I Objected To A Sexist Remark, And Contrary To My Paranoid Imagination, It Was Easy

01.30.2013, 1:15 PM

fun at the aquarobics class

I kind of hesitate to post this story, because it might seem like I’m asking for a cookie, and that isn’t my goal here.

At the local LA Fitness, I attend the “swim fit” classes fairly regularly, because it’s good exercise for someone with an iffy knee. (It’s also nice because a lot of the folks in that class are, like myself, fat.)

One of the instructors is a conventionally attractive young woman who leads the class wearing a swimsuit (of course), and alternates between leading us from the side of the pool, where we can see her clearly and where she can control the boom box, and jumping in and leading us from within the pool.

At one recent class, there was a new student exercising next to me, a large middle-aged guy with a thick mustache. Noticing that I wear glasses in the pool, he said something like “next time I’m going to wear my glasses, too – she’s really worth looking at,” indicating the instructor. I deflected by saying “it really helps to be able to see what the exercise is.”

This sort of thing really doesn’t happen to me often. Significantly less often than once a year. 1 For a while it was a feminist cliche to tell men that one way we can help is to object to sexist comments in the locker room, and the cliche has always bugged me a little, because no one ever says stuff like that to me. But now this guy had, and my reflex, shamefully, had been to blow it off.

A few minutes later, he and I again wound up next to each other. The instructor jumped in the pool to lead us in the next exercise, and he leaned to me and whispered “oh, no, stay out of the pool, where we can see you better!” I grunted and moved away.

For the rest of that swim fit class, my mind was occupied with the dude, criticizing myself for not arguing with him, wondering what I should have said. (“Hey, she’s my sister!”). I mentally made excuses: I’m a very shy person; I’m not comfortable talking to strangers; this was my exercise time, and I can’t exercise and criticize simultaneously. And I kept on imagining bad scenarios if I criticized the guy’s behavior. Would people think that I’m a humorless killjoy? Would the guy get hostile and yell at me? Would he begin a relentless campaign of nasty comments to me that would eventually force me to quit going to swim fit class altogether? Would he get his motorcycle gang together and beat me up after class? 2

After the class was over, I pulled him aside and told him “hey, I know a lot of women feel bad about going to health clubs because they’re worried guys will make remarks about their bodies.”

He immediately became abashed and said “I know, but I wasn’t talking about any of the students. I was talking about her,” indicating the instructor by nodding in her direction.

“Yeah, well, that doesn’t matter. It’s just completely inappropriate to talk like that about anyone here, including the instructor.”

He became very apologetic, and promised he wouldn’t do it again. I said “thanks,’ and that was the end of the encounter.

The only reason I mention this is because, despite what I was imagining beforehand, confronting him about his behavior and asking him to stop it was easy. It had no bad consequences for me whatsoever; it was actually only a slight bit awkward. And maybe telling this completely unnotable story will encourage some other guy who reads it, if he’s in a similar situation someday, to overcome his fears and speak up.

P.S. A preemptive response: Yes, obviously, there are situations where it might actually be physically unsafe to speak up. But this wasn’t that sort of situation at all.

  1. Although I often don’t comprehend the words people say to me, especially if someone is speaking to me unexpectedly, so probably it happens more often than I realize and goes over my head.
  2. Not that it would take a gang. A sufficiently determined sixth grader could take me in a fight.

50 Responses to “I Objected To A Sexist Remark, And Contrary To My Paranoid Imagination, It Was Easy”

  1. Kevin says:

    (It’s also nice because a lot of the folks in that class are, like myself, fat.)

    Why do you get to describe other people as fat, but this other guy can’t describe a woman as pretty?

    I don’t see what’s sexist about calling a woman pretty. It’s not like he announced it in front of the class, embarrassing her. It’s actually a compliment to a woman to be thought of as pretty. What’s sexist is allowing women to call other women pretty without rebuke, but condemning men for doing it, as if it’s automatically a predatory sexual attack.

  2. Diane M says:

    Thanks, Barry Deutsch. These are the kinds of thoughts that go through my mind when I hear racist or homophobic comments. It’s nice to know it can work to say something.

  3. Diane M says:

    Kevin, I see a gap between calling a woman pretty and making comments like you want her to come closer so you can look at her. It goes beyond a compliment to turning them into eye candy for you and your buddies. I suspect that the young woman would not have been flattered to hear the comment which might be one way to figure out if it’s a good thing to say or not.

  4. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: I don’t see what’s sexist about calling a woman pretty. It’s not like he announced it in front of the class, embarrassing her. It’s actually a compliment to a woman to be thought of as pretty.

    Yup, exactly. This strikes me as an example of politically correct silliness run amock, and not to be taken seriously.

  5. fannie says:

    Hey Barry, reading some of these comments, I guess your imagination wasn’t so paranoid after all!

  6. Kevin says:

    Diane, a pretty woman IS eye candy to the straight man. And I assume a hot guy is eye candy to the straight female.

    It’s one thing to remark about somebody’s good looks; it’s quite another to menace him or her with unwanted advances.

    Barry’s heart, as always, is in the right place: a public place, safe and welcoming for anyone who wants to be a part of it. And having the courage to object to someone’s unseemly behavior. But this sexy gal is also in a position of power, itself a safe space: presumably she can kick anybody out of the class she wants.

    Anyways, she’s probably directing the class from the pool’s edge, thinking, “why do I always get all the fat guys?!”!

  7. fannie says:

    I also question your use of the word “paranoid” here Barry. :-)

    I think it’s a realistic expectation to think that people will react poorly when we object to a sexist remark. People often get defensive. Or, they “explain away” the remark. Or, they gaslight and tell us that sexist remarks are actually “compliments.” Or, they say that no reasonable person could ever think that what was said was sexist. Or, they say, “can’t you take a joke?”

