Insensitive but not offensive?
A recent incident, in which an adult male made a remark that seemed merely insensitive but not offensive in the presence of my adolescent daughter, prompted me to reflect on where and how to draw that distinction. Subtleties of context, as well as content, matter.
I am not a censorious person. But both parenthood and the ethos of the time have made me more aware of bystander effects — positive and negative.
The Baltimore Sun published my observations, “A Feminist Dad Finds Himself in a Quandary” last month. A slightly expanded version appears below.
As a husband and a father of both a daughter and a son, I often reflect on parenting and gender issues. These personal considerations occur, of course, in a broader cultural context — one that increasingly recognizes problems of gender bias, sexual harassment, even assault.
Still, I was unprepared one recent night, when a friend was giving my teenage daughter and me a ride home from a dinner party. This friend — like me, a married father — was accompanied by his longtime friend, a single man in his 50s visiting from out of town, someone I had never met. The friend-of-a-friend, let’s call him G, was talking about his apartment building. Sitting next to my daughter in the back seat, he happened to remark that a woman neighbor had “the most beautiful face” he had ever seen.
Though the conversation ended there — without further comment about the woman — I wondered whether to say something about objectifying women in the presence of my adolescent daughter.
I wondered whether to say something about objectifying women in the presence of my adolescent daughter.
This was an ambiguous case. Would I be overreacting in noting his statement about his neighbor’s beauty? After all, he hadn’t veered into crude language or a vivid description of her body.
There are degrees of offense — such as catcalling and worse. G’s questionable remark didn’t rate as serious. On the other hand, he hadn’t mentioned this woman’s work, skills, personality, or interests — only her “beautiful face.”
To let such a judgment pass without a rejoinder might subtly convey to my daughter that she, too, should expect to be assessed by men primarily according to her appearance. Fundamentally, she might think that her dad was OK with this societal phenomenon, that I didn’t object to the objectification.
Ultimately, I chose to ignore G’s remark in that moment but to review the incident afterward with my wife and then with our daughter directly. This was an opportunity for instruction or at least a conversation.
I chose to ignore the man’s remark in that moment but to review the incident afterward with my wife and then with our daughter directly. This was an opportunity for instruction or at least a conversation.
I told my daughter that if G had gone on about the woman’s body or had spoken in vulgar terms, I would have pointed out that he was doing so in the presence of a 13-year-old girl who deserved better and that he should show more respect for all women. (Moreover, I would have made clear my own dissent from such cruder talk anytime, in front of anyone.)
There is a kind of scale or mental matrix of judgments:
- What we ourselves might say;
- What we might chuckle at or encourage;
- What we might hear but ignore; and finally
- What we might speak up against, with varying degrees of disagreement or disapproval.
In each case, where we land would likely depend on factors including who is in the group, of what gender and age mix, and whether the setting is personal or professional.
Judgments depend on factors including who is in the group, of what gender and age mix, and whether the setting is personal or professional.
Then, beyond speech along the spectrum from innocuous to outrageous, there is the matter of unwanted physical attention escalating to harmful threats.
Growing up with a mother who directed a university women’s studies program in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I have long identified as a feminist.
With a mother who directed a university women’s studies program in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I have long identified as a feminist.
I volunteered with a domestic violence services organization, participated in marches for women’s lives in the 1990s and 2000s as well as 2017, acknowledged that “It’s On Us” men to stop sexual violence, and was cited in a feature on fathers of girls. Still, I am far from faultless and was occasionally caddish in my bachelor days.
Like most other men and fathers, I’m trying to be my best self — including in modeling actions, and giving voice to them, for my son and daughter. There are resources to embolden us feminist dads.
Both as a parent and as a volunteer youth sports coach, mostly of boys but also of some girls, I find occasions to teach positive behavior and discuss aberrations in age-appropriate ways. My friends and neighbors include other dads (and moms) with similar sympathies.
As James Baldwin observed,
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Inspired by own parents, I’m an imperfect example to my kids but striving to be a better one.
While steeling for a world in which appearances are inevitably a factor, my daughter should aim for her character, actions, and intelligence to matter more. My son should grow to contribute to gender equity rather than its opposite. He should set a tone that encourages peers to treat girls and women with respect and should discourage peers who do otherwise.
#MeToo shouldn’t just be about women speaking up about gender-based discrepancies and even violence. Men and boys should raise expectations for their own conduct, and give women and girls, and those with non-binary identities, reason to demand better, too.
Josiah H. Brown is a former volunteer president of Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven. Similar versions of this piece appeared in the Baltimore Sun and at the Good Men Project.
Other articles — at Medium and elsewhere — have addressed topics ranging from Indian Americans, immigration, refugees, nationalism, and the “Muslim ban” in historical context, to new voters, citizenship, men and the campus climate for women, college sports, history and public lands, Gandhi’s legacy, marching in peaceful protest, men and the march for women’s empowerment (a version of which appeared at the Good Men Project), U.S. politics of the last two decades, historical facts versus mythology and fakery, the Loving v. Virginia legacy, and the Obama generation.