To the friend of the friend who harasses me, a letter:
Thank you for the invite and I am sorry I didn’t make it.
There’s something that’s been gnawing at me since June that made me hesitant to socialize at HipBar again. I think about the incident far too often. It kept me up last night, actually. It has finally reached the point where I cannot suppress my profound discomfort and anger any longer. I regret that this will likely cause discomfort to you. I have been dealing with tremendously hurt feelings privately and am no longer willing to tolerate being made uncomfortable, since, I am not the one initiating the situation. Unfortunately, XYZ is.
Every time I have ever encountered XYZ he looks me seriously, deeply in the eyes and says “you’re very beautiful.” I have told you this before. Well, it hasn’t stopped. I have met him about 6 times, and he has said the exact same thing to me immediately after I say hello to him, as if on auto pilot, 6 times now. I am profoundly uncomfortable by his sexually motivated comments.
I know he is your friend and you esteem and value him. As I have expressed before: I wish I could know the side of him that you experience. I always try to change the subject immediately and engage him in meaningful conversation because you guys are so close. Plus, I try to give people a chance, even if they come across in a bad way at first. I have given him the benefit of the doubt for years now and in June I was like, ok, deep breath, be generous and go say hi. And honest to god, I say “hi XYZ, how are you,” he replied “i’m well. You’re really beautiful. You have very beautiful eyes.” I almost threw up. I had a physical reaction I was so insulted, so PISSED. It is the most transparent, unrelenting sexual harassment I have ever encountered from a peer, ever. I do not understand what causes him to insist on asserting his dominance over me by declaring his “appreciation” each and every time. It is as if I live in some perpetual beauty pageant in his mind. He continues to insist on evaluating my appearance, like a Miss America contest, and I should feel honored that he approves and have been awarded his approval, lucky lucky me.
Despite years of trying to be friendly, he refuses to engage me as a person. He only engages me as a thing to appreciate and evaluate based on how much pleasure my looks give him. And what kind of pleasure? Sexual pleasure. Arousal. Sex. Fucking, if you want to be blunt. I’m pretty sure these comments are not innocent. Inability to be friends has been established long, long ago.
He has never spoken to me about anything normal (culture, politics, ideas, weather, travel, etc). He has always become evasive if I inquire about his work or anything that would be considered a typical conversation subject and then dismisses me by walking away. I have made conscious efforts to be friendly with his wife, who I genuinely like, in the hopes that he will be respectful to me and stop treating me like an object. Sadly, that has also failed. He is unrelenting.
Recently, it has gotten more obnoxious, more public, more insulting. I introduced XYZ to ManFriend at OtherMutualFriend’s birthday party last year. He was completely dismissive of ManFriend and practically walked away in the middle of shaking ManFriend’s hand. An odd (or, completely guilty?) behavior for someone who was just staring deeply into my eyes talking about my beauty. ManFriend and I were both mystified by this behavior. We tried to forget about it. Then when I reintroduced XYZ to ManFriend at HipBar in June, he wouldn’t even look ManFriend in the eye or say hello. He just sort of nodded and walked off. I’m not sure how much more rude a person can be towards another person other than to not even acknowledge their presence by looking at them. XYZ then proceeded to turn to me a few minutes later and state loudly “you know you are really beautiful” so loudly that both XYZFiance and ManFriend overheard. XYZFiance, who I had just had a very nice conversation with, started glaring at me. ManFriend looked at me and said, I’m leaving, and walked out. I was floored. Besides the transparent lack of respect towards me, I couldn’t believe the utter lack of consideration on XYZ’s part towards everyone else; it was as if he didn’t realize that making sexual comments is tacky and classless unless it’s to the person with whom you have an actual romantic involvement (or budding one). Out of that context, it’s harassment. It made the space immediately toxic and uncomfortable for every single person involved: me, his Fiance, my ManFriend. I left immediately, incredibly pissed off. I would have called him out but I was in no mood to cause further awkwardness on a difficult night, beyond what I had just been forced into. I shut my mouth and have been living in a private hell (suck it up and take it!) ever since.
