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Offense in the Eye of the Beholder

As an English teacher in China, I taught thousands of lessons to students of all ages. However, the one I feel proudest for having done was the one where I taught all the major swear words. Tons of teachers (and administrators) have been vocal with me before and after about not doing what I did. But as I taught adults then and I had the approval of my line manager, I ran the lesson.

I created a full notice in Chinese and English explaining that the lesson would include swear words and made sure students knew that if they might feel uncomfortable with offensive language, this might be a good English Corner to miss. Despite my warnings posted for two weeks before the lesson, a record number of students showed up with pen and notebooks ready.

I began by asking whether the thumbs up sign was “good” or “bad.” Of course, students responded “good” but when I asked whether it was good in Thailand or Australia, they correctly guessed that it was not. As I explained, language is not inherently good or bad. It depends on how it is interpreted by the listener. That’s why it was so important to know the swear words Westerners use most often if for no other reason than to avoid using them yourself. This was particularly pointed for our students as many had trouble with the “ee” and “p” sounds and described a lot of unfortunate trips to the bitch, or rather interesting anecdotes of taking a “shit” across the ocean.

With the excuses out of the way, I led a game where each group unscrambled their particular swear words, slapped the table and shouted the word across the room. I introduced the language (with their individual nuances), finished the lesson by teaching a song our receptionist had inadvertently been playing for months – Lily Allen’s “Fuck You Very Much.” – Most enjoyable Karaoke moment over.

Later as Teacher Trainer at the same company, I would use this English Corner as an example of making interesting, exciting lessons that give students what they want while continuing to be safe and respectful. I would of course explain this with some heavy concept checking about good ways to cross the line with the political climate in China. But the lesson became a rallying cry for my philosophy on the lessons we taught our students. We must abandon our notions of what we want to do or even assume we should do to intimately understand our audience’s perspective, and then do our utmost to honor it.

Fast forward half a decade or so and my good friend from college is posting this meme. One of the comments below took the opportunity to complain that the double standard wasn’t fair. Shouldn’t men be allowed to compliment a woman’s appearance? It seems to me that many people today would say, “Yes”. But with my set up you might have a guess as to where this argument is going.

Before I transitioned and when I was still living as a male, I argued similarly. It wasn’t uncommon for me to tell a girl, friend or otherwise, that I thought she was pretty or had nice hair. Often I meant the comment to be purely friendly. Sometimes, I was kidding myself in thinking I didn’t have feelings for the person. In either case, the girls generally responded appreciatively, though often seemingly harboring a great deal of discomfort. It didn’t make sense to me. Why should they respond so rudely? Hadn’t they understood that I hadn’t meant anything untoward by it?

After I transitioned, however, I found ample reason for the response. When it was me wearing short skirts, or spending an hour on my hair and make-up, I found that the last person I wanted complimenting me was a guy who A) Didn’t seem to understand much of the “beauty game” himself, B) May or may not expect something of me, and C) Did not, Could not understand the power dynamics of a conversation like this. The first few times I was complimented, I responded simply enough with a “thank you.” But after a number of these Thank You’s were followed up by 10 minute arguments on why I should give a guy a phone number or how I knew that I was exclusively into women, I stopped being so polite. Worse, I noticed that a number of these compliments seemed to be associated with a creepy hand on my shoulder, blocking the exit of a room, or walking on a dark street when no one else was around.

The first time I realized just how much the power dynamics had shifted on me was after several months on hormones. I lost most of my muscle mass in a matter of weeks and realized that I could no longer win when wrestling around with my old guy friends – humiliatingly even the weaker ones. I became beholden to guys who could open jars or carry my books. Often, I didn’t want to give the self-deprecating laughs in thanks for these strangers’ service. Often, I didn’t have a choice.

The second time, I was partying at a friend’s dorm room on the other side of campus. 3AM rolled around and I waved my good-byes only to be informed I was mistaken – I would not be walking back to my room alone and this was not up for discussion. I laughed and tried to insist that I would be fine, but my friends (bless their hearts) barred the door and made me wait until their big, strong guy friend arrived to walked me home. I would find out later that three women had been abducted along the same stretch of the road that school year alone.

The third time, I found myself at a hotel party in New York where I was one of three girls a group of 30+ guys had brought to a hot tub party. I heard a lot of compliments about how I looked that night, most of them followed awkward caresses and by physically cornering me in a room (or tub) I couldn’t escape from. I felt compelled to play nice, but felt I was actually in danger from these smiling drunken men. There was nowhere to go until my bus back to Boston the following day. When I told my best friend later that night about all the grabby guys, she incredulously informed me that that’s just what men were like.

Back to the present, I can absolutely understand the outrage and indignance of the post’s response. Nevertheless, I also get what I could not possibly have gotten before transitioning – that women have good reason to associate the comment with aggression at the worst, and uncomfortable moments difficult to escape at best. When a woman compliments another’s appearance, both women know what it’s like to be a woman in a society that seems to believe pussy-grabbing isn’t a worthy disqualifier for president of the United States. Both women understand the pressures to make themselves look beautiful, to simultaneously conform to standards of sexual restraint and not being a prude. Both women can safely assume that the other doesn’t want to get in their pants. Then and only then, a compliment can be accepted as simply a compliment.

Today much of the #MeToo movement and its subsequent backlash seems to boil down to the question of intent versus consequences. Frantic men on Fox News insist that men are now living in fear of wonton rape accusations strewn their way. Powerful men the world over have insisted again and again that they thought they were on the same page with the women (or men) in question. Moreover, the Republican Senate argues that there was no reason an accused sexual assaulter of several women should be denied his rightful position on the Supreme Court. After all, it was just he said, she said (and she said, and she said…).

There’s been much ado about weighing the “male perspective” with the “female perspective,” and I don’t deny that women are about as likely to understand the former, as men are to understand the latter. We have been socialized with different values and different priorities by nature of our experience. Yet, the greatest risks to women in moments of conflict continue to far outweigh the greatest risks that men face. We have a duty to honor ourselves and our perspectives, but we also are obliged to be decent human beings. Not by law, or by threat of career death by social media, but by the rules of respect and equality this country was founded on.

It’s tempting to think that equality means impartiality. But that’s far from true. Equality means that each side gets to be heard, acknowledged, and protected. Yet, there is already an imbalance of power that makes the conditions for equality and impartiality mutually exclusive. When the average woman says she has experienced sexual assault or rape, is not listened too when she shares her experiences, and finds a massive power disparity in all venues of her life, we are obliged by the code of human decency to put a little more weight on the words of those with less power. This is not to say that before the law, women should be listened to at the expense of men. But in order to live up to standards of integrity and mutual respect, it’s just a good idea to first consider how our words and action might affect others.

It’s a revolutionary notion, I know – self-policing to minimize the violence and pain we are capable of inflicting. But our society, legal, and political systems have proven if we don’t self-restrain, no one else will.

#MeToo #Feminism #Respect #Equality #EyeoftheBeholder #Intent #Impact #SexualAssault #SexualHarassment #Rape

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