Beauty is sometimes said to be a curse – I don’t believe that: beauty in this world is a social, economic and physical advantage. Indeed, there are times and places to enjoy being the target of desirous attention. There have been times of drought when a lingering stare or earnest compliment from a friend or passer-by has made my day. But there are also times and places when they irritate, unnerve and upset me: times when I don’t want to be looked at, fantasised about or antagonised by random strangers. In this way, feminine beauty is more a double-edged sword: my breasts, bum, legs and any skin bared can feel like biological Hi Vis gear and collar bells robbing me of private and undetected passage in public spaces.
This is not to say that the Male Gaze is inherently malicious or intentionally offensive – it is natural for human eyes to seek attributes in the physicality of those around us to generate sexual attraction. Males and females alike find their eyes drawn automatically to bare skin and body parts associated with sex, and neither I nor feminist ideology, I proffer, take issue with biological truths and the behaviours in which they manifest. But there exist key biological and socio-cultural truths that problematise the female experience in today’s public spaces due to the Male Gaze: our generally inferior size and strength which can make us feel (accurately or not) vulnerable, and the statistically irrefutable implications that it has on our safety in public which we are loath to ignore.
The Male Gaze can make public space perilous for women because of the generally heightened intensity of flirting, the blatantly sexual nature of attention often received at bars and clubs and antagonistic behaviour that sometimes results from politely ignoring, firmly declining or outright rejecting it.
On a recent trip to Bali, my sister and I donned our ‘kinis and beach kits to hit Potato Head, one of Seminyak’s most popular clubs, for sunset cocktails. We had no misconceptions about the type of people we might meet at night clubs in Bali, so we were wholeheartedly unsurprised to see trios of Brits Abroad (identifiable by their vibrant, salmon-coloured skin), 18-year-old squads in cheeky shorts and Cons, and least of all, Australian bucks parties, boistering sloppily at the swim-up bar. After making brief eye contact, our expressions coloured with hesitance and disdain, we took a deep breath, squared our shoulders and sat at the pool’s edge with our feet in the water. We smiled – the sky was a soft, pastel peach, the music was popping, waves were crashing in on the beach beyond the club’s sprawling day beds as the sun set in the distance.
As we settled in, our skin prickled with droplets of sweat in the humid 5 o’clock sunlight. We decided to take a dip. No sooner had we stood and raised our hands to remove our shirts than did we notice the muttering, glassy-eyed gangs of drunk men moving towards us, looking us up and down. We exchanged a glance – nope, shirt’s good. As I re-took my seat, burnt ochre-coloured alpha-Geordie edged over and bellowed, I thor’ you wa gonna tehk I’ off, swee’heart? Cum on luv! TEHK – I’ – OFF! TEHK – I’ – OFF!
Some of the Australian yobs that happened to be co-mingling with the chavvy Bucks from Newcastle joined in on this detestable chant as we stood, frozen in horror. Not wishing to be sour and accepting the drunken sleaziness of Bali clubs in general, we laughed it off and continued to talk amongst ourselves and with the chanters and their friends who elected to occupy our immediate area of the poolside in great numbers. This was fine – meeting new people and socialising is part of going out. What tarnished and eventually ruined our experience was the incessant, obnoxious and inappropriate behaviour some of them showed.
Are you girls single? Are youse sisters? You look heaps alike, are youse twins? Can I buy you a drink? Where are you staying? What are you doing tonight? Who are you with? Got boyfriends? Are you gonna finally take that top off and get in the pool, love? I felt slightly discomforted by the eight sets of eyes hungrily looking my sister and me up and down, over and over, and was tiring from the energy exerted in avoiding further advances – no, I don’t feel like a swim, no, thankyou, I don’t need a drink, thanks but we are just doing our own thing tonight, no, I am leaving my shirt on. I felt uncomfortable and irritated when our polite but firm refusals began to be met with antagonistic and rude comments. Not havin’ a good day, luv? Come on and just get in the pool luv, I won’t bite! Aw, this lass don’t like me, too good for me ey? One of them had three strikes before he was out for fondling my feet in the water and tugging at my leg to lead me into the pool, and the final straw was his assertion that his plan for tonight was to fuck hot chicks and asked if I would like to be a part of that plan.
Ferk this. We got up, fished our scarves from our backpacks and draped them loosely over our torsos like makeshift Burqas and made for the beach. On our towels we took refuge from the Gaze and launched into astonished recounting of our time at the pool.
The behaviour of these men, though perhaps not ubiquitous, exemplifies perfectly the cause of negative experiences of the Male Gaze which taint public space for women of today. It occurs to me that while in the past I have looked at Muslim women wearing their Hijabs and Burqas and thought how uncomfortable, hot and restrictive they must be, they probably look at me in skirts and singlets and think how objectified and harassed by the male attention I must be.
I HATE this behaviour; it features in many of my top 10 worst experiences ever in one way or another. While we can not necessarily expect privacy in public spaces, we deserve respect of our ownership of our bodies, and what is owned is private property. There are boundaries which should never be crossed unsolicited, and this behaviour turns harmless visual admiration into obnoxious, invasive harassment. The feeling of being visually feasted on, persistently approached and propositioned is awful, worse still when you’re not prepared or in the mood for it. This behaviour objectifies women, treating us as objects of desire existing to be looked at and fantasised about while in public. It disrupts, however briefly, my confidence and sociability, and I am ready for a change.
When we go for an afternoon run, walk home from work at dusk or interact with flirtatious strangers ogling us in bars, gyms, shops or streets, we have this in the back of our minds: 17% of women in Australia have been sexually assaulted, women make up 83% of sexual assault victims in Australia and 58% of kidnap or abduction victims, and 3.8% of all Australian women have been sexually assaulted by a stranger, more than double the 1.6% of men. These morbid truths, I believe, are often miscommunicated and misunderstood: our hesitance or refusal to engage with men in public can be read as an unnecessarily phobic distrust of all men as perpetrators of violent crime. Feminism suffers the same misunderstanding for its encouragement of assertiveness and empowerment for women, particularly victims of assault. But the truth is, we would be naïve or ignorant not to acknowledge our instincts for self-protection, and our experience of public spaces would comprise less angst, discomfort and irritation if the Gaze was executed with greater restraint and empathy.
Ogle subtly if you must, not obnoxiously. Flirt politely, not aggressively. Compliment kindly, not perversely. Proposition once, not persistently. Take no for an answer, not for an insult. Read body language and back off when it’s closed. Meet refusal with respect, not antagonism. Touch solicitously, not unsolicited. And never, EVER, initiate chants for clothing removal. With a little decorum, we might someday enjoy an unperturbed sense of safety and privacy in public.