Not an Odalisque

How Not to Deal With Harassers II

with 6 comments

Last New Year, as I stood in a crowd watching the fireworks and feeling a stranger’s hand squeeze my bum, I made a resolution. I was going to stand up to gropers, harassers, wannabe-rapists and people who refused to read my subtle signals. I wasn’t going to put up with it any more, because putting up with it only encourages them. If I was to become a shrill harpy of a feminist in the process, so be it. I didn’t have a specific plan, just a vague anger towards the people who think my body isn’t exclusively my own.

I should have made a plan. As it turns out, not suppressing my first reaction usually leaves me feeling guilty as well as grubby and violated. A couple of months ago, when a man passing on the street leant close to my ear and said, “nice tits,” I didn’t reasonably respond with, “I object to your sexually harassing me,” but choked out, “fuck off!” at an inappropriate volume. When a man touched me last week, I said if he did it again I’d kick him in the balls. While he didn’t seem too phased, I’m ashamed of myself for threatening violence. If violence is ever the solution to anything, surely it should be the last resort.

None of my readers have admonished me. If anything, those who responded implicitly supported my reaction. The notion that violence is acceptable in these circumstances seems to be widespread, look at the comments on this post, for example. I can see why. There’s a fire in it. The same fire I felt when I first read this:

Lots of women (men didn’t dare comment on the subject) stood up to publically declare: “How revolting, we absolutely must not consider that violence is an answer to rape.” Why not? You never see news items about girls—alone or in gangs—biting the dicks of men who attack them, or trailing their attackers to kill them or beat them lifeless. This only happens, for the moment, in films directed by men. […] You see how men, if they were women, would react to rape. A bloodbath of merciless violence. Their message is clear: why don’t you defend yourselves more fiercely? […]

But women still feel the need to say that violence is not the answer. And yet, if men were to fear having their dicks slashed to pieces with a carpet knife should they try to force a woman, they would soon become much better at controlling their “masculine” urges, and understanding that “no” means “no”. I wish I’d been able to escape the values instilled in my gender that night [when I was raped], and slit each of their throats, one by one.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory, trans. Stephanie Benson (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009), pp.36-37.

There’s something very seductive in that. I could write all of my pain on the bodies of men who invaded mine, those who raped me, groped me, squeezed me, prodded me with their erect penises or otherwise made me feel violated and afraid.* In so doing I would send a message to all of the others. Maybe if I’d punched that man on Portland Street, he wouldn’t rub his dick against any more women.

On the other hand, maybe he’d have punched me back, harder, and left me bleeding on the ground. I didn’t reform one rapist even after breaking two of his toes. When I hit a colleague, reacting to a girl shouting, “get this man away from me,” my boss told me I’d done the right thing, then went off to advise the man against carrying out his threat of breaking my arm in retaliation. I’d done a great job at de-escalation as you can see!
I think there are two reasons why, on some level, accept a violent reaction in these situations. One is that it proves you meant “no.” I would be very hesitant to turn up at a police station to tell them about rape or sexual abuse without a scratch on me. I don’t think I would be believed. I’d be even more reluctant to fight back hard, though, because I’d rather be raped and alive than unraped and dead or seriously injured. I guess I’m weird that way.

The other reason is that women are seen as weak. Lashing out at men, they can look like the poor, victimised underdogs going after the baddie and grinding him into the dust. It’s an empowering image. The might of the powerful being used against the weak is not. The flaw in this view (apart from its obvious inaccuracies) is that the violent reaction is only acceptable because we’ll lose. Its premise is our weakness, our vulnerability. I’m allowed to hit him, because it won’t really hurt, he’s tough. If we all started punching men who touched us uninvited tomorrow, I suspect the result would be the same horrible power dynamics and black eyes all round. If it wasn’t, soon campaigners would be calling for an end to the reign of terror, and suggesting solutions for the oppressed underdogs: the men.

I got it wrong last week. Threatening to kick a man in the balls felt like standing up to him, but I was positioning myself to lose. I’ve replayed it in my mind many times since, and I still don’t have the answer. It’s nearly a year since I first resolved to do it, and I still don’t know how to confront the gropers. Do you? Will you tell me how?

*Apart from the ones who made me feel violated and afraid in a good way: Sade, Nietzsche and a few others. You know who you are. You all deserve cuddles and cake.


