Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Sometimes I worry that feminism is making me too prickly. Taking offense at things rarely produces immediate wonderful change in the world--even when those things really are offensive--and it makes the thing-sayers and me into instant adversaries.

Say that someone mentions he's managing a project and starts gleefully talking about how he's going to pick his hottest female subordinate to be his personal assistant, woo woo. There's shit-all some random acquaintance can say to make him change his actions. But if I go "come on, that's not right, it's her job dude and she can't get away from you," I'm being pretty socially unpleasant. I'm being a grouchy buzzkill and I'm not really sparing that poor girl anything.

Likewise even with my personal boundaries. Which are, right now, based on an ironclad rule: you ask. If you lay a hand on me (with the slight exception of a quick tap to get my attention, but even that can get weird), you're drawing back a fucking stump unless you get my permission. Which is widely given; I love human contact, and I do understand how the asking and permission can be effected through body language or flirting rather than strictly explicitly. But if my permission isn't given through some mutually understood medium, you're getting a jerk away and cold stare at best, with shoving you away and yelling not out of the question.

(And no, this isn't an appearance or even a sexual-attraction thing. I'm happy [though not obligated!] to touch lots of non-conventionally-hot people when they ask, and no one on Earth, not even Nathan Fillion, is hot enough to not need to ask.)

By feminist and sex-positive doctrine, this is exactly correct and I have every right. But sometimes in social situations I feel like a stuck-up bitch for enforcing the rule too literally. Dude didn't mean anything by it and you bit his freakin' head off, jeez. It was just your shoulder, are you really that special, Princess?

Mostly I worry about the opinions of observers. I don't much care what Sexually Harassing Grabby Man thinks of me, but I worry that being seen biting his head off will make other people think of me as a habitual head-biter. I'm totally sweet when I'm not provoked, I swear... I just wish I had more times when I wasn't being provoked so I could prove that.


  1. Sometimes we need the prickly people, even when they piss us the fuck off. I say stay prickly. I stay prickly about gun rights, why shouldn't you about feminism? My only request is that you be fair. Men aren't the only ones capable of sexism. It's a bad thing no matter who is doing, or who is doing most of it. My opinion on the matter, anyway.

    On the 'no touch!' thing, I hear you. I'm very, very adamant about not touching someone without permission. I had a bad experience once and I never, ever want to be touching someone in an unwelcome way. And I don't want to be touched without giving permission either.

  2. I think it lowers the "OMG FEMINIST EW" factor slightly if you avoid taking an earnest tone and try to make a joke instead.

    Like, in the example of the dude wanting a hot personal assistant: "Personally, I like to flirt with people who can actually leave if they want. Seems more sporting that way. But..." [grinning and giving him the once-over] "...I can see why you'd rather shoot fish in a barrel."

    Mind you, without earnest, prickly people, the world would never change. But sometimes when you have to deal with someone on a regular basis it's best to keep things light.

  3. This can be a tough one! I am the kind of person who thinks being polite in general is *very* important for greasing the wheels of society, and making people feel as ease is a Good and Decent Thing. And there are badly socialized or socially disabled people who just don't know or don't understand the rules. On the other hand, there are harassers who are very skilled at going just enough over the line, in a non-obvious-to-onlookers way, to achieve whatever their goal is, whether it's to show that they're so hot the rules don't apply to them, or because they get off on making people squirm. So suddenly the burden gets dumped on YOU to make a decision with a moment's information whether this is someone who needs to be gently schooled or someone who needs a kick in the pants. Society usually puts all the responsibility for this and the ensuing fallout squarely on the harassee (cough*woman*cough, but trying to be fair, RobertM :P ), which sucks. So you're at risk of being a stuck up bitch for being rude to a Perfectly Nice Guy or for not immediately recognizing a threatening guy and doing something about him. You've written before and I concur heartily, the LAST thing I want to do socially is embarrass anyone, and I've been devastated when I've accidentally done it. (And back in my single days, I would go way out of my way to help a guy save face.) But then my own safety and bodily integrity is more important.

    I love Miss Manners for this kind of thing (ok, and in general). I bet she would say the cold look, probably adjusting just how cold based on the situation, moving away from the offender, and refusing to be pressured into responding a certain way is a good way to send the message of "uncool" or "unhand me, sir!" without having to make a scene. Hopefully that can give you another moment to determine if it was just a mistake or if the person really doesn't care about your boundaries. I HATE that we can't immediately cast out harassers, but in real life, it's so hard to know what's really going on until it's over.
    Oh, there's also "the exaggerated startle," which I've seen used with great success by pregnant friends whose bellies were touched without permission. (There's a boundary-violation that skews female!)

  4. "...I can see why you'd rather shoot fish in a barrel."

    Awesome. Especially if you don't think of it on the way home!

  5. perversecowgirl, that is totally my strategy. I think it might even be a more effective method of behavior modification, because everyone hates it when people laugh at them, even jerks.

  6. Well - having seen what 1970's feminism did for women's pay, equality in the workplace, and rights in general, there is A LOT to be said about getting in someone's face if they're a male chauvinist pig (MCP), and don't get it. Really...

    BTW, as a man, I wish women WOULD make the comments like "my face is up here" to guys who are tit-talkers, etc. We really don't have a clue sometimes, so please help us out...

  7. I dunno, I don't (usually) go all Feminist Warrior on people, but I think just making in clear that something isn't cool can have more of an effect that going on a long tirade about it. I've gotten some amazingly shamefaced reactions just for failing to laugh at obnoxious jokes, for example. There are some genuinely scary psychos out there, but I think a lot of the guys making sexist jokes are just trying to play for laughs. A cold look and a 'that's really not funny, grow up' can work wonders on that type.

    I bite off people's heads all the time for touching me when I didn't give permission, but oddly enough it doesn't happen to me that often. My husband says I exude 'fuck-off' vibes, which is convenient, I guess.

  8. Agreeing with most everybody here.

    I do get conflicted about how to react to sexist or racist behaviour and comments. On the one hand, I was totally socially inept until I read How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I totally believe that it's true and it works. On the other hand, the expectation that privileged folks need to be coddled when confronted with their privilege pisses me off, and I often feel like, I am not the problem! The Patriarchy is the problem! Rage against the machine!

    So yeah. It's hard!

  9. I used to be all polite laughter and conflict-avoiding whenever someone would make a sexist, homophobic, whathaveyou joke. Now I just don't give a fuck. If you are going to be offensive and insensitive, I can call you on it and I don't have to coddle your privilege (as Marissa so aptly put it). And don't give me the "we just don't know!". It's 2010, people, you know friggin well.

  10. It's interesting that you consider yourself being "socially unpleasant" to be the Bad Thing here, when dealing with others being socially unpleasant.

    That's the crux of it for me. We are under no obligation to be socially pleasant in response to someone who is being unpleasant to us, and I refuse to feel guilty about calling someone out on it. If others see that as nagging or what have you, then I don't give a shit because they are not the kind of people whose opinions I am really going to care about anyway. I have lost nothing.

    Also, whilst saying something in the imaginary situation you mentioned might not have spared the girl anything at the time, constantly reinforcing your ideas and being that "buzzkill" (again you don't need to feel bad for killing any sort of buzz which involves being a shitty person) does gradually help build an atmosphere where people realise it's not acceptable to behave that way.

  11. Hershele OstropolerDecember 7, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    The response that's been brewing for seven months -- I think this is less feminism and more Holly's neurochemistry. If you don't like to be touched randomly by strangers, you don't; as long as it's not interfering with your life, it's fine, and in any case you don't need to justify it with feminism or anything else. Neurochemistry is orthogonal to feminism