    I’m confident you know how this goes, quite often.

    Rarely, in my experience, do people just say, “Oh, I apologize. You’re right.”

    I don’t think your imagination was paranoid. Don’t sell yourself short here.

  8. Diane M says:

    Yes, fannie, I notice that the people saying this is a compliment and the woman wouldn’t mind are guys.

    Sorry, guys, there are women who wouldn’t like this. A basic principle of good manners is to take that into account.

  9. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: But this sexy gal is also in a position of power, itself a safe space: presumably she can kick anybody out of the class she wants.

    Yea, exactly.

  10. fannie says:

    Diane,

    Yep.

    Hector and Kevin,

    I don’t think your reasoning stands that just because she could have asked him to leave that it couldn’t have been a genuine act of harassment.

    Maybe it was harassment and she could consequently tell him to leave.

    What I find interesting is how insistent some men are on telling women what is and isn’t sexism or harassment against women. And, to hand-waive it away as PC Gone Amok, rather than listening to women seems especially rude. It’s a strange world we live in when to be offended is worse than being sexist (or racist or homophobic).

    And before anyone brings it up (because I’ve had this conversation more times than I count) I realize that some women might pop in here and say, “As a woman, I don’t see what the problem is with his comment.” And that’s fine. The thing about women, just like men, is that we’re not a monolithic group that reacts the same way to every situation.

    I think Barry’s point is that he’s a man who is trying to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And for that he has my gratitude and respect.

  11. fannie says:

    *In my first sentences I meant “sexism” rather than harassment. It was on my mind to make an analogy about how it’s possible to sexually harass those with more power in the workplace or political sphere, but decided it wasn’t worth it at the moment. It would involve talking about Hillary Clinton and I don’t have the energy to go into that right now.

    Sigh.

  12. Hector says:

    Fannie,

    The problem is that I don’t see a good argument that it is sexist, or inappropriate.

    If he said it *to her* in a work situation, then yea it would be inappropriate. because there’s temporarily a working relationship there. Or if he said it to her in public. that’s not really what was happening here, it was a private comment to Barry.

    If men refrained from admiring good looking women, I wonder how you think people would ever date or marry each other.

  13. Phil says:

    I think I might understand this conversation a little better if someone could explain what it was about the specific words and actions of the man in Barry’s anecdote that you interpret as sexist.

    I don’t want to wave away the concerns of women and other men about a sexist comment or behavior, but I also don’t think it is reasonable to say “It is obviously sexist!” to the people who clearly aren’t interpreting this in the same way.

  14. Kevin says:

    I just don’t see how it’s sexist to observe, privately, that a woman is pretty. Women spend untold hours and dollars attempting to look pretty, so it’s obviously something they value and aspire to. To declare that one of them succeeded seems to validate them, a good thing.

    But only Barry knows the complete context of the situation, and whether there was unseemly staring or whatever.

    I’d rather see situations like this neutralized, when necessary, with humor rather than scolding. Barry could say something to the effect, “yeah, it’s a shame we can’t return the favor, since we’re so out of shape; maybe we’ll show our respect by remaining as submerged as possible!” or some such (probably corny) thing. I’m fond of the absurd, so I would probably say something like, “if I weren’t a married man, I would soooo let her ask me out!”.

    I think the other guy deserves a welcoming safe space too. What if this is the first time he’s ventured out of the house in years, to socialize and exercise, particularly being overweight. And this is the welcome he gets? Maybe his therapist told him, “now I want you to practice making small talk with someone in the class; that’s what people do to start a conversation, and get to know each other….”

  15. Mont D. Law says:

    (If men refrained from admiring good looking women, I wonder how you think people would ever date or marry each other.)

    I can’t believe people can’t see the difference between wow is that woman pretty and “Hey baby, stay out of the pool so I can leer at you better.”

  16. La Lubu says:

    After the class was over, I pulled him aside and told him “hey, I know a lot of women feel bad about going to health clubs because they’re worried guys will make remarks about their bodies.”

    I really like the way you phrased that, Barry. The common misperception (indicated by the commenter) is that as long as the remarks are appreciative rather than disparaging the remarks are ok. But they aren’t. Being under the microscope is no fun, and detracts from whatever else it is one is trying to do. By the way, if I’m reading Barry right, the remark was made in the swimming pool, within easy earshot of the other class participants. Unless all the other women in the pool are deaf or hard-of-hearing (and left their hearing aids out to prevent water damage), they message they got was loud and clear—the same message they get to hear everyday regarding their worth as related to size (and/or age). From a man whose worth is more, despite sharing that size and age.

    Bottom line: the guy was being rude. Maybe he didn’t mean to be, but he was rude just the same. Moving forward, because Barry spoke up, he’s a lot less likely to be rude (judging from his response to Barry). News flash: we don’t need to voice every thought that enters our minds. There are appropriate and non-appropriate things to say, and appropriate and non-appropriate times and places to say them. The workplace—and it is her workplace—is a place where one should strive to keep things neutral. We should ask ourselves, “is this something that really needs to be said? does it need to be said by me? does it need to be said right now?” If the answer is no, consider the phrase “silence is golden.”

    Also: where on earth are people getting the idea that she can throw anyone out of class for saying inappropriate things? The instructor is a service-industry worker. The people who teach classes like that aren’t paid a whole lot of money, and typically have no power over who takes their classes. They don’t necessarily get to schedule their own classes, either. They have about the same power wait staff do when it comes to customer service—if a customer wouldn’t get arrested for it, they have to put up with it.

