‘Why can’t you just deal with it?’ ‘It’s a compliment!’

Two women talking on a subway platform, seen from across the station.

Women discussing experiences of harassment in public spaces often encounter the rather surprising response that they should just deal with it — surely, it’s not actually that traumatic an experience, and instead of complaining, they should just recalibrate their expectations for public environments. Better yet is the not infrequent claim that ‘it’s a compliment!’ so they should be, er, flattered by the fact that people are yelling crude things at them in the streets, or groping them in the subway, or attempting to take photographs of them while they’re going about their daily business.

What generates these attitudes, and why are they so pervasive?

The ‘it’s a compliment’ response is one that’s almost easier to respond to — men and others seem genuinely puzzled by the thought that having something yelled at you (or even said to you) about your body, your appearance, your sexual preference, or other personal matters might be perceived unflatteringly. Or might actually be perceived as a threat, which is how many women react when they encounter street harassment.

Is it a compliment when a complete stranger says ‘hey, nice shoes!’? Yes, it is — I occasionally compliment fine shoes myself. Is it a compliment when a stranger says ‘nice ass!’? Well…not so much. Because one comment is about an accessory, an item someone deliberately chose as part of her presentation, something she can take on and off. She may have chosen to wear those shoes just for herself, with no one else in mind, but she might still appreciate hearing that someone thinks they’re excellent shoes.

But her ass, well, that’s a different story. That’s not something that she can take on and take off. Now, she may have worked quite hard on her butt, and she could be stoked that someone thinks it looks good, but that’s an individual thing, not something generic to all women. The tone and delivery of a compliment about her butt might make a big impression in her perception of it. The fact of the matter is that a comment like ‘nice ass’ feels crude and unpleasant and threatening, because extended from ‘nice ass’ is something slimy and threatening and gross, something sinister.

Something claiming that ass as public property. It’s hard to articulate how this feels to someone who doesn’t get it on a visceral level — someone who hasn’t, say, walked down a dark alley in San Francisco on a quick shortcut, only to hear a low, rough voice saying something about your breasts, or your body, or your ass, or some other part of you. That voice isn’t complimentary. It’s asserting ownership, reminding you that you are vulnerable, reminding you that as someone with a body like yours, you are considered to be an object belonging to the public commons.

This is threatening. It is not a compliment. It is threatening to get the sensation that your body is something people feel free to comment upon, because people don’t stop with comments. It’s easy to get the impression that the same sinister voice is implying something else — that it would just as soon do something more than compliment you, regardless as to your own feelings on the subject.

It’s hard to explain to many male friends how unpleasant it feels to have people making comments about your body in public settings, and how it doesn’t feel like being complimented at all. It just feels like yet another reminder that I am considered subhuman by the society I live in.

So why can’t women just deal with it? Why can’t women just turn the other cheek? Why can’t women ignore being catcalled if they don’t like it?

Because the world doesn’t work like that. When you’re feeling threatened, you react. And when you’re a part of society and you don’t feel comfortable in that society, you react. Women speak out about harassment and fight harassment because it’s not okay, and because people have a right and an obligation to fight against unacceptable social behaviours. Women don’t want to ‘just deal with it’ or tolerate behaviours that harm them, nor should they have to — and the people who say that they should, no matter how well-meaning and helpful they think they are being, are actually being incredibly harmful.

This is what puzzles me. I get such attitudes from misogynists and people who haven’t thought about women’s issues very thoroughly, especially if they haven’t been clued in on the idea that harassment is threatening and it feels scary and dangerous and dehumanising. If you don’t view it from that perspective and/or hate women, of course you’d say that women should just deal with it, because you don’t see why it should be a priority or a cause for concern.

However, I hear comments like these from progressives and people who claim to be concerned about these issues, too. I don’t understand how people can make the logical and social leap from thinking they support women to telling women that they should ‘just deal with’ and ‘ignore’ harassment, let alone that they should view harassment as a compliment, because there is absolutely nothing complimentary, empowering, or pleasant about situations where people are commenting on your body and your appearance like you’re a piece of meat being displayed across the counter.

Women don’t come in quarter pound increments. They aren’t here so you can carve off a thigh or make a nice rump roast. They aren’t here for your entertainment, amusement, or pleasure. They’re here to be themselves, doing their own thing, and they deserve to move through public spaces unmolested and free of harassment. Why it’s so difficult for people to grasp this, I will never know.