the years as much more than being neighborly. I immediately rejected him and spoke at length about the reasons he should not act rashly and throw in the towel on his marriage. I had credited myself with their nonbreak-up and continued in like normal, until it eventually came from his wife that she always hated me for trying to sleep with her husband?!!! I just wanted to ask why she would think that, is she blind, does she think that being a single mom means you will jump in bed with any man who asks? Yuck. Anyways, at the time I didn’t say anything back because it was their marriage and they weren’t neighbors anymore, but the tides are about to turn in my favor and in the crossfire is my daughters friendship so I messaged the man to let him know that his continued lying could mean our daughters won’t be friends anymore, and pleaded with him to come forward to his wife with the truth to save their friendship. His wife has repeated tormented me, and I knew it was only because she was lied to but my daughter is about to come back home, which would mean this woman would have to insert foot in mouth to maintain a friendship between our daughters, which she won’t do not knowing the truth. All of this explained in the message I sent, he had the nerve to reply ” you just messaged me a bunch of lies, I don’t care about your life and don’t message me anymore”. So not only did I reject HIM, but he wants to convince even ME that it was the other way around? He had to have sustained as head injury, but his wife believes this still too? She has no pictures of him on her FB, as if they aren’t even married she hates him that much and still won’t listen to reason. It is because she always hated me because she was jealous of me. She wanted a concrete reason, she got it and erased years of me going above and beyond as a neighbor with one huge lie told by a disgusting man SHE doesn’t even want. But of course told my kids and other people stating it like it were fact. Nothing I can do. At least I am not ugly and making up stories about people hitting on me to cover for never getting hit on in actuality.

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