    I’m glad Barry spoke up. I was once a twenty-year-old woman in a room full of men; whole jobsites for years where I was the only woman on the job. I heard all kinds of so-called “compliments” from men old enough to be my father (or grandfather!), about every aspect of my body. I was hyperaware of how I was being sexualized, and had to work that much harder to be taken seriously because of it. Some of it was frankly scary, too….and I don’t scare easily. (go ahead and tell me I was being too sensitive. I don’t mind. I only ask that you spend days being stared at and commented over while you try to work—see how much that improves your productivity and stress level.)

  17. La Lubu says:

    Mont, you are a blessing.

  18. Schroeder says:

    Fannie, La Lubu, and Barry,

    I wonder if this an area where there would be a lot of agreement between you and conservatives. As I’ve said many time before, I tend to be very liberal politically and feminist (a recent quiz I took put me way to the left of Obama); but I also tend to be very conservative in how I live my life. (Also, sometimes I’m liberal because I’m conservative. For instance, I support nationalized healthcare, because I have the conservative’s instinctive distrust of human nature.)

    And my take on this is that the guy Barry reproached is a real creep, and that is both the conservative and the liberal side of me talking. I think think Barry handled it wonderfully (how I hope I would have handled it). Reading the remarks he was responding to kind of makes my skin crawl.

  19. Kevin says:

    “Being under the microscope is no fun, and detracts from whatever else it is one is trying to do.”

    Seriously? This woman was being put under a microscope? By a fat guy who, himself, is practically naked, and just as vulnerable? She looks good, and he looks bad, and she’s the vulnerable one?

    La Lubu, what if Barry had been next to a grandma who remarked, “our instructor is such a cute young thing….I’d like to think I looked that good when I was her age!”?

  20. fannie says:

    La Lubu,

    “I’m glad Barry spoke up. I was once a twenty-year-old woman in a room full of men; whole jobsites for years where I was the only woman on the job. I heard all kinds of so-called “compliments” from men old enough to be my father (or grandfather!), about every aspect of my body. I was hyperaware of how I was being sexualized, and had to work that much harder to be taken seriously because of it. Some of it was frankly scary, too….and I don’t scare easily. (go ahead and tell me I was being too sensitive. I don’t mind. I only ask that you spend days being stared at and commented over while you try to work—see how much that improves your productivity and stress level.)”

    Yes. And I’m not sure those who don’t have this pervasive, lived experience of being objectified and “complimented” and “flirted with” day in and day out while trying to work, work out, or go about their lives can truly appreciate that what might seem “innocent” to an outsider can be really tiresome to the person experiencing it.

    I get that the commenter made the comment to Barry and not to the teacher, but women often know when we’re being leered at. And, we also know that there’s a difference between a passing appreciation for a good-looking person and a man, through multiple verbal comments, trying to make other men collaborators in the leering/ogling.

    On at least a weekly basis at my gym, I encounter men who blatantly stare at me as a I work out. When I look at them, they continue staring at me, not even realizing that I see them looking at me because they’re too busy staring at my chest or other parts of my body to even notice. I’ve had male strangers expose themselves to me. Men have said “Hey baby” to me while I’ve been jogging more times than I count. I’ve had friends, in a lesbian bar, drugged by straight men who told them how attractive they were and later attempted to assault them.

    The choice about whether to say something to men like this is always a risk. The thoughts that go through my head are, “is it safe to say something?” “Will they call me a b*tch?” “Will they say I should be flattered?” “Is this a battle I want to fight today?”

    From a man’s point of view, one “innocent” “complimentary” comment may not seem like much. From a woman who hears it day after day, it gets really old. Women often have to instantaneously go through a reasoning process of, “Okay, is this guy a threat to my safety? Does he seem safe? What, if anything, does he want from me?” and try to ascertain what a man’s intentions are when he makes a comment about our appearance.

    Men are free to ogle as much as they want. When they do so, they should also know that the vast majority of women have experienced unwanted harassment from male strangers and thus men shouldn’t be operating under the delusion that they, men, are entitled to women reacting in a lighthearted, receptive way 100% of the time to their comments about our appearance.

    “If men refrained from admiring good looking women, I wonder how you think people would ever date or marry each other”

    That’s not an accurate description of the situation here- we’re not talking about placing a No Fun Ban on men’s ability to admire women’s looks. We’re talking about a specific situation in which a man wasn’t just silently admiring a woman, but had made multiple comments about her looks in a class she was teaching.

    Look. I’m a lesbian, I get that lots of women are attractive. I also get that I can admire an attractive woman without acting on it or saying anything about it. See, when we understand that women are people we understand that there are more appropriate times and places to express our admiration for women’s looks than, say, in her workplace.

    I sincerely doubt this woman was teaching swimming out of a desire to marry one of her male students.

