“The Male Stare”


“The Male Stare”

The other day, a young woman walked for ten hours through the streets of New York while her associate, walking in front, managed somehow to film her pilgrimage. What did she find? About 100 instances of street harassment.

“Hey baby?”

“Like to give me your number?”

“How’s it goin’?”

There were even a few guys (looking kind of unemployed) walking beside her, too close for comfort, for five or more minutes. Nobody in suits that I saw doing that, however.

I lived in New York City, as a woman alone, for most of my life and consider it the safest city I know in the world in which to be a woman alone. Let me run through a few of the other world-renowned cities for comparisons.

The Paris of my youth:

“Are you alone, mademoiselle?” Followed by a continuous, drawn-out and insistent discourse about the mistakes of solitude and the qualifications of the present candidate for helping me to overcome my condition.

The Paris of a more recent visit:

One was no longer accompanied by the companion-who-could-not-be-discouraged, but still beset by the klieg lights of cosmetic and erotic appraisal – blazing in every eye – male and female. No neutral space. Long ago Simone de Beauvoir wrote that she knew young girls who have no pleasure walking in Paris because they are always accosted. Accosted then by a walking talker-in-one’s- ear, more recently by the most pitiless scrutiny of one’s surfaces.

London? What I remember was a thing worse yet: one was simply – as a female being – an embarrassment. The less said, the less seen, the less sensed, the better. As a woman, one could not possibly be too insignificant!

Rome? See the photo on the Home page for the Italy I remember. Possibly things have improved.

Sydney? Tie me kangaroo down. They do look you up and down, and the sheer maleness has its gratifying aspects but – from what I’ve heard privately – Crocodile Dundee won’t treat you very well. His maleness has never had to give ground to women’s hopes for fair play. So, like the outback, it’s unspoiled, but don’t venture into it all by yourself.

In New York, on the other hand – New York! One is truly free!

What does that mean, in terms of our young woman’s harassment report? Well, please don’t hate me but … that outfit! It is NOT, repeat NOT, erotically neutral. All black? Like the cat woman? Form-fitting black jeans? May we see the side view? The back?

Am I talking out of turn? Puh-leese. Before we leave the house in the morning, and several times a day thereafter, we check all that carefully. Who are we trying to turn on? The mirror?

Does the walk send any messages? Yes, yes it does, ladies and gents. She’s athletic, healthy, could be taking her morning constitutional – but we don’t see where’s she’s headed, nor can we tell why. If she’s without a definite aim, the chances improve that she could be available. (Let’s bracket for the nonce another possibility, certainly not to be discounted in the big city: people pick up on your intentions and they know when and why they’re being tested.)

Some respondents thought the harassment factor loomed larger simply because the girl herself was not that pretty. Ladies, gents, she’s pretty enough. With a fashion model, or someone who’s drop dead gorgeous – there’s distance.

With a girl who could be in your exercise class – well, there isn’t. She looks normal, like a peer – not scary, approachable, a nice girl.

I could go on. And in fact, over coffee among women friends, I can envisage an analysis considerably more detailed, objective and novelistic.

What moral do I draw? When we walk or sit or stand or talk, we are sending messages to those we know. If we do any of that in a big city, where people-watching is a way of life, we are sending messages to strangers.

What message would I want to send? One something like this:

I hope you find me reasonably attractive. Not irresistible. That would be too intrusive on my freedom. Not repugnant or ineffectual. Frankly that would be a let-down, for a being who circulates within this World of Desire. I expect men to be gentlemanly. That is not a class thing. Even gangsters can be gentlemanly – even gangboys.   But also to enjoy being men when they’re around me. Not to feel cowed in advance because – though I look smashing (let’s pretend) – I also look ready to pull moral rank on them when they react. On the other hand, since men are men (and some can be dangerous), I want to look definite, self-directed and going forward.

I don’t expect to reshape the world of consciousness to fit my convenience. I hope to move in it intelligently.

Are we so out of practice

with the original dynamics of male/female desire that we are

shocked shocked

by any of its predictable manifestations?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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