It isn't a joke, Mr. Therapist

In last Tuesday's Boston Metro, we had the misfortune of reading Jonathan Alpert's "advice column" No More Drama, in which he responds to a female reader's concern about being approached by men in public. Where do we even begin?! We can't decide which part is more distressing - Alpert's joking tone about the serious nature of unwanted public advances or the idea that women should just have to put up with being sexually harassed in public based on their appearance. Here's the counsel Alpert provides (or download the original page):

"It must be tough to be so drop-dead gorgeous that guys hit on you like vultures. Jokes aside, here are possible solutions for dodging them: 1. Avoid all social settings. 2. Wear a "Don't Talk To Me" sign. 3. Learn to distinguish between those who are truly offensive and those who are well-intended.

The problem with No. 1 and 2, apart from the risk of becoming a loner or being perceived as a social outcast, is you'll miss out on opportunities to meet the good guys. Clearly, a guy asking you for a lap dance between the book stacks at Borders is much different than someone taking an interest in the same travel books as you. Rather than lumping all guys into the vulture category, be open to those who may be respectful and capable of good conversation and who could potentially lead to a friendship.

Although you want to relax by yourself, is it possible you unknowingly draw attention by how you dress, walk or present yourself? Though how you dress does not warrant harassment, consider how others may perceive you and make any necessary changes if this really bothers you. If you truly don't want to be approached, then try a polite response: Simply smile and let the guy know it's nothing about him and that you're taking some time to relax by yourself."
Alpert's "column" is what is known as victim-blaming. In addition to not being able to get past his male privilege and the childish idea that we must protect and placate the fragile male ego by making sure they know not to take a rejection personally, Alpert is trying to make a decision for the reader: whom she should trust in public space. It's hard to imagine a more hurtful analysis of such a simple question - "How do I get strange men to leave me alone?" - "You can't, and you shouldn't because you're clearly the one missing out."

As Alpert is a licensed therapist, it's scary to imagine what he might tell female clients who are having these types of problems in public, let alone victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or emotional partner abuse. A woman complains that her husband abuses her, and she wants to know how to get him to leave her alone. So, in hypothetical Alpert-speak, that would translate to: "Learn to distinguish between when he playfully slaps you around with good intention, and when he sexually assaults you. You wouldn't want to miss out on the OPPORTUNITY of being married to a guy who has the potential to be nice to you, and who may, after all, be good at conversation! But most importantly, you're his wife; you married the guy. Therefore, it's definitely your fault on those rare occasions that he sexually assaults you because you're the one wearing that dress that he interprets as: 'Please rape me.' And, remember, next time he comes after you, be sure to smile politely as you try to refuse him."

Like we said, we can only imagine...

The way Alpert assumes his reader must be "asking for it" is a blatant example of perpetrator language. What Alpert fails to realize is that, over time, after being approached one too many times in public, it is NOT that simple for women to distinguish a friendly conversation from potential threat. Many perpetrators initially disguise harassment as a supposed compliment or act in subtle ways that make it difficult to interpret intent. These "compliments" often lead to violent assault, once the perpetrator tests the water, to see whether the woman will respond submissively. The official and disturbing term for this is rape-testing. According to Martha Langelan's discussion in Back Off! How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment, "Rapists are not looking for a fair fight. They have learned that sexual harassment is a good way to gauge the likelihood that a woman will fight back in an assault; if she is passive and timid when harassed, they assume she will be passive and terrified when attacked. So, this kind of rapist moves in on his potential victims, standing too close to one at a bus stop...if she is a classmate, customer, or other acquaintance, he may test her with inappropriate sexual touching or personal comments that are out of line, to see whether she will defend herself or call him on his remarks" (1993, p. 45). Hm. Perhaps Alpert should have done his homework?

