I don’t hold eye contact, I don’t look for more than a second and I don’t let my gaze linger. I do all these things out of respect for one simple fact.
I live in New York City where, when I walk down the street, I see literally thousands of women a month walking towards and past me. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes. The range of interactions has some variability, but 95% of the time, it works like this:
Many of the women I glance at are intentionally not looking at me. They are avoiding all eye contact, seemingly staring into some specific spot on the street that does not contain a man’s eyes. If they glance and notice I’m looking at them, they look away very quickly. What I see in that moment is someone being careful. Very very careful.
I glance at women. I don’t look at them for more than a second or two. I never stare at them. I glance at them because they are lovely, or interesting, or fashionable, or simply in my path. I also glance at them for the same reasons I glance at men: to judge their intention as they approach me, to see if they’re texting instead of looking, or to insure I don’t get run over.
Because I have a solid sense of who I am and what my intention is, I glance at women without the feeling of guilt or nervousness I carried as a teenager. There is nothing wrong with a glance. But to look longer at a woman you do not know? Or worse, to stare? That is a different thing. For the very same reason I do not make and hold eye contact with men (or for that matter, dogs I don’t know) I do not look overly long at women, because it suggests an intrusion. Something for which I do not have permission.
When I see any women walking down the street, avoiding all eye contact, I feel a deep sense of empathy. Accordingly, I don’t look for more than a second and I don’t let my gaze linger. I do all these things out of respect for a simple fact—women don’t feel safe. No matter how “civilized” we insist western society has become, there is still a high degree of real and present danger for women from aggressive male strangers. And if a woman is from another part of the world, the likelihood that she has faced violent and aggressive male strangers is dramatically higher.
Whats more, many males understand how this fear of aggressive men feels.
As a child, I feared and avoided eye contact with bullying teenage boys. Junior high school was an exercise in avoiding being assaulted. My issue has never been with women. My issue is with men, who, to this day, are far more likely to be aggressive with me. I track men much more carefully than I do women. And for exactly the same set of reasons that women do. Because men like to project power. And some men, a very few, but enough, like to project power by verbally or physically abusing strangers.
And before you take that deep breath and launch into a list of the ways that men are victims of rape and physical violence from their female partners, don’t bother. I have written about that fact numerous times. I’ll write about it again right here. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey | 2010 Summary Report. page 2 states that:
“More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
Yes, men face a range of risks and threats in the world. But as a man, I have never had to live in fear that if I hold eye contact for too long with a women I do not know, she will approach me and start an unwelcome conversation that could lead to abusive behavior. Why? Because on some level, I always felt I could stand my ground physically. If I had to, I could fight a woman and get away.
But being able to fend off an unwelcome advance is not a certainty for many women. The percentage of men who are abusive in their behavior on the street, in bars, at schools, or in other public places may be limited, but there are enough men out there who behave like this that there is a very real corresponding fear for women. Namely, a stranger who won’t take no for an answer. For women, it is as follows: Acknowledge a strange man in even the slightest way, get approached. Say “no thank you” and get shamed, verbally abused, or possibly physically assaulted.
As human beings, we all face a basic challenge. We have to go out into the world and communicate our availability as a potential partner, attract the attention of individuals we view as viable and not attract the attention of individuals we don’t find appealing. Doing this in the world is no easy task. It’s like trying to garden prize orchids in the middle of a rugby match. And the more you signal your assets as a potential partner, the more attention you attract from persons who’s attention you are not seeking.
But a women’s effort to appeal to a prospective mate, whether that be through style of dress (yoga pants or otherwise) or public behavior is not, and should never be, an invitation for unwanted attention. If you are man in the market for a relationship, take note. The signals and the cues are simple. The rules are even simpler. Glance, do not stare. If you get a glance back. Look a bit more. If a women, says “no thanks” in any way, (and yes, that can be as simple as glancing away) move on with courtesy and respect.
The vast percentage of men are decent hearted and would never intentionally harm a soul. But some men (and women) are not. Any man who continues to approach a women who is indicating “no thank you” in stronger and stronger terms, is being abusive. And as long as there is widespread abusive behavior by a limited number of men in the world, the rest of us will all be forced to limit our social interactions with women in order to try and make the world feel a little safer. Which is a shame.
So, thanks to the jerks of the world for that. You’ve made the rest of us men have to prove on a daily basis that we are not you. (Like I wanted to spend my life undoing your abusive work.) But that’s the way it is. And men need to acknowledge that fact, both in their interactions and their political dialogues. Work for change, but acknowledge the ongoing facts of the world.
As a person who supports a robust and honest discussion of men’s issues, I acknowledge that men face many cultural inequities and challenges. I believe that we need to insure that men enjoy equal rights in the realms of family law, victim services and other areas. I fully realize that men fall victim to rape and abuse by women. But that does not change the simple math of upper body strength and social conditioning. It is not white knight behavior to advocate for a culture of civility and non-violence toward women. It is simple common decency.
Equally, in the public dance of finding a partner, women may have to become more assertive in indicating interest. Making the first move and communicating clearly when they would like to have a conversation would go a long way to alleviate the concern that man are expected to approach women who give only the slightest nod of interest. This subtle signaling sets men up to face an endless string of rejections, unable to differentiate between the lingering glance that signals interest and the passing glance that does not.
But ultimately, it is the inequity of physical strength that is at the root of our cultures’ relationship challenges. Most men can simply overpower women. And a small percentage of men often do with terrible consequences. It is what drives some women’s anger and fuels the distorted and angry battle between the sexes. Until all of us men, every single one of us, take responsibility for our public and private behavior, all the inequities we face will remain as secondary issues, held hostage by the men among us who behave like animals instead of human beings.
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