  21. Amy Z says:

    Reading these reflections from Barry remind me of my HR days and how we would train our staff to realize that sexist, racist, or offensive remarks in general are rarely universally seen and accepted as literally offensive. That’s not always true, and truth be told, from an HR standpoint it’s much easier to give “freedom counseling” AKA fire someone who is deliberately and unanimously perceived as literally offensive, but most of my write-ups with team members involved situations like these. Where the person saying something offensive was not aware that they were being insensitive or that their tone was being perceived as insensitive or they were just raised or conditioned with a different level of sensitivity and so someone needed to say–I need to let you know that that comment was perceived as offensive and in HR-world, here is why, and how we expect it to be fixed.
    On a personal note, I resonate with Barry hesitating to be confrontational. I agonize over speaking up too but ironically enough I read this piece after getting up my courage to be confrontational. I read Rod Dreher’s piece on The new conversation last night and in his last sentence he says that this conversation is “stillborn.” I have not experienced stillbirth personally, but as a pediatric/perinatal hospice chaplain I have experienced stillborn births and as an outsider, journeying alongside parents, helping to give ritual and pastoral presence as desired, the experience was gut-wrenching. And what I experienced is merely a small, small fraction of what the parents, grandparents, siblings of the deceased child were, are, will be feeling.
    So, I went to bed agitated and snappy but wasn’t going to say anything because I feel nervous commenting at a site that I don’t know very well other than skimming from time to time. But this morning I thought, NO. I should say something so that maybe if in saying something someone, somewhere stops using that word as a figure of speech, than it’s worth it.
    Anyhow, thanks for following you gut Barry and saying something.

  22. fannie says:

    Schroeder,

    “I wonder if this an area where there would be a lot of agreement between you and conservatives.”

    I think in some cases that’s true, and perhaps even on a surface level for many cases.

    Yet, interestingly, I often find that conservative-leaning folks who believe in gender essentialism touting men’s purported “chivalry” and “inherent” “protective instincts toward women” also sometimes have views that suggest that women aren’t full, autonomous people capable of being arbiters of what is and isn’t good (or bad) for ourselves. Under this view, women are akin to children, needing protection- at once placed on a pedestal which also serves as an autonomy-limiting prison.

    A conservative model of whether or not something counts as degrading or sexist toward women often depends on what the protector class- men (or their proxy- “God”)- believe women need protecting from. A feminist model would depend on what women say we need or want in order to be safe.

    That’s an important distinction, and one that I think explains much of the resistance toward feminists jumping to ally ourselves with conservatives who perhaps have similar views about degradation.

    Hector, for instance, bemoans Barry’s reaction in this instance as “political correctness run amok”- and both Kevin and Hector, rather than listening to the women here talking about our experiences with harassment and sexism over many years- are intent upon explaining to us what does and doesn’t count as degradation or sexism.

    Yet, in another comment in a different conversation he expresses a desire to promote “chivalry and the natural male instinct to protect and take care of women.”

    Protectionism exists only to the extent of some men’s limited, privileged worldview- meaning that if he doesn’t see a problem, he doesn’t think a problem exists for anyone else.

  23. Schroeder says:

    A conservative model of whether or not something counts as degrading or sexist toward women often depends on what the protector class- men (or their proxy- “God”)- believe women need protecting from. A feminist model would depend on what women say we need or want in order to be safe.

    Fannie,

    I wouldn’t call the first model conservative… but, whatever it is, I definitely reject it! I also affirm what you call the feminist model in this situation, because it just seems like common sense.

    But there’s a third model (which I would call conservative actually) that also applies in my way of thinking: I think it’s wrong to treat people (male or female) in a way that’s dehumanizing. And treating someone purely as an object (i.e. degradingly) seems dehumanizing to me. So that’s another reason I thought the guy was a creep…

  24. fannie says:

    Amy,

    I read that blogpost too and had a similar reaction to his use of the word “stillborn.” Not only because it seemed a strange, insensitive word choice but also because I don’t think it accurately describes the New Conversation.

    I’m glad you said something.

    I have similar reaction when people use “rape” as a metaphor (as in, “Man, we totally got raped by that chemistry exam!”).

  25. La Lubu says:

    Seriously? This woman was being put under a microscope? By a fat guy who, himself, is practically naked, and just as vulnerable? She looks good, and he looks bad, and she’s the vulnerable one?

    Yes, seriously. To this guy, it’s a few “innocent” comments that are more an attempt at male-bonding with Barry than anything else. But in the context of the class? If Barry heard it, most (if not all) of the people surrounding him heard it too. The instructor probably heard it. So now, the other women in the class have basically been “put in their place” in regards to looks (that’s something fat women need more of, right? especially at the health club) and this is creating a dynamic of tension—tension for the other class participants (“what am I doing here? I look terrible!”) or hostility towards either this guy (“what an X&%$!!”) or the instructor (“I’ll bet she thinks she’s cute”). And now the instructor is probably thinking, “oh great…wonder how many women are going to drop the class this time because he made them feel bad?” and “wonder how many passive-aggressive comments I’m going to get to hear in the locker room” and “is this guy going to come on to me? will he understand the word ‘no’? will he stalk me like that guy last year? do I really want to be doing this job?”

    Once again with a feeling: “is this something that really needs to be said? does it need to be said by me? does it need to be said right now?” and fannie’s note: “See, when we understand that women are people we understand that there are more appropriate times and places to express our admiration for women’s looks than, say, in her workplace.”

    The bottom line is we aren’t props. We aren’t the scenery. We are people. Not tools to be used to get street cred from other men; a means to prove one’s masculinity and heterosexuality (“hurr, hurr….hey, isn’t she hot?…hurr hurr! Look at those (insert adolescent word for breasts here)!” with the unspoken message—see, I’m a dudely dude, and I like chicks!). There was really no need for this guy to say what he was thinking out loud.

  26. annajcook says:

    Coming late to this thread, I’d also like to thank Barry for speaking up. It does take courage to push back against someone’s rude behavior — particularly when it’s something that makes you (Barry) uncomfortable but isn’t really about you, per se. It’s harder to know what ground you stand on to say “Hey, that’s not cool.” But I think it’s really important for guys like this one who spoke to you to realize they can’t assume that just because they think it’s acceptable to think (and speak) that way about an instructor doesn’t mean that all other men think/speak the same way, or are comfortable with other people doing so.