Written by Not an Odalisque

December 1, 2010 at 10:33 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I havent read King Kong Theory but I have seen baise-moi so I know the director/author is interested in ‘revenge’. I don’t really go for it myself, even if she was being allegorical in the film, at least.

    I have a problem with you calling men ‘wanna-be-rapists’. I don’t link ‘casual’ sexual/physical/verbal harassment with gender violence.

    Most rapes take place in long term relationships, families and institutions, and specific contexts such as wars.

    All this talk by feminists about street harassment and violence against women and rape does nothing to help us understand and change gender relations.

    I am not saying harassment doesnt happen and isnt distressing. I experience it myself. But I dont put it in this ‘big bad wolf’ context that you seem to.

    And I don’t feel scared when I go out. I feel more scared when I ‘fall in love’ as that is where I have experienced the most violence in my life.

    And who warns us against that?

    Quiet Riot Girl

    December 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    • It’s worth reading King Kong Theory. I think you might like her take on refusing to be a victim. I haven’t seen the film of Baise Moi (although I love the book), I’m too squeamish.

      Some men are wannabe-rapists. I hesitated before putting them on a continuum in this post, for the reasons you described. I decided to do it because the post was about my feelings and responses, rather than criminology. I feel helpless and violated by both harassment, if I’m touched, and rape, and so it feels like a matter of degree. The fact that my experience of these things is similar does not make any statement about their causes or possible links, all it effects is my reaction to the people who do them. You’re right that we should be warned about violence and sexual violence in families and relationships and that it is too often overlooked. I wish someone had said more to me, earlier.



      December 2, 2010 at 10:50 pm

  2. but the words you use to describe your experience DOES make a statement about causes and links of violence…

    Quiet Riot Girl

    December 3, 2010 at 11:46 am

  3. … that souned too pointed. I cant do italics on wordpress! But I hope you know what I mean. It is my big bugbear with all women’s vaw and harassment campaigns.

    Quiet Riot Girl

    December 3, 2010 at 3:37 pm

  4. personally i think the groping is a step beyond any sexual comments [which some women right or wrong take as compliments]

    hmmm well in the crowd scene if it happened again perhaps a better response is not as you say violence but a verbal attack instead eg saying VERY LOUDLY something such as ‘Leave me alone you sad pervert. And dont talk to any other women you dont know about their breasts in future. Behave.’ then turn away. Cutting humiliating words are a better defence than threats of violence which wont put all men off.

    yes drunken men can be leery and make drunken inappropriate sexual comments. but actions like groping are worse. and men are not the only ones to comment on looks. what it amounts to tho is the insecurity of men who arent confident enough to attract a woman as part of an adult relationship, who like porn and masturbation a bit too much, and are just a little bit [or a lot] desperate and lonely. They are sad losers to be pitied and the best way to repel them is to go straight for their emotional weakness, and to make them realise you are out of their league.

    of course the only real cure for them is old age/death, castration, or some woman meeting and liking them in their everyday life despite their leery tendencies when drunk, and only the first of these 3 is certain.

    by….a sad older loser who never groped anyone..i am too much a gentleman…but who knows what being verbally abused and emasculated and physically attacked by an ex-gf feels like 🙂


    December 6, 2010 at 7:05 am

    • There’s nothing that will put all men off. Also, when someone’s walking past, or you’re in a crowd and can’t identify the person who touched you, long speeches aren’t going to work.

      I never claimed that men are the only ones to comment on looks. I don’t know why every comment I make online referring to some men (not all men) has to be qualified with, “and women do it too.” I’m writing from experience, and I’ve never been groped by a woman. Men are free to write their harrowing harassment tales if they wish.

      I completely disagree that the origin of harassment is in the inability to get a girlfriend or the use of porn. I know plenty of single men with extensive porn collections and a subtle understanding of boundaries and respect (well, at least one. I don’t often ask men about the size of their porn collections, so it’s hard to judge). Almost every man who has harassed me has seemed to take pleasure in my negative reaction, in knowing that he’s got to me. I’m quite confident in stating that this is not a side-effect of masturbation. It’s almost strange that no one’s done a study.


      Not an Odalisque

      December 11, 2010 at 10:33 pm

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