You’ve experienced this quite a number of times. A group of men are huddled together doing nothing in particular. As you pass by, you feel their eyes linger on your body. Sometimes, you stare back at them. Sometimes, they stare right back at you.
This is targeted girl watching or when men collectively watch women, make it known to her that they’re watching, and objectify her among each other through their sexual comments.
There’s a journal article by Beth Quinn called “Sexual Harassment and Masculinity: The Power and Meaning of ‘Girl Watching,'” which attempted to explain why men girl watch and how they don’t consider it as sexual harassment. She was surprised though at just how much girl watching revealed about the concept of masculinity and the objectification of women. Even though the article was published in 1992, a lot of its points still hit a nerve more than two decades later.
Two years ago, #MasculinitySoFragile trended on Twitter and is still used to discuss how men have the need to distance themselves from perceived femininity to prove their masculinity. Examples are using the phrase “no homo” when showing affection to another guy or labeling fashion items specifically for men. (See: RompHim)
Indeed, Quinn had the studies to back up the notion of a fragile male ego. She noted, “Masculinity is not a static identity but rather one that must constantly be reclaimed.” With girl watching, men gather to show off their masculinity to each other. It becomes a frequent stage for heterosexual men to play the parts that society expects them to play. But if they overreact, “the practice undermines rather than supports a masculine performance” because the woman then would look like she has the power over the man’s reactions.
A Lack of Empathy
The reason why men fail to see girl watching as harassment is because of their lack of empathy with women. Because to adopt the feminine perspective, it would contradict their masculinity. Instead, they mask harassment by saying, “It’s just a game.” And we’ve heard this tune before. The phrases “boys will be boys” or “it’s just a joke” always get men off the hook for acts that are seriously detrimental to women.
But when women show their disapproval, either by calling them out or glaring at them, Quinn noted how men would get surprised at that. It’s because they don’t expect the women to react. Because objects don’t react.
But lack of empathy doesn’t mean the men didn’t know their actions made women uncomfortable. Quinn gave a thought experiment for the men to imagine themselves if they woke up as a woman and were subjected to the game that they played. Most men showed obvious discomfort with the idea. If men really didn’t get the effect of their actions, then they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in the first place.
The topic of girl watching was brought up one time among my peers and the guys’ immediate reaction was to retaliate. This is usually the case when women try to call out men on their sexist behavior, as seen in the movements “meninism” and “#NotAllMen.”
They asked, “But what about girls? Don’t they boy watch?” Of course, if a hot guy passes by, we can’t help but look. But whether or not the way girls boy watch is the same as how guys girl watch. And it obviously is not. We don’t impose our power as women on the targeted male. Even if girls do boy watch on the same level as boys do the same to girls, it doesn’t make girl watching any less harmful.
Can women sexually harass men? Of course. But is sexual harassment done by a woman normalized in society? Absolutely not. The reason why girl watching and other forms of sexual harassment in society are able to proliferate is because how men label it as something else. When a man calls you sexy out in the open, it’s a compliment. When the President whistles at a female journalist, it’s “freedom of expression.”
Quinn’s article does offer a sliver of hope. Eradicating sexism can’t be done just by women. We can scream at the top of our lungs all we want but if men can’t remove their toxic idea of masculinity, one which refuses to see through our eyes, then all is for naught.