    It’s interesting to look at this from my own perspective: sure, I might hold private feelings of appreciation for someone’s sexiness (in my case regardless of gender presentation), and I certainly feel comfortable sharing those feelings in the company of friends. But I would never feel comfortable leaning over to a classmate and making a remark that sexualized the instructor of a class. I think that says something about how men and women are differently socialized into feeling comfortable (or not) asserting their sexual interest in strangers.

    Being sexualized by a stranger without consent is a form of sexual harassment. Obviously no one can (or should) play thought police here and tell people they can’t fantasize about the people they see around them in their everyday lives. Most people nurture unrequited crushes, and I think that’s okay. What’s not okay? Articulating those fantasies out loud in public contexts with or without the person at the center of those fantasies present when they have not also expressed interest in developing a sexual interaction with you.

  27. Kevin says:

    “…..go about their lives can truly appreciate that what might seem “innocent” to an outsider can be really tiresome to the person experiencing it.”

    And what did she experience? Did she hear the comment? What was her reaction?

    What you’re really rebeling against is the thought, not it’s expression, I think. Newsflash: men talk about women, and women talk about men. It’s a part of being human.

    “From a woman who hears it day after day, it gets really old.”

    But the instructor didn’t hear it. The guy purposedly said it in a whisper.

    “If Barry heard it, most (if not all) of the people surrounding him heard it too. The instructor probably heard it.”

    Since when is a whisper a megaphone?

    “But I think it’s really important for guys like this one who spoke to you to realize they can’t assume that just because they think it’s acceptable to think (and speak) that way about an instructor….”

    So he’s not even allowed to THINK something about this instructor?? I’m glad the thought police have arrived! “That way” was compliment, by the way.

    Elsewhere in the pool, a woman whispered to another, “OK, I get it, this instructor chick is a babe. So she has to wear the skimpiest bathing suit around, in case we didn’t notice?!”

    Is that comment ok, or should the other woman voice her objection.

    This is hilarious!

  28. I’ve been reading this thread with fascination, and feeling guilty for not participating more, but I really need to buckle down today and work on writing comic books. My thanks to everyone who posted; I’m hoping I’ll be able to participate tonight or tomorrow.

    in any case, my position is being defended better than I would have been able to, by many posters, and especially by La Lubu and Fannie.

    That said, it’s worthwhile to clarify one point about my story. La Lubu, I think you’re mistaken about how well the dude’s comments could be overheard. The two of us were at least a yard away from anyone else both times he spoke, and between the splashing caused by exercise and the echos in that room, he probably assumed that no one but me could hear him. That was my assumption, anyway. (Of course, my hearing is not as good as the average person’s, so perhaps my judgement on what others can hear isn’t reliable.)

    On the other hand, he and I were hardly the only fat middle-aged guys in the class, and we had no prior relationship. Thinking about it now, it wouldn’t surprise me if he had made similar comments to some of the other men in class, when he happened to wind up directly next to them in the pool. But of course, I can’t know that for sure.

  29. Kevin says:

    “Being sexualized by a stranger without consent is a form of sexual harassment.”

    And who said he wanted to have sex with the instructor? I didn’t see that anywhere in Barry’s description.

    This is a remarkably anti-feminist discussion: women as helpless, despite a position of authority, and even unaware of the threat!

  30. annajcook says:

    Kevin,

    I don’t trust that you are actually reading my comments in good faith, given the way you responded to them, but I am going to try and clarify one more for you.

    1) regarding “thought police,” you will notice that in the third paragraph of my comment I explicitly say that acting as “thought police” is both impossible and inappropriate. What I was saying in the passage you excerpted is that the man who made the comment to Barry shouldn’t assume that saying what he is thinking out loud is going to be well-received by a classmate simply because that classmate happens to be another man.

    2) I’m not sure where you get from “being sexualized by a stranger…” to “wanted to have sex with…”. Sexualizing someone just means framing that person in a sexual way. By expressing the desire that the instructor stay out of the pool so that she could be visible in her swimming attire, the speaker was sexualizing her. Obviously we don’t want to have sex with every person we sexualize in our imagination (I might think X actress is incredibly hot, or Y actor’s hands are sexy, but that doesn’t mean if given the opportunity I’d want to get naked with them).

    Finally, Kevin, you’ll notice that I wasn’t speaking in a gender-specific way in final paragraph: as a woman, if I were to sexualize a male instructor or classmate, etc., in a public way without their consent that would be sexual harassment too. So I don’t think you can say this is an anti-feminist/sexist way of framing the situation. Regardless of gender, people have the right not to be sexualized publicly without their consent.

  31. Kevin, I’m not a moderator here. But speaking in an unofficial capacity, I feel that some of your comments (i.e., “this is hilarious!”) are not expressed in a way that indicates that you’re trying to treat the other folks here with respect, even when you disagree with them.

    I’m not a moderator, but this is, in a sense, my thread. For that reason, as a favor to me, I hope you’ll consider dialing down the mocking tone a few notches, so that we can all enjoy this discussion more. Thanks.

  32. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Under this view, women are akin to children, needing protection- at once placed on a pedestal which also serves as an autonomy-limiting prison.

    I think most *people*, of both sexes, are in many ways akin to children. We very often don’t know what’s good for us, and have mistaken ideas about what we really need or want. And yes, autonomy is pretty overrated, at least in our society. I don’t think this is exactly news to any thoughtful person.

    I’m generally on the left, but I’d call myself culturally conservative at least as regards gender issues. I think you’re right that feminists and cultural conservatives are going to find it hard to find common ground. From my side of the aisle, it’s hard to find common ground with people that believe in abortion rights, for example.

