[This piece is an excerpt from a longer work in progress (for some time now) called How to Avoid Sexual Harassment: an Etiquette Guide for the Modern Gentleman. The longer essay is still unfinished (coming soon to Medium, I hope, in series form), but one section of it is so relevant to J Valenti’s recent piece on “rejection killings” that I felt I needed to publish it before the rest. This excerpt is from a part of the Etiquette Guide in which I try to explain why women “overreact” to “trivial” little intrusive or sexually suggestive/aggressive behaviours from men.]
Here’s my Candybar Theory of sexual politics. It’s far easier to grasp than endless academic dissertations on the roots of patriarchy and the structural whateverness of male supremacy.
My version is simple: quite a few men have never grown up. Not all, but quite a few — a statistically significant minority. That demographic causes a lot of distress to women.
Quite a few men see attractive (to them) women as candy bars walking around in the world. And like a two-year-old in the grocery store, when they see a candy bar they want it. They want it now. And if Mummy doesn’t give them the candy bar, they respond in exactly the way that two-year-olds are famous for:
1) they ask again, insistently;
2) they demand to know WHY they can’t have the candy bar;
3) they sulk and get mad at Mummy for not giving it to them;
4) they shout and rage and act out, in the hope of being given the candy bar just to quiet them down;
5) they grab the candy bar anyway while Mummy’s not looking (or even if she is) — and either gobble it up in panicky greed, or crush or hurl it in a fit of temper.
A two-year-old who is six feet tall and weighs over 180 lbs can be dangerous. He often gets his way. The candy bar often gets the worst of the interaction.
What he wants (the candy bar) might just just be her attention (Smile at me! Talk to me! Pay attention to me! Stroke my ego!). It might be a casual date (just wants to be seen at the cafe table with a nice-looking young woman). It might be a moment of deniable unwanted fondling (brief thrill for him, major Yuck for her). Or it might be getting into her pants (and subsequently her interior body spaces), by any means necessary.
This is why women get uncomfortable when men start the candy bar script. It’s because we don’t know how far it’s going to go. No woman can know in advance how extreme the demands will get or how bad the tantrum will be if she says No. Does No entail… a dreary all-night argument with an established lover? A lower grade on her final exam? Several days of sulks? Sabotage of a shared work project? Intimate pictures posted all over the internet? A lukewarm performance review? An embarrassing public scene? Being dragged into a car and raped? Losing her job? Being cyberstalked for months? Death threats? Actual death?
No way to tell.
So on the whole, most women would much prefer never to be put in the awkward — and potentially hazardous — position of saying No. Especially to a man who, in addition to his basic boy-status, has also some kind of authority or situational rank — like a boss or a customer.
In fact… strange as it may seem, many of us would prefer not to be seen as candy bars in the first place.
To explain why minor and “harmless” moments of male intrusiveness, persistent flirting, dominance display, and gaze assertion do genuinely upset women, we need to wrap our heads around one essential sociological fact:
Men rape women. Women don’t rape men.
The Candybar Problem is gender-specific. Very few women — vanishingly few — think they have a right to sexual gratification on demand from any man in sight. Most women are taught that if you don’t get what you want, you take that disappointment politely (like a grownup) and walk away; revise your expectations. Maybe if that lovely man you tried to chat up doesn’t want you, you cry in your coffee and write some bad poetry for a few days or weeks. In some outlying cases, you might stalk him with flowers and mash notes.
But on average, women don’t drag men into cars and rape them, women don’t beat up or murder men who disappoint them sexually. When rape, beating, and murder happen to women, it is almost invariably men who do it. Usually they do it because, one way or another, the woman said No.
Nor is there a vast, multi-billion dollar industry marketing men’s bodies (in image, video, and actuality, 24x7x365) to placate and sate female sexual appetite and prurience. A core social priority is openly expressed here. There’s a cultural consensus that male sexual appetite is a primal need, like thirst or hunger, and it must be slaked at any cost, up to and including the institutionalisation of a disposable subcaste of mostly-female sexual servants. Because if that appetite is thwarted… oh boy, tantrum time.
Men in patriarchal cultures (and name me a contemporary culture that isn’t) generally feel a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies in general. Not the perennial possessiveness or jealousy of an established mate or lover, which anyone of either gender and any orientation can feel; but a strong sense that interest or arousal confers an inherent and unquestionable right to look, to ogle, to touch, to grope, to coerce, to get that candybar, the “object of desire.” Hence, that creaky, so-yesterday feminist word, “objectification.” (Definition: regarding/treating another person as an object or commodity — which alas, is hardly yesterday’s problem, but very much alive and with us today.)
Feminism, in a nutshell, is the questioning of that unquestionable right: the radical notion that women are people.
Sexual harassment is the mildest expression of that unquestionable right, the collective droit du seigneur of the old boys’ club.
It’s worth stating again because it’s the key to our problem… While there may be some extreme statistical outliers that contradict this rule, on average, men have no reason to be afraid of a woman who is sexually interested in them but whom they don’t reciprocally desire. Women, however, have every reason to be afraid of a man who is sexually interested in them and whom they don’t reciprocally desire. Because No can mean Danger.
That is why intrusive, insinuating, or overtly sexual comments from men; intrusive physical behaviours from men; leading or flirtatious questions from men, all can be felt as early signs of bad weather brewing. Women pay attention to such indicators, and get nervous. Oh dear, I’m really not into him. And he’s coming on to me. Is a tantrum on the way? How bad will it be? How am I going to get out of this situation safely? What’s my exit strategy? Will I get hurt?
This is not wild-eyed paranoia. This is our global, shared awareness that sometimes women who say No to men end up dead.