Using and Abusing

I don’t know what to do with men on the street.  I am mostly quite good at not seeing them, even as I watch them for threat or danger.  Sometimes one will push or slide past my shield, and I have no choice but to interact with him in some way.  I have yet to develop the ‘face of beligerence’ that Fox and my mother can level with such skill, but I can manage an outraged-but-dismissive glance down my nose.

I wore one of my favorite summer dresses on Friday.  It was hot, I was listening to Juanes, singing along in my head.  As I passed, a man seated in front of a shop stood and leaned into my path, put his beery breath in my face and started singing Besame Mucho.

I love Besame Mucho.  It’s languid and melancholy.  It reminds me of Oscar Hijuelos and João Gilberto and a beautiful elderly Chinese man on the Lexington F-train platform playing it like a soulful moan on his gaohu.

I love Besame Mucho, but I don’t really want a stranger — particularly not a half-naked, half-drunk, fully-sweaty one — blocking my path and throwing it in my face.

With headphones on, I can pretend I don’t hear, which lets me pretend I don’t notice.  I can keep on down the street to the party beat of La Noche.  But why do I have to be bothered by this in any way anyway?

I could go on and on, work up to a real rant.  But that’s the wrong direction.  I’m more upset with myself right now.  I don’t want random masturbators trying to make time with me on the street, but I use them.  Ok, not the disgusting men, but men in general.  I am quite consciously aware of how some men will respond to my voice, my smile, and to some things about me that are … uh … shall we say very up front.  I know and I take advantage of what I know when I need to.  Not five minutes after the half-naked singing man, I used my Sweet Girl voice to get some heavy-lifting help from a stranger in a store. 

Didn’t they used to call it “feminine wiles,” this manipulative behavior?  Fox isn’t a fan.  She thinks it’s demeaning, insulting, that women resort to such tactics, that I resort to such tactics.  I hear her.  And sometimes even I find myself rolling my eyes and getting annoyed and disgusted when I see women doing it … but I do it, still.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  Yes.

Part of me feels a little sheepish about this, but part of me thinks, “Why not?”  If men are so foolish as to let themselves be taken in because of my voice, my smile, my breasts (yeah, let’s just put it out there … we all know what I’m talking about), whose fault is that?  And where’s the harm, really?  They get to feel all “manly,” whatever that means for them, and I get to walk away without breaking a sweat … or a nail.

Except there is harm, isn’t there?  Every time I smile pretty or use my girly voice or pretend not to notice some man directing his conversation at my chest instead of my face I’m making it harder for the next woman who walks up and has a question, for the next woman who becomes his supervisor or assistant and has to deal with the belief I’ve helped cement that women are helpless and needy or that we exist for his pleasure.

Feh.

Fox will be happy to see that the light bulb’s finally gone on over my head, but I’m annoyed.  Do I have to be conscientious all the time?  Sometimes I really just want some guy to hold the door open or offer me his seat or put my suitcase on the overhead rack.  Is that so wrong?

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7 thoughts on “Using and Abusing

  1. Thank you for this honest post! I’m ambivalent too… and also a lot less confident than you are. I realized a few years ago that I have so little experience with men, I actually don’t really know how to interact with men who aren’t my relatives or my husband or my good friends. I guess I mean I don’t know how to be myself around them, which is probably another way of saying I reshape myself to their expectations or the way they treat me. Not good.

    1. Hey, thanks for visitng my blog! And thanks for the comment. I don’t know that I’m all that confident when it comes to dealing with men, but in a city as big and crowded as this one, they’re thrown in my path on a regular basis, so …

      Your comment about adapting yourself to men’s expecations/treatment is right on. This is what I feel I’m doing when I use my so-called ‘wiles’ to get things I want. I do it, but it troubles me.

  2. I guess one could almost make a case that when a woman smiles and asks a man for help, a person of lesser physical strength or lesser physical ability at that moment (e.g., due to injury) is pleasantly asking a person of greater physical capability at that moment for assistance.

    I guess I think it’s perfectly fine to smile and ask a man for help AND to be adamantly opposed to being expected to interact in a certain way on the street because some stranger has decided on that. I think asking for help is fine, and men are often taller and stronger than we are (alas!), and one naturally is pleasant when making a request in any circumstances. (Am I rationalizing here?)

    1. I don’t think you’re rationalizing, Linda. Sounds as if you’re going down the same path my thoughts run down, too. Yes, we are polite and pleasant (and a little ingratiating?) when we ask for help … but I still can’t explain away the fact that I know full well what I’m doing (that I’m “turning on the charm” as it were) when I ask in a particular set of ways.

      Hmm … still thinking about this one.

  3. Janet Isserlis

    hmm. interesting tensions. on the one hand, it *could* be about people helping one another. Ways in which we ask for/seek assistance in the world. On the other hand, clearly it’s about a form of manipulation – -and I’m not sure that in and of itself that manipulation is only and always a bad thing.

    What about the guy on the train with the baby; how we as women might see him as “nurturing” because he’s looking after his/a child…

    think that when we clearly use our gender/race/power/lack of power to get others to do things for us, we need to be aware of our intentions. Not sure that I completely agree that we ruin it for other women when we use our wiley ways – but I do think you raise a really good point. and appreciate the minute to think about it. (or more than a minute but I should really get back to working…)

    thanks, stacie

    1. Hi, Janet–
      I like the idea that manipulations isn’t “only and always a bag thing.” I’ll have to think about that one some. And I think your final point, about being aware of our intentions, aware that we are using race/gender/whatever to get others to do things for us, is really the part I’m thinking so hard about. Because I am fully aware of what I’m doing when I do it. I make a conscious decision to manipulate. And I think I really need to look at that, think about what it means, what it says.

      (I love checking in and finding you here!)

  4. Pingback: The August 2010 Just Posts | collecting tokens

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