    Re: But I would never feel comfortable leaning over to a classmate and making a remark that sexualized the instructor of a class

    Seriously? In high school, or college, or work environments, you never talked to your friends about how good looking the teacher or co-worker was? If that’s the case, then all I can say is, your experience is very different than mine.

    I wouldn’t say something like that in the *workplace*, because it could interfere with the work environment, and I draw a pretty sharp line between personal life and the workplace. But in other environments (volunteer work, classes, social environments where there isn’t any boss-employee relationship present), sure, there’s nothing wrong with expressing that you think someone is pretty. That’s how, you know, people date, get into relationships, and marry.

    Re: when they have not also expressed interest in developing a sexual interaction with you.

    Uhhhh…..how do you know if they are interested in you, unless you ask them out? And at least for me, it takes me a long time to get up the courage to ask someone out (that I know), and it’s normally preceded by lots of talking with friends about my being attracted and whether I should ask them out. (Honestly, mostly, with women, as I probably have more women friends than men). If I let the feminists shame me out of feeling/expressing romantic interest towards women, I’d still be trapped in the social anxiety and unhappiness that it took a very long time to get out of.

    As Kevin said, a lot of women put a lot of value on their appearance, consider it really important, and would love to be complimented on their looks (particularly if they’re insecure already). How about their experience, or do they not count since they tend not to self-identify as feminists?

    Re: What I find interesting is how insistent some men are on telling women what is and isn’t sexism or harassment against women. And, to hand-waive it away as PC Gone Amok, rather than listening to women seems especially rude.

    Sorry, I’m generally unimpressed by arguments that start, “As a woman-”, “As a Chinese person_”, etc. It’s unclear to me why you are any more knowledgeable about what counts as sexism than me, Kevin, or anyone else.

  33. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Anna J Cook,

    I’m going to dial down my tone and refrain from mockery, as Barry requested. So I’ll just ask, again, how do you think people get into relationships, if they aren’t supposed to express interest in women they think are attractive? (Or men they think are attractive, or high-status, or whatever else).

  34. fannie says:

    I’m also not convinced Kevin is really picking up on the nuances that people’s arguments include.

    In my reading, folks have been pretty careful to say that it was this man’s multiple verbal comments, rather than his thoughts, that were not appropriate.

    When someone says that a man might have been sexist, it’s interesting how quickly some men go straight to this exaggerated response of It’s the thought police! or Now men and women will never be able to flirt which means they’ll never be able to marry! I think those kind of comments are not thoughtful or really even responsive to the situation at hand here.

    A reasonable middle ground exists that I think Kevin and Hector are really overlooking. How Barry handled the situation, rather tepidly suggesting that the man’s comments were inappropriate models a middle ground pretty well, I think. No one’s going to arrest him. No one’s going to fire him. No one’s going to put a bug in his brain and start monitoring his thoughts.

    If anything, Barry’s comment might make the man be more mindful and respectful in the future. I wonder why that seems so threatening to some people.

  35. annajcook says:

    Hector writes:

    Seriously? In high school, or college, or work environments, you never talked to your friends about how good looking the teacher or co-worker was? If that’s the case, then all I can say is, your experience is very different than mine.

    Hector, if you notice that was actually the point of what I wrote: that your experience (as a male-identified, male-socialized person moving through the world) and my experience (as a female-identified/socialized person) are very different.

    And yes, seriously. With intimate friends, as I already said in a previous comment, crushes and desires are part of private conversations. But I would never find it appropriate to talk about a professor or co-worker with acquaintances. I see that as intrusive and rude toward the person whom the remarks are being said about and potentially uncomfortable (as in Barry’s case) for the person those sentiments are being expressed to — a person who now is in the uncomfortable position of knowing how you think about this third individual whom both of you interact with in professional settings.

  36. fannie says:

    Hector:

    “Sorry, I’m generally unimpressed by arguments that start, ‘As a woman-’, ‘As a Chinese person_’, etc. It’s unclear to me why you are any more knowledgeable about what counts as sexism than me, Kevin, or anyone else.It’s unclear to me why you are any more knowledgeable about what counts as sexism than me, Kevin, or anyone else.”

    Well let me just clear that up for you then.

    My argument is that, not only as a woman, but as a woman who thinks, writes, and talks critically about gender and sexism on a near-daily basis and has become adept at recognizing, being on the receiving end of, and discussing patterns of sexism and sexist behavior, I do deem myself to be a better judge of what counts as sexism against women than someone who does not have this lived experience, and especially compared to those who (1) tend not to think critically about gender or sexism and/or (2) those whose privileged status as men is contingent upon them not recognizing or “failing to see” sexism against women.

    I really don’t care about the extent that this argument “impresses” you, Hector. We can consider that sentiment mutual.

  37. Kevin says:

    I agree, Fannie, the salient point is that Barry saw a perceived injustice, fought his hesitance to try to right it, and was rewarded with an outcome that was far less scary than he might have anticipated.

    And Barry certainly has the right to say what he wants, and face the consequences. He may have cost himself a new friendship. He may have convinced the other guy, who was perhaps already socially nervous and ill-at-ease with near public nudity, to not return to the class, and miss out on the exercise he needs. He may have cut a sexual aggressor off at the pass, who knows.

    I just am astonished that this is considered a case of sexism, or “sexualization.” The instructor might have been “beauty-ized” but sexualized? That presumes that all (straight) men find all women sexually attractive. Not true. Everything isn’t sexual; that’s how straight women routinely comment on each others’ appearance, outfits, etc.

    To call this sexism trivializes sexism, and distracts from addressing it.

