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When Does A Compliment Become Sexual Harassment?

19/10/2016 16:54
Sébastien THOMAS - STH Photography

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you are a young woman in 2016 you are unlikely to have crossed the road, queued for a club, tried to buy a drink or sat on public transport without at some point having a stranger compliment you on your smile, breasts or legs. Who are these men who are reduced to giving unwanted physical appraisals to strangers, presumably to get a date, who affect surprise when you tell them that you'd like to be left alone on the night bus, hurt when you ignore them, or even anger if you tell them not to accost you with judgements on your body?

Presumably the desired reply to "Nice tits" would be something along the lines of "Why thank you, I grew them myself. Here's my phone number. I need to hear more," but generally speaking the appropriate, truthful response to a critique of one's breasts by a stranger is "You have food in your teeth." They say all the good ones are taken. Not necessarily, but you'll rarely find them openly leering at cleavage at a bus-stop around midnight.

The most irritating assumption of the wolf-whistler is that he is doing nothing wrong by vocally admiring our physical form. Aside from the fact that no one needs a compliment from a total stranger, it can be daunting to find yourself thrust into a public conversation about your body. Sometimes we can't face a confrontation and take the easy route out, bowing our heads and making quick exits, only to later regret not standing up for ourselves. Other times we reject their advances, and then spend hours trying to calm ourselves, shaken at having been loudly called a miserable ungrateful [insert unprintable word here] in public by an outraged ogling stranger.

And that's excluding a more downright threatening context. If you've ever been minding your own business on a bus late at night, tired and desperate to get home, only to have a stranger's alcohol-laced breath flood your face with an assertion that something about your body has impressed them, you'll know what I mean. You may avoid their eyes, anxious not to encourage them in any way, pray that your bus stop isn't theirs, and start mentally calculating the steps from there to your front door. You might begin to wonder whether or not the drunken swaying and mad eyes mean they might be the one dangerous lunatic out of so many harmless idiots out there. And when you close the front door safely behind you, you'll feel simultaneously stupid for letting your imagination run riot and angry that such fears invaded your peaceful thoughts on the safe journey home that you have a right to expect.

Luckily it's rarely that serious. Generally speaking it's an idiot trying to make contact. A bit like the way a dog sniffs another dog's bum. Except we're human beings. We don't mess in the street and we're capable of respecting each other's personal space and not accosting strangers with our appreciation of their physical attributes. It's base, it's lazy and it's irritating. It's obviously also not a behaviour that is exclusive to men, and on the rare occasions I have seen women shout something 'complimentary' at a man in the street, the guys in question tend to grimace, blush or simply get the hell away. Very few people enjoy being judged on their physical appearance, let alone by a stranger in public.

The unspoken assumption in such an open broadcast is that your body is up for judgement, up for discrimination, up for grabs. This is exacerbated when directed towards females if we consider that women have spent years trying to regain control of our bodies, whether this loss of ownership has been perpetrated by the media telling us we're not attractive enough, sexism telling us we're only the sum of our physical parts, or even sexual assault. It is crucial that women feel confident that their bodies are their own and not available to unsought approval or ideas of ownership from strangers.

Which of course brings us to Donald Trump, a man so beyond parody I am not completely convinced his entire presidential run isn't just some bizarre piece of ill-judged performance art. His grotesque advice to "Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything," is vilely proprietary, and incredibly worrying to hear from someone who may well soon become the most powerful man in the world. Here we have a man who assumes ownership of any woman's body. It is there to be enjoyed, and he won't even ask for permission, openly bragging "I just start kissing them." It was almost made worse by his lame attempt at an apology at the following debate where he dismissed his words as "locker room talk." Once again we hear the pathetic defence that boys will be boys, it's natural for them to banter and ogle, and it's up to women to defend themselves because such pestering is an inevitability. We have heard this before, and it is not good enough. At no point is sexual harassment acceptable.

And make no mistake, accosting lone women on the street with critiques of their body and pestering them to interact with you is sexual harassment. It is not up to the woman to be equipped with a toolbox of come-backs and exit strategies before she goes to sit on a late night train or buy a drink at a bar. It shouldn't be happening. We should be safe in our personal space even when in public.

And to all those apparently bemused and supposedly well-meaning guys out there trying to give a woman a 'compliment': You're talking to a stranger. Think twice, step back and leave us alone.

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