If A Man Ogles A Woman And She Doesn’t Notice, Has She Been Harassed?

When people are jerks, do we increase our own suffering with our own layered mis/interpretations?

“If you put that picture of me on the Internet I’ll call my lawyer!” So of course that’s exactly where it wound up. Read the funny story behind this photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

I read many of stories about crappy male and/or white behavior, some threatening, some anger-provoking, some seemingly banal like the woman who was stopped by a creepy guy who wanted her to see his cute puppy.

I guess it would have made more impact if she’d been, like, twelve, but she was a grown-up in no danger. Some days you just don’t have much to write about!

Another pedestrian story detailed a woman accosted in a largely non-threatening manner by middle-aged drunk guys on a subway. They got off at her stop and followed her for a bit, catcalling and in general being obnoxious boors as drunk people are wont to do.

She shut down the comments for being vile and hateful, as you might expect, although it looked as though at least a few of her critics simply called her out for overreacting and overgeneralizing, which is what I wanted to comment, with less snark.

Not because she felt unsafe and took precautions to ward off what might turn violent, but I did wonder why she wouldn’t ever wear that same dress again (they never touched her), or why she interpreted it as a personal assault on herself and everything she’d accomplished in life, how it meant nothing now.


A few drunken assholes on a subway sitting opposite a pretty woman showing a little cleavage acted thoughtlessly in the moment, not mounting a full-on patriarchal assault on female workplace success and progress.

She’s thinking, “Everything I’ve ever worked for means nothing. They’ve reduced me down to a mere object and completely dehumanized me. They’re threatened by everything I stand for and they clearly hate women. It’s just another example of how entitled male privilege works together to keep women oppressed and in their place as convenient sperm receptacles.”

And they’re thinking, “Yeah! Tits!”

Incidents like this happen to women all the time, and sometimes they sound genuinely threatening. Other times it reads like a slow morning on Medium.

They’ve happened to me too. But I can’t remember most of them.

Unless they were particularly memorable or threatening, I pretty much forget about them. I’m not thinking They’re dehumanizing me! as much as The world is full of assholes seeking to make someone’s life miserable today. Hey, Nicole, here you are, you’ll do!

I’m quite sure I’ve experienced a lot more street harassment than the few incidents I can recount. It’s entirely possible I missed a lot of them. I don’t pay much attention to others around me, to the point where I almost got hit by a bus when I first moved to Toronto.

When I’m on the subway I read.

Zen feminist koan: If a man ogles a woman and she doesn’t notice, has she been harassed? I wonder if any of my ghost harassers hoped to intimidate me and I disappointed by not even noticing their existence.

Once I looked up to find a man staring directly at me. He didn’t, as many Toronto men do, look away immediately, terrified they’ll be subjected to a feminist rant. I went back to my book and gave him no further thought.

Well, maybe one.

Bloody immigrant!

He was from one of those countries and hadn’t yet learned you can’t treat women in Canada the way you do back home.

But I didn’t care enough to say anything. He wasn’t worthy of my attention. My book engrossed me.

I suppose another woman would have gone home in high dudgeon and posted an angry Facebook rant or, if she felt especially like being abused by anonymous misogynists, on Twitter.

Or she might have felt genuinely threatened and hurried home, heart pounding. I can’t fault her. My life, and my world aren’t as traumatized as other women’s have been. The ogler posed no threat to me, and I don’t know why he stared. Likely he was some random clueless noob who didn’t know any better, or maybe he hoped to intimidate me, or see if he could get away with more (making me wonder what he might have done had I acted scared or nervous under his gaze — i.e., a potential victim).

Last summer someone told me they’d seen me walk down the street many times and men’s heads turned to watch. I never noticed. I’m usually staring at the sidewalk, lost in thought or, more pointlessly, worrying about silly crap. Now that I know it happens — I still don’t look around to see who might be ogling me, as I have a lot of pointless worrying to do. Or I might be laser-focused on feeding the ducks in the park.

Is it harassment if you don’t notice?

Sometimes we find ways to make incidents worse. We layer our own interpretations and narratives on top of it. We especially do this when we mentally impugn someone’s character or imagine we can read their minds and intentions, like with subway drunks.

How did mildly lecherous assholes turn into a Patriarchal Hit Squad?

What would I have done?

Depending on my mood, I might have engaged with them a bit. “So, you boys look like you were out having fun tonight. Where did you go?”

I’d have had my nose in the book. Might have looked up, said, “Hey, I’ve had a long night too, I want to read my book, ‘kay, guys?”

Maybe they would have continued being unpleasant and I too would have hurried off the car and done my best to disappear into the night.

But, I would have arrived home mildly annoyed and I might, at most, post a funny Facebook rant about drunken idjits on the subway.

I’d have forgotten about it by the weekend.

Here’s the thing: The world really is full of assholes and you only think you know why they’re being an asshole to you:

  • They hate wo/men

  • They hate your race

  • They hate your (obvious) religious affiliation

  • You look like their ex-spouse/evil mother/father/asshole boss

  • They’re having a really bad day but their response is to give some random passing schmuck (hey, it’s your unlucky day!) some extraneous crap rather than go home and watch funny YouTube videos

  • They suffer from genuine mental health problems

  • They’re up to their ass in pandemic-related unemployment, depression and stress and their brains aren’t functioning properly.

Assholes come in many varieties. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

None of these are good reasons to give an innocent stranger crap, but their mysterious reason for harassing you could be any of these things, and utterly unrelated to you, your life, or whatever you’ve interpreted it to mean.

There’s uncalled-for suffering, and then there’s cranking up your response worse with cognitive distortions and misinterpretations.

We aren