Choosing words wisely

All too often, people engage in sexual harassment without even realizing it, and that’s not okay either

My lifestyle involves the frequent use of cabs. From getting home after a night out, to work obligations, to my bimonthly travel to the airport, I find myself enjoying chats with taxi drivers several times a week. Usually we talk about the weather, work, or whatever is on the radio so things remain humorous, polite, and friendly.

A few weeks ago, a cab driver greeted me by asking: “Where ya goin’ tonight, Hot Lips?”

Hot lips?! Gross. I could feel my blood boil. I pondered my options: dismissing myself from the scene by tuck n’ rolling out of a moving vehicle onto Prince Phillip Drive, versus responding with something that would make HIM feel uncomfortable and mad for about a week.

I was so caught off guard, I defaulted to ignoring it. Which is probably for the best, knowing very well that he probably didn’t realize the sexist connotations of addressing me that way.

“So are ya havin’ a good night, Hot Lips?”

He said it again?! IT’S ON.

Deciding quickly against the tuck n’ roll, I organized the digs and insults in my head in order of what would make him feel awful the fastest. Clearly this dude needed to be taken down a notch, because how dare he talk to me like that?! He should know better!

As he continued rambling (I had yet to answer his question) I began to realize he was not trying to hurt me. He wasn’t even trying to assert his masculinity, or make me feel uncomfortable. The only thing he was trying to do was have a light-hearted conversation with a stranger to pass the time, on a boring night at work.

A few more ‘Hot Lips’ later, I said, “You might want to reconsider those words.” He explained he was trying to pay me a compliment, and that he thought women appreciated compliments on their appearance.

I appreciate a compliment as much as the next person, but in the context of the confined space that is a taxi, with a male stranger, in a world where I’ve been taught to be vigilant, those words did not make me feel complimented. To be honest, underneath the anger, I felt the need to “shut it down” because if I didn’t, how far would he go? If I permitted him to speak to me that way, is it possible he’d take it further? I didn’t want to find out! The result was defensiveness, anger, shock, and fear triggered by the two syllables: “hot lips”.

When it doesn’t feel like a compliment

These things happen all the time. Women are often addressed by people they do not know, in ways that sexualize them, and it’s expected that women will accept these statements as a compliment. Instead, though it’s not always expressed, women often feel harassed. And that’s because making comments like this is in fact sexual harassment. For some reason, some people think that expressing my gender as female warrants commenting on my appearance in a sexual way, and that as a woman I should not only anticipate this, but learn to appreciate it.

[T]he problem lies in social expectations of how women should protect themselves from other peoples’ dangerous decisions.

Know what many women actually anticipate when they are alone with strangers and the chatter takes a sexualized tone? Sexual assault, trauma and then societal and legal blame for what ensues. It might seem like an overstatement, but perhaps a strong emotional and paranoid reaction has something to do with the fact that women are largely held responsible for so many awful situations they could not have actually controlled. That’s an enormous weight on the collective woman’s shoulders, considering half of Canadian women will be a victim of sexual or physical assault at least once in her life. This is consistent with 67% of Canadians reporting personally knowing at least one woman who has experienced sexual or physical assault.

We hear so many stories about women facing re-traumatization by the way society and the law treat victims of sexual assault, by identifying how they could’ve prevented it from happening. Details on what led up to the assault are debated and discussed, and many people point to what she was wearing, how she behaved, and how she communicated to defend their belief that she could have influenced the perpetrator’s decision to harass or assault her. The underlying message is that women ought to go above and beyond to protect themselves.

So when somebody drives by and comments on a woman’s legs as she’s walking, is it possible that the woman is subconsciously rehearsing how to avoid assault? After all, the awful news stories have taught us that women will often be considered somewhat at fault, and that she’s better being safe than sorry. Whether or not sexual assaults begin with forms of harassment that “test the boundaries” is not the problem, because the problem lies in social expectations of how women should protect themselves from other peoples’ dangerous decisions.

The good news is, there are other compliments

The other side of this would be the social and cultural conditions that teach people that sexually harassing woman is a normal way of interacting with them. Organizations such as the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre (NLSAPC) advocate that both sexual harassment and sexual assault are never the fault of the victim. It is the fault of the person perpetrating these actions. Unfortunately, thanks to a variety of social conditions intersecting, the categories of flirting, complimenting, and harassing are increasingly difficult to differentiate, and that’s part of the challenge that organizations like the NLSAPC are up against.

The cab driver that angered me that day was a perfect example of someone unable to differentiate between an appropriate compliment and harassment. “I didn’t mean anything b’y, sure, I always says that!” he explained in his own defense. For many women, especially those that spend a lot of time dealing with the public (an example being those working in the service industry), figuring out a reaction that feels safe is like taking on another exhausting job. Nobody wants to see their mother, aunts, sisters, daughters and friends feel unsafe or exhausted by harassment. Perhaps giving that “compliment” another moment of thought would be a good place to start, since sexualized nicknames and phrases are being thrown around at an alarmingly fast rate.

This particular story about my anger in a taxi happens to end nicely. Detecting the sincerity as he apologized, I gently explained to him, as calmly as I could, why calling a woman he does not know “hot lips” was not okay. He admitted again that he thought stuff like that made women feel special, but told me he was glad I took the time to explain. He truly didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. He thanked me a few times, and said, “Have a good night, Teach’,” when I reached my destination – and that was a nickname I did take as a compliment.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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