Compliments and tricky situations

I’m currently trying to write my Bachelor thesis. Yes, trying to is exactly the wording I’m choosing. But that’s something that can be up for discussion in a later post. The topic of the thesis isa discussion of the sometimes blurry line between compliments and harassment. It should be a no-brainer, but my research and people’s testimonies show that there are quite a few factors that can make a situation rather murky. Just think of the song “Blurred lines” which is involuntarily icky, or take this image here on the right of Susan and her co-worker complimenting her. Especially the latter highlights the same fact that the Creepy Theory explained when comparing Dobler and Dahmer in How I Met Your Mother: “If both people are into each other, then a big romantic gesture works: But if one person isn’t into the other, the same gesture comes off serial-killer crazy.” It doesn’t even have to be a big romantic gesture, the same effect can be found in simple interactions as well.

We don’t pay much attention to things being appropriate or not when the person facing us seems charming and/ or non-threatening. It made me think of an interaction I had in Paris.

One summer, I was walking around the 1st arrondissement in Paris. Suddenly, I felt someone grab my ass. I turned around and saw a girl grinning at me. I forgot what she said exactly, it was something about her appreciating my butt, and I have to admit, I found the situation funny and even uplifting. Even though a complete stranger had an unsolicited grab at my butt, I didn’t think of sexual harassment at all. On the contrary, I laughed about it and took it as a compliment. Would it have been a guy doing the same thing, I probably would have felt very differently about it. To my shame, I have to admit that I would have maybe thought of it as funny if it had been an attractive dude, but at the same time, I also know that I would have been wary of the situation. I mean, Ted Bundy was considered attractive. You just never know.

But having a girl pay you this kind of compliment is nothing more than that: a compliment. Intrusive yes, but because of gender bias, we might see a woman disregarding physical boundaries as non-threatening and evaluate her behavior as “a jolly good idea”, just like in this clip. So how do we draw the line between compliments and harassment?

According to my former roommate, it depends on the situation you’re in. He told me about a night out where he couldn’t resist the urge to make a positive evaluation of a girl’s tits during a night out in Cologne’s party mile. Of course, no one was sober at this moment, so inhibitions were low if not non-existent. But a lower level of inhibitions could have also meant a higher probability for him getting his balls kicked. But, lucky for my former roommate, the girl didn’t take offense. On the contrary, she took that unsolicited comment about her tits as a compliment and even asked if he wanted to touch them. I guess they were both horny and a little desperate for attention. So it worked out well for them. But take the exact same situation and put it in a different setting and boom, you have a lawsuit.

If I had my ass touched by some random dude, I would have been livid. However, having a girl doing the exact same thing is totally fine with me. I guess it comes down to the quote by Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Unfortunately, during my research, I have read several accounts of women giving horrific testimonies of unwanted interactions where their physical security was threatened by men who just couldn’t take no for an answer. Some interactions didn’t even sound that bad, some even sound completely harmless during the first two lines of banter, but then there’s a very quick escalation. What’s remarkable is that a stupid pickup line can turn into a potential threat in no time if the target doesn’t respond (favorably).

Sadly, most women are familiar with lines like “you could say at least thank you”, or “you’re too ugly for me to fuck anyway” when they don’t reply to a so-called “compliment”. You know the drill. That unpleasant and sometimes frightening scenario only occurs as part of the interaction between men and women, at least to my knowledge.

When we talk about heterosexual women and men, we’re also talking about the male gaze that’s laid on women. Suddenly, women are defined by the (unsolicited) attributes men care to give them. Funnily, depressingly, curiously, it has been shown that even though true compliments highlighting a physical feature leave the subject in a good mood. But then in return, they cause poorer body image and self-worth in the long run. In my opinion, it’s not only because these types of compliments of course ignore any other abilities or talents the complimentee may have, but they also create a frame for comparison, which, repeated often enough, will become a way of how we view ourselves. And suddenly, we start to identify ourselves only through our appearance and how other people evaluate us.

