Photo by the author
It happened again last night.
Here’s the scene:
On the weekends, I sometimes pick up catering gigs. At this particular catering company, I am the new guy, and on this night there are two of us men out of around 20 total staff members.
It’s the end of the night, four other female staff members and myself are scarfing down leftovers before hustling to finish up. We are all joking and laughing, I’m enjoying being included in the camaraderie, particularly after making a rookie mistake earlier in the night.
Then out of nowhere, and with lively energy one of the women says to me, “I have to tell you, you are so handsome!” The whole group bubbles with laughter. I’m surprised, laugh a little, feeling shy.
The women, one of whom is my boss, talk amongst themselves about me, my body, how I look, how I should be a model, making vague statements about what they would do if I weren’t married. This all happens as I stand there eating oysters. One woman discloses that my handsomeness is a conversation that several other female staff members have joined over the last two days, including my other immediate boss.
The women are feeding off each other’s energy, almost forgetting I am standing there. There is a tone of playfulness, even complementariness. No malevolence or harm intended.
I used to enjoy this kind of attention. But after years of waiting tables, this kind of flattery feels boring and a little cheap. All too frequently I’d serve a table of women who’d flatter me with comments about my physical appearance, long looks and subtle sexual energy. I used to burn with frustration out of the obligation my role required to play nice, to get a tip. My body would feel the grossness of compromise, the twisted use of an incentive, and the confusion and pain of feeling like an object.
This time I just feel curious about answers to familiar questions. Am I too sensitive? Is there anything wrong with what’s happening?
As things continue, there is a slight undertone of discomfort that at least the boss seems clued into. Amidst her participation in the conversation, laughter, and energy she does two things.
First, she explains that the woman who brought up my handsomeness is Swedish and that this type of conversation is not a significant thing in Sweden.
“I did not know that about Sweden,” I think forgivingly and also skeptically.
Second, she comments about my wife being 10 times more attractive than I am. It then comes out that they’ve also been having a conversation about how my wife and I should be be in magazines together, modeling how perfect and happy our life looks.
At this point I start to get confused. Were the boss’ moves conscious diversions or a natural next topic? Is it more ok to talk about women’s bodies?
At some point one of the women attempts to offer me advice about receiving compliments. I’m failing to understand her and am feeling kind of stupid. Is she sensing discomfort? Is she trying to help? What is she really saying?
For the most part I stay silent, watch, listen and obligingly smile from time to time.
The whole thing naturally diffuses after no more than five minutes, but my mind stays churning. What just happened? How am I supposed to feel?
I genuinely like these women. Over the two days prior they were welcoming and helpful. But were they nice only because they think I’m attractive? The familiar insecurities of perceived objectification.
You’ve likely done this already, but imagine reversing the genders. Four men, one is the boss, in the presence of a new female co-worker, who’s just happy to be sharing camaraderie with others. The men tell her how attractive she is, talk about her physical appearance, what they would do if she weren’t married, etc. They disclose that her other male colleagues are all having the same discussion about her. Men feeding off each others energy, laughing, complimenting her body, subtle sexual energy flying around. The conversation gets justified because the Swedish man who started it doesn’t know better; it’s a cultural thing.
When I reverse the genders I feel angry at the men for their objectification and lack of respect. I feel righteously judgmental and pissed at them for giving other men a bad name. I feel guilty, I want to apologize, do something to restore trust. Do I assume the woman needs or wants help? Do I assume she needs or wants to speak for herself? Does being supportive in this situation look the same for all women? It’s all so complicated…
An important concept in the social justice world is “allyship.” According to the Anti-Oppression Network, allyship “is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.” Many of us are learning how to be allies in the face of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Speaking up and naming when oppression is happening, becoming aware of unequal and unearned systems of support. I am a believer in allyship, and am on the never ending path of learning how to be a better ally.
I wonder, could allyship have been called for me in this situation?
As a white male, working through my guilt over patriarchy, racism and other forms of oppression, I am more than slightly afraid of even bringing up allyship for myself. I am the one who should be, and needs to learn how to be, the ally. Whatever I experience is less than a fraction of what others confront daily. I don’t deserve an ally.
And yet, all my training tells me that what I experienced here is at least some form of harassment. I cringe even writing that word. I wonder to myself if intent matters in defining harassment? In this situation I want it to, AND that opens a can of worms I want closed for other situations.
When I think back to the moment, had one of the women spoken up for me it might have made it unnecessarily complicated and uncomfortable. My male ego might have been bruised. Awkwardness might have followed.
I am not angry at the women from the other night. I am willing to let them off the hook. Only one of them chose the topic of conversation, and while the others stayed in to varying degrees, they were caught in a complex situation. Having been at the center of so many interactions like these, I hear myself saying, “that’s just women being women.” The familiar voice of American male conditioning tells me I should be able to handle it, play with it, even escalate it. “Real men enjoy subtle sexual energy from women.”
Or, should I be offended and angry? No matter how simple, or harmless, it’s not ok for men to behave this way. The same should be true for women right?
I can’t even tell what’s right and I begin to not trust my own thinking. I am probably too sensitive.
I just want to keep my job. I don’t want to make it weird. This just happened once. I’m not sure anything is wrong.
As I arrive in this place, I begin to notice this story might be a small part of what it’s like to be a woman or any person who confronts overt and/or subtle forms of oppression daily. Many versions of which threaten so much more than what’s at stake in this story.
The consistent accepting, defending or questioning of where one stands, what’s true or real, and our role in it all – it’s a lot of work and it can be uncomfortable. It’s a reality one part of me wants to hide from because I sense that it means walking differently in this world. And I could hide from it, I have actually. And that’s the uncomfortable truth. It’s a choice for some, and not for others.