Alpert ends his cringe-worthy "analysis" of this problem with the classic street harassment line, "Smile!" After being harassed? Not a chance!! Not here to smile for anyone, sir. In this case, Alpert is also sadly advocating that women use what we call victim language: indirect, self-denigrating language, making excuses for the offensive behavior, apologizing for him, adding all kinds of padding, and basically, letting the guy off the hook and disempowering the woman even more. Here's an example of what victim language looks like, employing Alpert's suggestion: "I'm sorry, excuse me, it's nothing about you, it's actually me. I'm sure you don't really mean anything offensive, but, you know, well, I guess I'm just trying to take some time for myself."

There's such a HUGE difference in effectiveness between that kind of response and the more empowering tactics to holla back that clearly name the intrusive behavior, in plain and direct language, with no passive modifiers whatsoever: "Move away, you're standing too close" or "STOP IT. Leave me alone. That's harassment. I don't like it. Stop harassing women." Ironically, Alpert also makes fun of another tactic we support and recommend: handing out signs telling people to not harass. These alternative strategies work because they actually hold the harasser accountable for his unwanted behavior; they validate the woman's experience without apologies or excuses; and they directly disrupt the imbalanced power scenario that the harasser has created by infringing upon your space, body, and sense of safety.

If you're just as appalled at Alpert's lack of insight and integrity as we are, send him a letter at jonathan.alpert@metro.us and let him know public spaces should remain safe for all. It isn't a joke. It's real.

Written by Michelle Riblett and Brittany Shoot. Creative Commons 2.5.

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At 21:51, Anonymous stephanie said...

Are you guys serious? So, every guy approaching you could be a potential rapist? You guys don't seem to have any humor. I can only imagine how many guys hit on you...

At 14:38, Anonymous Vicki said...

duh. i really don't think they're worried about how many guys hit on them -

At 14:42, Anonymous Tom said...

Hello. I agree that it's not fair to think of every guy as a potential rapist, because there's a difference between a guy hitting on you and harassing you, but you still have to be careful. It's not as if having a sense of humor and automatically trusting every guy that approaches you in this city is going to prevent rape. The freaks are out there!!

At 12:36, Anonymous buggle said...

I just wrote a letter to Jonathon Alpert. It went a little something like this:

I just read your column about sexual harassment on the
street. I'm horrified that you suggested that this woman must be doing something to "invite" harassment. I am harassed at least a few times a week, on the street. I can be wearing my work clothes, my sweat pants, or jeans-it doesn't matter. I still get leers, catcalls, "hey baby" and other nasty stuff.

What you don't seem to realize is that no matter what a woman does, or doesn't do, she'll most likely still experience harassment. I am really appalled that you are a licensed therapist. I wonder if you blame them for all of their problems. If a woman came into your office after being harassed on the street-would you really tell her that she needs to change the way she looks? It's not HER fault she was harassed. You are blaming the victim. It has nothing to do with being "drop-dead orgeous"-take my word for it, I'm not. I don't dress up, wear heels or skirts, or makeup. I don't show cleavage, or really any skin. I'm a
professional woman walking to the bus stop each morning-and I get harassed constantly.

Also, your suggestion that women should just give a polite smile is asinine. Do you think that does
anything? All that does is signal to the man that what he is doing is acceptable. That women are expected to smile graciously when some man is leering at her breasts, staring at her ass, and making rude comments about her pussy-you REALLY think the best approach is to smile politely? Ridiculous.

You clearly have no idea how awful it feels to be constantly harassed, on a daily basis. Yes, women
deal with this all the time. Who the hell are you to give advice about dealing with sexism- you are a man! You haven't experienced this, so how can you possibly
know anything about it? It feels so bad to hear this kind of stuff being said about you, whether it's "hey baby" or "wanna fuck" or "smile!" It feels awful. It
makes me feel like I'm not even human, just a piece of meat with some orifices for them to fuck. It's a disgusting, awful, scary feeling.

I expect you to respond to me directly, as well as to post a retraction in the Metro. Please learn from this experience. You truly have no idea what you are talking about.

