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Men Don't Understand Women

06/11/2014 10:38 GMT | Updated 04/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Let me rephrase. Men don't understand what it's like to be women. Much in the same way that I can never understand what it's like to be a black man in America, I also can't understand what it's like to be a woman. But I think it's time we tried harder to understand how the way women experience the world means men need to make some changes.

This is not some trite "women are complicated" blah blah homily, or the frightening assertion that women are somehow beyond the ken of mankind (i.e. let's just treat women like cats) and so not worthy of our consideration. No, this is a simple statement of fact. Men don't "get" the daily experience of women. That includes being harassed, catcalled and followed.

I have no capacity to empathize with the daily act of experiencing the world through the eyes of half of the world's population. I can definitely sympathize, and try and listen when women tell me about the abhorrent discrimination, harassment and condescension they face. But I have no frame of reference. I've never had some creepy guy twice my size follow me home at night, I don't get subjected to verbal or physical harassment on my way to work, and I can walk out of the house looking like I haven't showered in ten days with a baseball cap on to go grab milk without feeling like I'm being judged.

I cannot empathize with you about your overall experience, because it is much more than the daily sum of its parts or the crushing low-lights which women think are bad enough to share with their male friends or significant others. But we can do a far better job of listening and internalizing how pervasive and invasive harassment is.

So what is harassment? In an excellent case of being unable to see the trees for all the damn forest, some of the response to Hollaback's video has slid into arguments over what constitutes harassment, and mansplaining that focuses on how complimentary it is to be told you're beautiful. A lot. By complete strangers.

Watch the video again. And here's where you're gonna have to dig into your man-well of sympathy. Imagine that this is your life, every time you leave your house. Whether you want to or not, people are getting in your space (which is bad enough) giving you unwanted feedback on your looks, dress, demeanor - you name it. If you can honestly watch this video, and say you would be absolutely fine for your female friends, sister, girlfriend, wife or mother to be on the receiving end of that level of harassment every day then you should probably stop reading about now. This is not simply some "oh maybe she walked through the wrong neighborhood" situation, and if you don't believe this is how the world is every day for most women, just ask some of your female friends.

There's no real way for us to internalize how that feels on a daily basis, but we can think about why it's not ok for that to be the case, and think about that it means for us and how our interactions with women might make them feel.

I've had an interior struggle with how to interact with other runners while out running for a couple of years now. My natural inclination is to smile/nod at pretty much everybody I see on the trail - unless they either look like they may be close to blowing out their aorta on a final hill climb or about trying to chew a hole in their own face, but then I read this article. That kind of changed things for me.

Running is definitely a time of solitude and escape for me, and so I suddenly thought "huh, what if every woman I've ever smiled at on the trail thinks I've been hitting on her/invading her personal space" instead of my intended (using this internal monologue voice) "OH WOW! WE'RE RUNNING! ISN'T RUNNING GREAT! WE'RE OUTSIDE! NOT AT A DESK! RUNNING! WOOHOO!". So I stopped acknowledging female runners. Why just women? I don't know. Somehow I figured if a man had a problem with me giving him a head nod he probably had bigger problems that I wasn't really contributing to. So with the running thing I'm going to air on the side of caution, because I'm out there to have my own time and space, and everybody - man, woman or Will Ferrell - deserves that without it even entering their head that they're being objectified for wanting that.

But what about walking down the street? So I asked some of my male and female friends (my stats professor would want me to note that this was neither a large nor representative sample) what they thought about smiling/talking to/approaching women as strangers.

The main things that shocked me were as follows. Women all pretty much responded about the Hollaback video by saying "yup, that looks about right." So all the female friends I asked have experienced this - regardless of nationality, age or what city they live in. That should make most men feel pretty bad about our Y-chromosome brotherhood. Then I asked was there any way for a man to approach a woman on the street that wasn't creepy/intimidating/inappropriate. One friend came back with a great question - why are you trying to interact with her? She pointed out that if it's to sexually objectify the woman in question that's probably not a good idea. She also asked if men would do the same thing to a guy. These are all things to throw in the mental filter the next time you are walking down the street and see a female stranger and consider any form of interaction.