  38. annajcook says:

    Kevin, you can sexualize someone without finding them personally sexually attractive. Straight women uninterested in sexual relationships with other women routinely contribute to the casual and constant sexualization of other women, as do gay men.

    I suppose you and I may simply disagree on this point, but I don’t think to identify this as a problem is to trivialize sexism. Rather, I think it is a manifestation of sexism that shows how deeply normalized the women-on-display mentality is, so pervasive that it’s difficult to even see how the commodification is happening (because that’s “just what people do” or “how people talk”).

  39. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: My argument is that, not only as a woman, but as a woman who thinks, writes, and talks critically about gender and sexism on a near-daily basis and has become adept at recognizing, being on the receiving end of, and discussing patterns of sexism and sexist behavior, I do deem myself to be a better judge of what counts as sexism against women than someone who does not have this lived experience, and especially compared to those who (1) tend not to think critically about gender or sexism and/or (2) those whose privileged status as men is contingent upon them not recognizing or “failing to see” sexism against women.

    Right, I can see that’s your argument, I just disagree with it. Did it ever occur to you that you might be, you know, wrong about what counts as sexism, and what doesn’t?

    Re: And yes, seriously. With intimate friends, as I already said in a previous comment, crushes and desires are part of private conversations. But I would never find it appropriate to talk about a professor or co-worker with acquaintances. I see that as intrusive and rude toward the person whom the remarks are being said about and potentially uncomfortable

    Wow.

    Well, our experiences and world-views certainly are very different, and I don’t particularly see anything wrong with privately commenting on a good looking person that your work with/have classes with, or complimenting someone (outside the workplace) on her appearance, and I don’t particularly see the need for men who do that to stop doing that. I’d point out that a lot of women disagree with you, too. I hear women talking about their hot professors or co-workers all the time, and most of the friends that I talk about crushes with are, you know, women.

    Re: Barry’s comment might make the man be more mindful and respectful in the future

    Possibly. Or it might, you know, make him jeer and mock at Barry with his friends in private, and just double down on his current behavior.

  40. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: I just am astonished that this is considered a case of sexism, or “sexualization.” The instructor might have been “beauty-ized” but sexualized?

    Right, I completely agree.

    To call this ‘sexism’ is wildly abusing the English language.

  41. Kevin says:

    Anna, I agree to disagree, but it’s more than that. It’s the presumption that all men are inherently sexual predators, with ulterior motives and unsavory designs on women. That our sexuality is uncontrollable, once provoked. I can only imagine the outrage on this thread if the comment came from a black man.

    It’s a gray area and we’ll probably never all agree on what the exact boundaries are. That women fear men on some level doesn’t make men a danger, or the enemy.

    At the risk of overthinking all of this, Barry is a man, even he’s buying into the “guilty until proven innocent” charges leveled at men. Men are being turned against each other, and for what? A compliment, a compliment that the instructor didn’t even hear. Not a threat, not a grab, not a cat call.

  42. annajcook says:

    Kevin wrote:

    It’s the presumption that all men are inherently sexual predators, with ulterior motives and unsavory designs on women.

    Kevin, I understand that that is definitely a pervasive mythology in our culture, one which I like you disagree with. Nothing that I have said in any of my comments thus far suggests that “unsavory designs” motivated this man — I don’t know what motivated him. From my perspective, the comment was inappropriate whether it was meant to be negative or positive; it would also have been inappropriate whether it had come from the mouth of a male or female or trans* class participant. It is inappropriate because it is framing the instructor of the class as a person whose bodily display is a key aspect of her presence in the room / teaching the class. (And not in the sense of “could you move a little to the left so I can see the movement you’re demonstrating, please?”). It’s inappropriate because it’s framing the instructor (regardless of gender) as a person who should be on display for the class participant (again, regardless of gender). Treating another human being in this way, in this context, is creepy whether or not there is predatory intent.

    So I don’t think Barry’s analysis of the situation (or Fannie’s or La Lubu’s or my own) hinges on the narrative of all men as sexual predators. It’s not about the intent of individual men or men in general — it’s about a cultural that sexualizes (or “beauty-izes” or simply objectifies) certain bodies without the consent of those persons who are being sexualized.

  43. kisarita says:

    It’s interesting that you wrote “men are being turned against each other”. In fact this incident is exactly the opposite of men turning against each other. As Barry describes it; it seems it was a sincere and respectful communication between two men.

  44. La Lubu says:

    It’s the presumption that all men are inherently sexual predators, with ulterior motives and unsavory designs on women. That our sexuality is uncontrollable, once provoked.

    You have an awfully active imagination. What women, and some men, have been saying on this thread is that this man’s action (not thoughts, not personal unspoken observation) was inappropriate in this particular circumstance; and that Barry (another man, remember? one who hasn’t described himself or been described by others—or at least others I know, and I’ve been reading his blog and other fellow-traveling blogs for what, over a decade?) handled the awkward situation with grace and maturity.

    I can only imagine the outrage on this thread if the comment came from a black man.

    This comes from where, exactly?

    At the risk of overthinking all of this, Barry is a man, even he’s buying into the “guilty until proven innocent” charges leveled at men. Men are being turned against each other, and for what?

    Complete hyperbole. Again, Barry responded to an action. Not a thought. Not an unspoken observation. An action. An action that would likely alienate members of the class from one another (*cough* for all the talk about community on this blog, can you grok that, at least?) had it been overheard (I suspect it was, mostly because I have really good hearing). Men weren’t being “turned against one another”. Barry spoke up, the guy apologized, and that was that. Basic Adulthood 101.