This brings me to the link between fashion and emancipation. In eras where women’s rights weren’t highly considered, the style of that era was extremely feminine and more conservative. Take the 50s as an example Theoretically, emancipation should have gotten to a solid point back then, after two world wars, where women had a fundamental role in maintaining and rebuilding societies. But no, they were pushed back into the role of the housewife. So the only way they could express themselves was through their style. And without having researched this in particular, I daresay that the style in the 50s probably catered more to the male gaze, simply because it was more about classic beauty highlighting very feminine attributes – unlike the 20s for example, where fashion was a little more functional and also used for pushing the limits. Of course, this has since shifted through decades, and styles have shown a great variety. However, fashion has always been a mirror of society. And that’s what I find really intriguing about our current era. We have a weird mix of hyper-femininity (fake lashes, nails, enhanced lips etc.) and casual attire. However, it is remarkable how brands like Oh Polly, Pretty Little Thing, and so on are continuously gaining popularity. Especially because I honestly wouldn’t feel safe on the street wearing their dresses. And that’s even though I live in Germany, where no one even attempts flirting. I’ve never had a problem with catcalling here. Yet, and even though I love the provocative style of the before mentioned brands, I would feel like prey if I showed too much skin. (Too much skin as in a little bit of legs AND some cleavage 🤯) My guess is that we’re currently in some sort of limbo when it comes to emancipation. We have a theoretical outline of what’s acceptable and what’s not, yet victim blaming is still a thing, and don’t you even dare criticize porn. And of course, we adopt the expectations (of outdated beauty standards) that have been laid on us through the media. In each case, the male gaze seems to be the center focus.

Just for the record, this doesn’t do any justice to men either. I know amazing men who are appalled by the hypersexualized stereotypes and double standards. These men are sensitive, empathetic, and they know how to communicate. They’re fantastic lovers, husbands, fathers. And yet, they don’t have a place in an environment where it’s all about virility and destroying someone’s holes. Fortunately, everyone I know wants their significant other (or any person they interact with) to be truly themselves, regardless of the beauty standard or expectations that are prevalent at the moment.

To circle back, the fact that I didn’t see a problem with a woman making an unsolicited comment about my body and actually grabbing my butt was probably because I just didn’t perceive her as a potential threat. Besides, women have been subjected to all kinds of beauty standards throughout the centuries. And the fact that this action was taken by a woman was a complete novelty to me. Besides, and that might be a stereotype speaking, I thought that it was more sincere than a so-called compliment coming from a man could have been, especially because I didn’t suspect an agenda. She didn’t try to get my number or anything. The interaction was limited to her pinching my butt cheeks and me laughing about it. So to me, it was a harmless, playful interaction.

Going back to Atwood’s quote from earlier, Women probably don’t perceive other women as threatening, even if a woman behaves exactly the same way or even worse than a man would, Maybe this is rooted in the fact that compliments are most often made between women. That, and the equal (lack of) upper body strength.

And so, after all, I’m not surprised that I pretty much enjoyed having my ass pinched by another woman. I did think of it as a compliment. Besides, women can be incredibly critical of their bodies. So when another woman makes a comment about my ass, I take it with pride. More so, it can make my day, even if I’m reduced to just one feature.

I am very well aware of the double standard. Why is it fun and complimentary to be groped by a woman, whereas it’s a scary experience to be groped by a man? I guess the reason are the societal expectations we have, and the stigmata that evolve from them. Keeping in mind that an unsolicited comment can always turn into verbal or even physical violence, I can see why we measure with two different scales. Just think about serial killers, who comes to mind? Ted Bundy? He had at least 20 victims. Jeffrey Dahmer? He had 17 victims. The Zodiac Killer? He had at least 5 victims. You just need to pull up a list on Wikipedia and you can see that most serial killers are indeed men. Did you first think of Aileen Wuornos? I doubt it. Besides, she “only” had seven victims. Sure, that’s more than the number of victims that have been confirmed for the Zodiac Killer, but the number of murders committed by the latter may be much higher actually.

Of course, not every unwanted remark or even compliment turns into physical violence. But when it does, women more often than not get the short end of the stick, which unfortunately translates into verbal or even physical violence. The testimonials on this are endless, just go to Stop Street Harassment, Hollaback, or similar pages.

So what to do with all this?

I honestly don’t know. I guess that it’s more important than ever for everyone to listen to their intuition and react accordingly. I guess pretty much everyone is familiar with comments that are meant as compliments but don’t necessarily land as such. Those are obviously just a part of the awkwardness that comes with human interaction. Sometimes, it might be a good idea to confront the person who’s being weird and Juliette Binoche did in the storyline she had in Dix Pour Cent/ Call My Agent. She acted like a complete lunatic and scared the creepy guy away by being even creepier. Unfortunately though, women are more or less programmed to reply with a favorable answer to a compliment – even if it’s not a compliment, and even if it makes them feel uncomfortable. It can be hard to address when boundaries are being crossed.

So I guess the best way to respond to unsolicited and unwanted evaluations is to do something unexpected. Throw the other person off. Start barking, pick your nose, get super flirty-aggressive to the point where it scares the shit out of them. At least then you can turn an unpleasant encounter into a fun anecdote.