This is obviously not my first post about objectification, consent to be gazed upon, or the concept of respect regarding sexual gazing. These are pet subjects for me, but I don’t want to re-cover ground I’ve already trod upon. However, I had a recent experience that made me question when and how one can and should give consent to being physically objectified, and the responsibility of the gazer in such situations.
Right, so that was incredibly vague. Here’s what happened:
A few weeks ago I went to a private BDSM play party, wherein I was generally comfortable and among friends, but the party was sufficiently well-attended I certainly didn’t know everyone. I was naked save for a piece of body jewelry, and received a lot of friendly comments toward my recently finished tattoo. At one point in the evening, a couple of men were standing behind me, one commenting on my tattoo, the other commenting on my body, making jokes to the effect of “oh, she has a tattoo? I didn’t notice.” They couldn’t have been more than a foot away, and I heard every word they said.
I was extremely uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable not because they were enjoying looking at my body, but because by commenting on it while so close to me, they either completely forgot that I was a person who was capable of hearing them, or they didn’t care. This I did not appreciate. I confess to being shy, and therefore generally unhappy with being spoken to by strangers, but at that close range I would much rather be spoken to than spoken about. I felt that my personhood was somehow being taken from me by being so freely commented upon without any nod to my living presence near them.
So, the next question in my mind was, what would have been the right way for that scenario to unfold? I suppose ideally, these men would have introduced themselves, and then shared their opinions with me, rather than simply near me. Second best would be to keep their comments to themselves until I was out of earshot, because while it’s generally considered rude to talk about other people, at least by avoiding being overheard they would be acknowledging that I am a person who can hear.
The other – much more complicated – question is, where on the spectrum does some kind of spoken communication need to happen to constitute consent? I’ve said before that I believe to make something visible is consent for it to be seen. To be looked at does not require explicit consent. Obviously, any thoughts that go along with looking also don’t. I can fantasize about whomever I want, whenever I want. Look at any part of me that you can see without touching – that’s fair game. Think your free personal thoughts about what you see, as innocuous or lewd as they may be.
But what comes next? To give consent of any kind involves some kind of spoken interaction, so it seems like speaking to someone should be a free action (to steal a term from RPG’s). On the other hand, street harassment often takes the form of words and is certainly not okay. I absolutely love this comic I found on the subject:
I’m constantly thinking about where lines are drawn, and the distinction here between what is a compliment and what is harassment gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s (mostly) not the words that make the difference. If a person at the aforementioned party approached me, made eye contact, and said “I think you have an incredibly hot ass,” I would not be threatened. I might be a little awkward, but I’d be flattered. It might even “make my day.” But when someone calls those words out to me on the street, it makes me very nervous.
The easy answer is that the line is about motivation, but since we can’t know someone else’s motives, it’s not a workable solution. I don’t know if the person talking to me wants to pick me up, assault me, or just offer me a compliment in passing. I can’t know, in either circumstance.
I really wanted a big “ta-da!” to close this out, but I’m honestly stymied. I can tell you with certainty that verbally expressing sexual desire toward a woman is not inherently harassment, but I can’t tell you exactly what is. Especially because there’s also a realm in between acceptable and unacceptable, and that is “rude.” What the men at the party did to me was rude. It was not harassment, but it wasn’t ok either. It was rude, which is somewhere between the two.
While I may not have a pretty bow to wrap this up in, I will say this line of thinking is making me realize how difficult it can be for men to honestly express their sexual desires toward women. If I was a good person who was often in fear of being labeled a predator, I’d err dramatically on the side of caution, and would thereby probably not have any sex ever. The lines are blurry, and as a woman I’m generally viewed as less threatening and therefore less likely to accidentally find myself on the wrong side of the line. As a woman, that line is interesting to contemplate. If I were a man, it would terrify me.