  45. fannie says:

    Hector,

    “Right, I can see that’s your argument,”

    Well, you’re the one who asked what my argument was, suggesting that you didn’t “see” my argument, that’s why I provided a detailed explanation.


    “I just disagree with it. Did it ever occur to you that you might be, you know, wrong about what counts as sexism, and what doesn’t?”

    Yes, actually. I think about gender and sexism every day, like I said, so it does regularly cross my mind that I might be wrong. I’ve evaluated and re-evaluated my opinions over the course of many years, reading a wide variety of feminist and non-feminist opinions, arguments, books, blogs, journal articles, and periodicals.

    What I’m fairly confident is that, in most cases about sexism against women, I’m about 95% certain that I’m going to be less wrong than you or anyone else who baldly dismisses a charge of sexism with the intellectually-vapid rebuttal that this all an instance of “politically correct silliness run amock, and not to be taken seriously.”

    Multiple women here have given example after example of why they think it’s reasonable for thoughtful people to take this issue seriously and you act like you know, better than all of us, what truly is and is not sexism against women. As though we’re going to, or should, dismiss our lived experiences with sexism Because Hector Said So.

    So, maybe you can tell us. What, pray tell, do you believe qualifies you to be the ultimate arbiter of what does and doesn’t count as sexism against women?

    Have you dressed in drag lately so you could maybe get a better sense of women’s lived experiences being regularly objectified?

    What feminist books, blogs, or articles have you read or do you regularly read? What books on gender, gender studies, or gender issues have you read or are you currently reading? What is your working definition of sexism, do you even have one? What courses have you taken, or do you teach, where this topic is explored in great depth?

    Or, is the reality that you’re kind of just talking off the cuff here?

    What I’m getting at here is that I’m wondering if you, sir, have considered that you might be wrong and that you, actually, don’t have lots to teach women about what does and doesn’t count as sexism against women?

  46. Kevin says:

    “You have an awfully active imagination.”

    I’d say I’m not the only one! A man makes a remark about an attractive woman and it’s assumed that his intentions are dishonorable. A woman makes an analogous remark (hypothetically) and its harmless banter.

    CNN today has an online article about Tim McGraw’s buff new body, including a picture of McGraw’s sculpted abdomen. Ignoring considerations about the newsworthiness of such an article, is it sexist? Should McGraw be offended? Should I, as a man, be? All men? His wife?

    Separately, during college bowl season, color commentator Brent Mussberger remarked on camera, that the girlfriend of one of the quarterbacks, who was frequently on camera, was very pretty. Like, really pretty. Like, Brent, shut up, we get it! He got a lot of flack for that. The girlfriend, however, when asked, calmly explained that she wasn’t offended in the least, and the reaction to Mussberger’s comments were needless. Should she have been offended? The boyfriend has been silent. Should he confront Mussberger?

  47. Kevin says:

    “Basic Adulthood 101″

    Sometimes, being an adult means picking and choosing your battles, or even minding your own business, or withholding judgment until you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

    I think Barry’s behavior was heroic, the everyday minor heroism that makes a difference, and inspires the rest of us to be better people. It was heroic because he faced his fear, and took a stand against injustice.

    I just happen to think he picked a silly battle, though, to be heroic in. For the life of me, I can’t find the damsel in distress crying out for help.

  48. fannie says:

    “I just happen to think he picked a silly battle, though, to be heroic in. For the life of me, I can’t find the damsel in distress crying out for help.”

    Just to conclude this conversation, I think what I’m about to say might come as a surprise to some of the men here.

    Speaking for myself, getting men to agree with me about what is and isn’t sexist is not my numero uno priority with respect to these conversations and, more generally, my blogging activities. Sure, it’s nice when it happens and I appreciate male allies.

    But, over the years, like many feminist bloggers, I’ve found a much greater satisfaction in having my observations, arguments, and writings resonate with my female readership. Hundreds of women have emailed me over the years to thank me for expressing something problematic about sexism, gender, or culture that they’ve been unable to articulate.

    Some have told me they’ve printed out particular posts I’ve written, saying that they were looking forward to discussing them with their daughters. Others write to say that they read my blog every day, but they’re too shy to comment, or they lack the confidence, or they don’t want to say something and have a man show up at my blog and attack them for it.

    So, you know, having these types of Feminist 101 conversations with men, where I’ve engaged these exact same arguments countless times, is not why I continue to do this. (And seriously, I could have predicted the entire progression of this conversation starting with Hector’s “PC run amok” and ending with Kevin’s gotcha-double-standards that fail to account for all context and history of subordination).

  49. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: CNN today has an online article about Tim McGraw’s buff new body, including a picture of McGraw’s sculpted abdomen. Ignoring considerations about the newsworthiness of such an article, is it sexist? Should McGraw be offended? Should I, as a man, be?

    Great questions, Kevin.

    As I said, I don’t think you should comment on people’s looks in the workplace, but outside of the workplace, I think complimenting people on their looks is usually a *good* thing, not a bad one.

  50. La Lubu says:

    Sometimes, being an adult means picking and choosing your battles, or even minding your own business, or withholding judgment until you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

    And Barry did so: he walked a mile in the shoes of a typical woman, because he’s spent a great deal of time shutting up and listening to women, actively listening—not interpolating his own experiences over and above what he heard. He did the right thing. “Damsel in distress”? Please. He nipped rudeness in the bud. We shouldn’t have to wait for the situation to escalate before stepping in.

    And frankly, you have nothing to contribute to a lecture about “picking and choosing battles”. Dude, I’ve spent the past 25 years in a 99% male environment. I could lead a master’s class in how to pick and choose one’s battles with sexism. Doesn’t make it any less draining.