Reader Beatdown: On “Thick Skin”
New feature alert! Introducing Reader Beatdown, in which Sexist readers respond. The Sexist is lucky to benefit from readers who are also writers. In Reader Beatdown, I'll publish pieces that offer a different take on recent Sexist topics.
First up: Sexist reader and feminist blogger Chloe Angyal responds to Sexist Comments of the Week: “Yo, Gorgeous” Edition, in which a commenter suggests that some recipients of street harassment develop "thicker skin." Last year, Angyal wrote her sociology thesis at Princeton on women who work in male-dominated fields—where she found that systematic workplace sexual harassment was often excused using the exact same phrase.
Earlier this week, Amanda posted Sexist Comments of the Week: “Yo, Gorgeous” Edition, in which she summarized the discussion happening in the comments section on her post about HollaBack DC. The post she chose was one woman’s account of being catcalled on the street in D.C.:
Out of nowhere, I hear “Yo, gorgeous!” and I turn in the direction where it came from. I see these two losers in a red and yellow truck smirking at me. Gross. The truck pulls up further in traffic, and I catch up to it and snap a photo with my phone. . . . When I told them that they needed to do their jobs and not hit on women, they didn’t care. They continued to smirk and giggle… I felt like these harassers just ruined what was a good afternoon.
In the comments section, certain readers expressed misgivings about the idea that yelling “Yo, gorgeous!” at a woman could constitute sexual harassment. One man wrote:
Really? Your day was “ruined” by that? Seriously? No lewd comments, no name calling, no following. “Yo, Gorgeous” is what passes for sexual harassment now? Geesh…. I guess the women I know have thicker skins than the woman who wrote this particular piece. Not that that’s right or wrong or good or bad, it just is what it is and reasonable minds can and will disagree.
Ah, thick skin. When I read Amanda’s post, the phrase jumped out at me because much of my senior thesis in college focused on the idea of “thick skin.” For my thesis, which was about women who work in male-dominated professions, I interviewed women who worked on the trading floors of Wall Street, arguably one of the most statistically and culturally male-dominated workplaces in America. What I was interested in was how those women adapted their behavior, from how they dressed to how they worked, in order to survive and thrive in an often hostile environment. The answer: Thick skin.
During my thesis research, the concept of “thick skin” was constantly invoked by subjects. Dana, 30, had extensive experience on several trading floors. She explained that “you definitely need thick skin, because working on the trading floor, if you take anything personally, you just can’t, there’s no point in your working there.” Alana, twenty-five years old and in sales for Credit Suisse, warned that “You can’t be easily offended…you can’t be a prude and work on the trading floor. You have to develop thick skin.” The phrase came up again and again, and I realized after a while that it was no coincidence. A belief in the need for “thick skin” was a kind of shared narrative among all these women, a story they told themselves and each other in order to survive on the trading floor.
More importantly, “thick skin” was a way for women to ignore behavior that they might otherwise interpret as sexual harassment or discrimination. Alana described one male colleague, a trader “who’s very old-school, just because he didn’t start his career in the P.C. generation… the old-school guys will wink and call me ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’ and wink. And if I were easily offended, then that would be sexual harassment.” But because Alana isn’t “easily offended,” because she has thick skin, that colleague isn’t a sexual predator. He’s “old-school.”
The women I interviewed were trying their best to succeed in a hostile environment, and that often meant adapting and changing their own behavior rather than demanding that the environment be adapted and changed for them. This is understandable, given that they were very much in the statistical and cultural minority. But when men like the commenter on Hess’s post suggest that women develop a thicker skin, they’re asking women to adapt to a hostile environment rather than asking themselves the hard questions about what they, as men, need to do to change that environment.
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that women who invoke thick skin are making it easier for men to do so, and are therefore being complicit in the ongoing hostility of the environment. And I’m not letting those women entirely off the hook, because the thick skin narrative is used, by men and women alike, to divide women into two groups: the reasonable women, and the victims. When I asked Alana about how other women might have responded to that “old-school” colleague, she talked about women who had filed sexual harassment and discrimination suits against her firm and other Wall Street firms. “I think that women who take that attitude are really at fault, because if you approach everybody like a victim, you’re not going to get anywhere… If you can fit in, and not call attention to the fact that you’re a woman… it’s better to just not call attention to the fact.”
The irony is that these women don’t need to call attention to the fact that they’re women – they’re being sexually harassed for that very reason. Women who accept sexual harassment, be it at work or on the street, have “thick skin” and are “reasonable.” Women who don’t are “victims” who “can’t hack it.” At work women are faced with two equally unpleasant choices: suffer harassment or discrimination in silence, or speak up and be branded a thin-skinned victim who makes all the other women look bad. On the street, speaking up comes with the added danger of a physical attack. It’s a no-win situation that we face on the way to work, on the way home, and every moment in between. “Thick skin,” as handy a survival method as it might be, is not a solution: the solution is to change the acceptability of harassment and discrimination.
Chloe Angyal is a contributor at Feministing, where she currently reviews romantic comedies. Want to contribute to Reader Beatdown? Send your thoughtful essays and scathing criticisms to email@example.com.