Sugartits – Addressing harassment

“There you go, love.”

“Thanks, sugartits.”

It’s becoming a regular exchange but none of the men that R has called ‘Sugartits’ has even appeared to notice her campaign against being called ‘love’ or ‘darling’. Each time I hold my breath, but nothing happens.

I asked her why she had to go all the way to sugartits. Love and darling aren’t really on the same scale. She said that if she went with anything more gentle, they’d think it was a come-on. I saw her point.

I also see her point about love and darling. The terms that men use for other men bestow either equal or greater status; ‘boss’ or ‘mate’ or ‘bro’. The terms they use for women place us in an intimate, sexual or at least affectionate relationship; it is a verbal bonding to a complete stranger.

R also has strong views on people who harass or make comments to her. “They are just bullies, they want you to feel uncomfortable or afraid and they rely on the fact that you won’t say anything. So I just say the worst thing I can think of.” I won’t tell you the things she says. She can think of some pretty horrible stuff. When she starts she doesn’t stop until she has won. She calls it the ‘shock and awe approach’.

The strange thing is that when there are other people around, they seem to accept whatever the man has said, no matter how sexist or racist it might have been. At least, nobody bats an eye nor do they step in. What makes them stare is R’s response. It appears that harassing a Black woman is standard, generally accepted behaviour but a Black woman standing up for herself is just plain shocking.

“There was this one guy who clearly spent his whole life in the gym. He had something to say about me being fat so I said that just because he’d been a fat kid and nobody loved him didn’t give him the right to fuck with me. He looked like he was going to cry.”

The exchange highlights the abuse of the initial comment. R has been asked why she is being so mean, she says “Well, you were mean to me first and I have nothing to do with you. Why were you talking to me?”

What R is doing is increasing the risk for men who think that women are just going to accept their harassment. For many men, the silence of the women they harass and the men who witness their behaviour is approval. R makes them feel what she feels; abused and attacked. What she does is risky and brave and I love her for it.

So while I won’t be using the term ‘sugartits’ myself, I am going to stop pretending to be selectively deaf when men make comments. It’s not just for me; it’s for all of us.

Postscript

This course of action might not be for everybody. Men with dented egos are nasty and unpredictable, I wouldn’t grudge anyone who decided to opt out of the encounter.

If you are a man and you happen to overhear a woman being harassed, you stepping in is much more powerful and much safer for you than her standing up for herself. Two simple questions “Do you know her? Then why are you talking to her?” can be very effective. It’s crap, but that is the way power works. When you stay silent, you tell everyone that you agree with what is happening.

Sugartits – Addressing harassment

Curioser and Curioser

The toddler was staring at R, mouth open and eyes wide. When his mother wheeled the shopping trolley round, his head swivelled round like an owl’s. R smiled at him and said hello. The child hid his face in his mother’s coat.

“Uh, uh,” she said, moving the coat. “You got caught being nosy and now you’ll have to be nice. Say hello to the lady.”

It was a perfect response. Children, especially white ones, are fascinated by R. Our niece even got caught licking her arm (we think she thought R might really be made of chocolate). They stare and stare. She always responds to them and waves and says hello.

Quite often, though, the white parents are horrified that their children have been staring. They tell their babies off, some give R an apologetic smile, but some don’t even engage with R as they hustle their family away. I know it is because they are embarrassed, but it isn’t helpful.

Difference is strange and interesting; it excites curiosity, even investigation. I never mind answering questions about being a lesbian, R never minds curious regard. But when parents are embarrassed by their kids’ curiosity, it teaches them that there is something wrong or shameful about R, and that is a problem.

The other issue is that people often think that R can’t tell the difference between curiosity and hostility. The facial expressions involved are quite different; try it in a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. If you can tell the difference, so can she.

That white mother in the supermarket had the right response to her child’s nosiness. She acknowledged the curiosity, but she also made it clear that R was a person and needed to be treated with courtesy. I am really glad that at least one little boy will be able to embrace difference and recognise shared humanity at the same time.

Curioser and Curioser