Men on the other hand were a bit less sure on the entire topic. First off, most didn't flat out reject the premise that men can just go up to/smile at or say hi to women on the street. That sounds like not that big a deal, but in reality it is. It kind of betrays that before anything even happens, men and women are starting from very different places in terms of how they view the interaction. It's extremely simplistic, but if a random girl came up to me on the street and asked me on a date completely cold, or kept asking me for my number even though I was walking along just trying to get somewhere, it would both be really strange and also kind of annoying. And that's if it only happened once. Why should I as a man think that because I think you're attractive, or dressed nicely, that I can insert myself into your day? Also, how many actual honest to goodness relationships started with a smile at a complete stranger on the street or a "damn baby you fine!"?

One male friend put it well, in terms of saying that the crux of male/female stranger interaction depends on whether or not it's interfering with what she's doing. And if that's walking down the street minding her own business, it's kind of impossible not to impinge on that. All my female friends said that if you're in some sort of situation where you can strike up a conversation (grocery store line, waiting for a bus, prune eating competition) then you have the green light for a shot at a meaningful interaction. In that case, approach away and see what happens. When people are trying to get from point A to point B in a sea of humanity, that seems pretty improbable.

This brings me back to the default position that men occupy in the world, or as Grayson Perry puts it, as Default Man. We as men sail through life in the pretty unenviable position of just existing, with some inherent divine right to say, do and be whatever we want. What this means is that ultimately we end up comparing everyone else against that point of "zero longitude", to borrow Perry's phrasing. We create these comparisons actively and passively.

I play a lot of co-rec sports, and any time a female player is complimented or praised there is always a subtext of "for a girl" - i.e. she's a really great player, when compared to every man who every fell out of bed and onto the field. I've played with many women who are far superior to their male counterparts, but it feels like we are kind of already losing the battle when our jumping off point starts with that frame of comparison.

As an ardent West Wing fan I've been thinking a lot about the "we were talking about these women" Bartlet moment from The Big Block of Cheese Day episode in season one. For a long time I had thought it was a great scene. Naively I think I had thought "wow, these women are awesome, look at all the great stuff they do and say" and that's definitely true of the women in the show. However, now I can't help thinking about some of the more overt comparisons in that scene, and how inherent in that is a condescension, and a belittling of seeing the individual, not the person framed by their sex. That's not a comfortable thought. It's the equivalent of petting a woman on the head for being good at her job. Man is the default, and so when I tell a man he's done a good job, it stands alone. Giving women recognition ends up tied up in a mess of value judgements and comparisons - overt or otherwise.

I feel like as men we are often pretty unaware of these defaults, which is maybe why some people don't "get" that the Hollaback video is simply a broader indication of the way it seems society places different value on the way men interact with other men and with women. It also hits home how lucky we are to be operating without constraint - by and large I can travel where I want, alone, without fear of harassment or assault, simply because I was born a man.

I asked my female friends whether they would want men to intervene/say anything if I saw a stranger being catcalled. Most said no, and that they were used to handling it, and that intervening is only merited if it's increasingly persistent or escalating towards physicality. Women don't need us to act as some street crusaders riding in on white horses, they need us to break the frame of judgement and comparison and stop legitimizing ourselves as the default in all those daily, micro interactions.

There is no real quick fix for this as men. Punching a dumbass catcaller in the face is not going to get the job done. Our lift is a much heavier one than that. Somehow we are going to have to figure out two hard things. One is how can it be that a lot of smart, progressive men are only realizing now what it's really like to be a woman and deal with harassment every day. The second is how we change the way society frames the privileges afforded and denied to men and women, and continue to push for equality in the realms we never see - the realms we don't understand, because we aren't women.