“And then she said, ‘Oh ya, old guys look at me all the time, too.’”
This from my daughter who was sharing a recent conversation that she had with a fellow 16-year-old.
“And get this,” she adds, rolling her eyes. “She also told me she avoids sitting down on the subway because men stand over her and look down her shirt.”
Besides the fact that these stories have me raging on all sorts of levels — as a mother, as a woman, and, hell, as a human — there’s something else. It’s the fact that I absolutely know what my daughter’s friend is talking about.
Before COVID-19 made it death-defying to stand less than two metres apart, I too, gritted my teeth when I’d feel a warm stranger’s body leaning against my back on a crowded subway. I have also been startled by the honks from stopped cars as I was crossing the street. And then there are the barks (what’s with the barks?) from workers on rooftops.
And it’s not like this is all news to my smart, curly-haired 16-year-old. She wasn’t even a teenager when she first mentioned grey-haired toads leaning out of their cars, whistling, as she walked home with a bag of gummy worms from the bulk store. Now, at her job as a host at a local, not grimy, restaurant and bar, she gets to see men behaving badly close up — and, well, it’s not pretty.
Besides the head-to-toe lingering glances, there are also comments. For example, the time when her offer of, “If you need anything, just let me know,” as she seated two thirty-something guys, was met with a smarmy, “Anything you can do for me, I can do for you.” Or the bald guy in a suit who remarked loudly to his buddy, “I’d like to get a piece of that.” Or the dude with dark glasses who walked through the restaurant twice to tell her how pretty she was.
And then there’s the touching. Casual taps on the shoulder and slow rubs of the forearm are the norm — apparently there’s a lot of gratitude for getting a decent table. Plus, now that she needs to check phones for vaccination proof, it’s as if leaning in just got more legit — right along with a hand on the small of her back for good measure. And that’s before the alcohol starts flowing.
I have so many questions. Like, guys, what the heck are you thinking?
I am certain that if these men were called out for their behaviour, they would likely be insulted, and explain it away by saying they were just being friendly, or they would deflect — like the fifty-ish man who used to flirt relentlessly with my friends and I as we waited for burgers at a local diner in our Catholic school uniforms. He always responded to our disgusted nose-crinkling with, “What? You’re legal, you know.”
But just because it’s legal — in Canada, the age of consent to sexual activity is 16 years old, 18 if the other person holds a position of authority, or if the activity involves exploitation, like porn, or there is payment or anal sex — it doesn’t make the fact that these guys are perfectly comfortable ogling young girls any less gross, or frankly, disturbing.
Why is it that these men think that they can freely leer, comment and touch a woman, who is clearly young, but who is also doing her job? Is it the way we raise our boys? Is it the media that’s legitimizing this kind of behaviour? Are we not talking about sexual harassment and consent enough in our schools? Basically: Why don’t men respect women?
There are numerous studies that have found social media to be a solid driver of how boys and men perceive girls and women. In one study, researchers looked at two Instagram sites that targeted college-aged people. They found that female students were portrayed as “objects to be gazed upon by their male counterparts” and “pictured as sexualized and nameless objects of desire with no identity or personality of their own…their bodies shown as physical objects to be used by men.” They also noted that female students were pictured as being submissive to males and photographed in submissive poses. I won’t go any further because their findings get much, much worse.
The result is boys-turned-men who don’t think twice about touching a woman they don’t know, or lobbing creepy sexual comments across a busy street, and girls-turned-women who are socialized to excuse and explain away disrespectful dangerous behaviour of men — accept it, even — and who put up with less than they deserve in their relationships.
Of course, it’s not just social media that’s at fault — one of my high school teachers once blamed the magazine Cosmopolitan for a student’s unwanted pregnancy. But let’s be clear: women have been fighting for an even playing field in just about every area of their lives for centuries, way before the internet, and way before fashion mags. Have a daughter, though, and suddenly, it all gets very personal.
I am glad that my daughter recognizes the unwanted attention for what it is — wrong, and something that she never has to put up with. And I love that she is cool with blurting out that she is 16 to the lechers who get a little too close for comfort — often resulting in them embarrassedly scurrying away with their tail limply between their legs. I also suppose it’s good she is learning how to navigate this stuff in a fairly safe environment with colleagues and a manager who keeps an eye on things.
But wouldn’t it be nice if she didn’t have to.
This story appeared in the Healthing weekender. Subscribe here.