At 10:39, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If guys ask you "wanna fuck" you sure must dress like a slut. If you feel harrassed when a guy looks at you then that's YOU deciding to feel bad about it and allowing the GUY to make you FEEL bad. Is that his doing or is that your reaction? You're wasting precious time getting upset about worthless things. Get a grip on your life and move on, be happy if you attract attention because you might actually attract a pretty decent guy - though, i might find that hard to believe with your attitude.

At 16:57, Anonymous buggle said...

Aw, thanks for your concern "Sarah", but I already have a great guy. One who would never yell at a woman on the street.

Clearly you don't get it- I dress like a nerd, for the most part, because I am one. It is not MY clothes or MY behavior that is at fault here.

In other news-the Metro just wrote me to say that they might publish my letter-woo hoo!

At 09:56, Anonymous buggle said...

And, in still other news-that therapist dude wrote me back, defending his response and telling me that he isn't victim-blaming. Um, ok. Sooo, what about that part where he, ya know, blamed the victim?

At 22:15, Anonymous Naked said...

This is really something... You guys actually get upset and take precious time to blog about guys looking at you, making comments about you, or speaking to you? This is a joke, no? So, if I walk down the street and a guy says Hi to me, you consider that harrassment? Where do you draw the line? Who would want to live their life focusing on whether guys pay attention to you or not. Poor pathetic souls. Be glad you're getting noticed and shut up.

At 15:09, Blogger Jeff Deutsch said...


I see some good points all around.

On the one hand, women who are getting catcalled at should not necessarily be glad they're getting noticed. With all due respect to Jonathan Alpert, you don't have to be "drop-dead gorgeous" for it to happen to you. Some of the catcalling can be nasty and even menacing. And groping is out-and-out assault, no two ways about that.

And no, women - and men for that matter - do not "invite" harassment by the way they dress and act. That's like saying that, for example, protesters invite police harassment and brutality by the way they talk and the signs they carry. That notion is disgusting.

(I will say this: people who walk around with a given part of themselves exposed or emphasized - eg, their midriffs - should expect people to assume that it's OK to look at those parts.)

I also completely agree with Martha Langelan's analysis that Brittany Shoot and Michelle Riblett gave us: sexual (and other kinds of) harassment is largely a dry run for more serious assaults. It really is a good way to test potential victims, and men and women alike should beware of such situations.

That itself helps prove one of Jonathan Alpert's points - we really do need to be able to distinguish between truly offensive and well-intended overtures.

For one thing, in order to be a good test for assault victims, an overture has to be invasive in some way, such as grabbing, or talking to someone who's walking away or has asked to be left alone.

Obviously, a friendly approach, like "That's an interesting book I saw you looking at in the window - is that one of your favorite authors?" or "Good morning - you seem to be in a good mood today!" won't work for a potential rapist. A woman responding positively to these things may still beat the daylights out of someone who tried to, say, grab her butt.

For another, nice people will have a much harder time meeting each other if every overture from any person one doesn't already know is rebuffed as potential harassment/assault/rape.

Buggle - I completely agree that shouting "Wanna f***?" on the street is harassment. On the other hand, saying "Smile!" is not. The latter may just be an attempt to cheer someone up, and certainly doesn't in and of itself sound like a personal attack.

I agree with you that Jonathan Alpert might be able to use a woman's perspective when discussing things like this. On the other hand, his being male doesn't automatically disqualify him from discussing these issues any more than being female should disqualify you from discussing, say, raising funds for prostate cancer research.

Finally, I'm a little disturbed by the possibility that I sense in your post, that you might only consider those particular males who disagree with your particular views to be so disqualified.

Yes, women experience a lot more sexual harassment and assault than men. On the other hand, most men have mothers, sisters, other female relatives, female friends, girlfriends, fiancees and/or wives, whom they would hate to have harassed or assaulted.

Also, men experience much more than women the need to make the first move, and therefore suffer disproportionately when and if friendly approaches are lumped in with actual harassment and assault attempts.

I think a little understanding on everyone's part of everyone else's concerns would really help matters.

What do you think?

Jeff Deutsch


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