Sadly, I don’t know how XYZ is “normally” (which I guess means relating to dudes and women he finds unattractive). I repeatedly hear great things from you, but since I have only heard about 8 sentences from him, ever, and they are always inappropriately sexual-attraction based, I can only judge him based on my experience. I have to be frank: I feel dehumanized and like shit after each encounter. And when he talks to me he stands very close, making me feel trapped, like he’s mildly predatory and I’m about to be victim to something. I hate it.
I’ve spent four months thinking about this. I’ve also been reading a lot about what is sexism and what is harassment. Technically, his behavior falls under both categories. I deal with male aggression almost every day and easily recognize both forms of sexually aggressive behavior. I’m not sure what is worse, strangers or a colleague — as it is deeply unnerving to deal with sexual harassment from a person you should by all other accounts be friends with.
The thing that made me realize that this is unacceptable, and that there is no argument against it, is that if you turn the tables, it’s completely out of line. When I see him I don’t say, Hi XYZ, You’re black! His comments on my physical appearance are just as superficial and unwelcome as my comment on race would be. Racism and sexism are very closely linked because in daily life both emerge as subtle, frequently undetected forms of keeping people down, “in their place”. It’s harder to understand sexism because people think that comments are flattering and that discussing a woman’s beauty is a compliment. It’s not. It’s a form of sexual advance that displays the sexual arousal of the compliment-giver, it’s not innocent at all. It’s domineering and threatening (aroused men can lead to unwanted sex (aka rape) if men are inconsiderate, selfish automatrons; this is why all sexual advances pose a potential threat and why being a privileged, educated man makes it extra aggravating: he should know better than to treat women in a way that is both patronizing and threatening). Commenting on women’s looks is a form of catcalling if it’s not coming from a lover or from a person the woman knows and appreciates hearing it from. Both sexism and racism are forms of control and asserting dominance over a person by appointing yourself in charge of determining the value, the worth, of that person based on visible outside traits (not on internal qualities like, say, character, intellect, soul). Men historically have asserted dominance and superiority over women this way. Whites have done the same with many non whites. It’s a subtle way for men, or white people, to maintain an upper hand in society: to assert yourself as the powerful one in tiny tiny ways in seemingly innocent conversation.
Be it conscious or unconscious, XYZ has proven six times over that he feels he is entitled to be the authority on my appearance, evaluating if I’m beautiful or not, and CLEARLY derives personal pleasure from both looking at me and telling me – otherwise he wouldn’t be doing it. It is unacceptable, unwanted, and insulting. What I look like is not in the public domain and up for discussion. And I certainly do not want to hear it from him — Unless his blackness is up for conversation too, or his whiteness, or his manliness. Unless I can comment on that freely and make him feel like a small piece of crap, just like he makes me feel. If so: then the playing field would be fair, but morally demented.
To conclude: what I look like is none of his business or anyone else’s. And I want him to stop.
Thank you for listening to my discomfort and anger. I regret that I am sharing it with you first, not him. I will tell him also. He deserves to hear it from me directly. And ought to be made respectfully aware of the profoundly damaging impact of his commentary, a privilege he clearly hasn’t considered to be what it is: a form of sexual harassment.
My point to you is: I am sorry I didn’t show up; I wanted to see you and Others. I like and respect you all very much. I was concerned that if I did show up, and if he was there, I would be very direct and confront him to his face about how his behavior makes me feel. I didn’t want to bother you or your sister or disturb the party. So I didn’t show up. I hope you understand.
I wish things were otherwise; I wish I wasn’t put in a position to have to type this email. Unfortunately, the reality is: this email was long overdue.
Ps. This: http://www.bustle.com/articles/46527-6-things-you-might-not-think-are-harassment-but-definitely-are-because-apparently-we-need-to
Pps. Happy Birthday, XYZ.