The Sexist

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 ahess@washingtoncitypaper.com.

  • DCWAVE parent

    regarding the thickness of one's skin: pick your battles, because you can't win 'em all.

  • Marty

    What a great response!

    I'm curious if the "thick skin" narrative applies comes up as frequently with minorities in high-testosterone fields. E.g., it seems reasonable that a black male trader on a white male dominated trading floor would feel the need to "develop a thick skin" against racial discrimination from "old school" guys, too.

  • k

    Wow, awesome post.

    I am going to go ahead and repost my description of how I do the "thick skin" routine when I'm walking around in areas where I've been harassed routinely:

    When I’m on the street, I usually have my game face on – I harden my expression, throw back my shoulders, and change my gait into a kind of unapproachable swagger. A guy who approaches me on the street is not going to have any luck, and that’s both due to harsh former experiences I have had and to the fact that I don’t owe it to strange men to be friendly to them. Sorry, but if that’s the way I have to perform toughness in public spaces to be able to move autonomously in public spaces, that is what I’ll do.

    I would love to hear about other people's "thick skins".

  • Occam

    This is a great point about how the choice is between "thick skinned" women or women who "make themselves the victim". This cast actually punishes women who set and define their boundaries as "victims", when in fact setting and defining boundaries is the opposite of victim behavior. In fact, those rewarded in a male dominated environment are the people who refuse to draw a line at objectionable behavior. It's another case of rewarding women who allow themselves to be dominated, and punishing women who expect to be treated with respect.

  • Melissa

    Great post.
    I really hate the idea people tend to spout about how someone can choose to "be a victim," or can "make hirself a victim"
    Yes, people respond to situations in different ways. And sure, there are good and bad ways to respond to different situations. But none of that has anything to do with "making" oneself into a victim. The very state of being a victim depends on having been VICTIMIZED. By an outside force. Different victims handle things in different ways, and some victims choose not to use the word "victim" (which is fine, of course), but when people imply that someone can choose whether or not to be a victim just really bugs me.

  • Pingback: read this: “On ‘Thick Skin’” « dreaming iris

  • http://dreamingiris.com Iris

    This is a great article! Thanks for explaining the reactions I get from women at my speaking out. It's hard for me to understand the mentality of putting up with harassment. This is so eloquently written. I would love to read your thesis =)

  • Emily H.

    Great post. Really, to me, the idea of "thick skin" isn't relevant, because it isn't what you'd need in this circumstance. You need "thick skin" if you're trying to take constructive criticism of some work you've done, because the person giving you feedback isn't really insulting you, & they're ultimately trying to improve your life. For instance if my professor suggests changes I need to make in my writing, & my reaction is to get angry & defensive, I need thicker skin. Or if someone can't handle anyone disagreeing with their opinions, they're too thin-skinned. That's because some difference of opinion is inevitable, & your friends aren't really affronting you by thinking that "Lost" is boring or whatever.

    It's NOT because ignoring the subtleties of human interactions is always a good idea. The reason that street harassment gets women's attention is because it makes us feel unsafe, & suggests the possibility (even if it's usually pretty remote) of following/stalking/assault from the harasser. That being the case, it's a good idea to take it seriously, instead of laughing it off -- ya know, like people are ALWAYS telling women, "be aware of your surroundings"? Being attuned to the details of what a harasser is saying/suggesting is a survival skill in itself. (Besides, if a woman is raped, people are going to say things like "why was she alone with that guy, couldn't she tell he was sketchy, didn't she know she was in a dangerous situation," suggesting women should be MORE paranoid and easily upset by negative sexual attention from guys.)

    I mean jeez, being tough sounds nice, but people don't actually HAVE "thick skin" all over our bodies; we have thin skin on our faces & hands so we'll be able to tell what is going on around us. The metaphor doesn't even make sense.

  • Sarah

    K - my "thick-skin routine" involves putting on large sunglasses and a trucker's cap when I'm walking home from uni, staring straight ahead at the gym with a grumpy look on my face, and infrequently washing my gym gear in the hopes that the smell will ward off potential creeps (no such luck).

    I also wear very baggy tshirts when running. My flatmate, who has much larger breasts than me, refuses to run outside without a baggy jersey, even in summer.

  • manabouttown

    ...Emily, your post is fallacious for two reasons.

    First, women will get upset about style regardless. A critic, male or female, can claim that the goals of their criticism are whatever they want to say that they are, a woman will typically dismiss those claims out of hand because to them the primary consideration is the STYLE with which the criticism is given, and from there on they will decide what the "critics" "appropriate" response was and what is the "appropriate" response to what the critic said. And woe be unto the "critic" who criticizes a woman "inappropriately" LOL

    Second with regard to "street harassment" you have hit the nuclear button...first by labeling it as "harassment" simply because you don't like it, and then by extension saying that it makes you feel "unsafe" and even "suggests the possibility of assault". The key word here is fear and/or "lack of control". But admit it: all men have penises and women do not. Logically therefore you should fear any man, whether he "harasses" you on the street by whistling or staring, or not. Given the rape statistics that are often quoted on this site, there's no logic in thinking that just because a man doesn't whistle or stare at you on the street that he won't be a threat to assault or even rape you. That's just wishful thinking.

    Of course life might get a little tough for you if you walk around accusing all men (with penises) of "threatening" you just by being in your vicinity, even looking at you even noticing that you exist. But it's true: any of them might follow you, stalk you or even assault you. You may not want to admit that, they may not want to admit it, but it's true. And many of them will do so. And many women will get followed, stalked, assaulted and raped by men.

    But due to PC conventions we can't face this Reality, now, can we?

    And who, exactly, created these PC conventions, and who enforces them?
    Women do.

    The point is that women have created this fantasy world in which they can decide what is and what is not acceptable behavior but it fails to actually protect them from unacceptable behavior in the real world (and you have to admit that assault and rape are unacceptable behaviors).

    You really want to be "safe" from assault, live without the possibility of assault/stalking or harassment? Go live in a convent in the mountains of Italy somewhere. You want to live in DC? You have to accept this as a given. Whether they whistle or not. Stop whining, stop blaming men for "harassing" you just because they whistle at you, stop being afraid of getting raped just because some guys in hard hats are whistling at you, and deal with the realities of life in a realistic manner. You'll be much happier.

  • manabouttown

    ...last but not least, and really just as importantly, when women can define "following" or "threatening" as "stalking" and "stalking" as a crime, then women are free to say that a man is committing a criminal offense just for following her, when he could in fact be trying to catch her just to talk to her and then change his mind.

    A woman could say that a man who is approaching her, for any reason, is "threatening" her. Certainly logically one would have to assume that if you think that if a man whistles at you that that is a threat, then certainly if he were to actually approach you that you would find that to be the realization of the threat that he poses by whistling at you. And all of this is, of course, up to you to decide what is and what is not criminal...all based on the same set of actions.

    It's merely up to you to decide whether to press charges or not.

    And that is just not logical.

    And that is what your problem is, as a woman, and it is what *our* problem is, as men, in supporting this nonsense in a court of law, and through police action. A man should not have to worry about being arrested and charged with a violation of the law simply because some woman is worried that he might assault her. But that's the world that we live in today, because of this PC nonsense behind trying to make women happy. The only way that a man can make a woman happy is to do what she wants him to do when she wants him to do it, when that doesn't happen she's going to be "frustrated" at least if not outright unhappy, and if the fact that a woman is unhappy is a criminal offense? We're in serious trouble as a society, and that is just no way for a civilization to conduct itself.

    Kowtowing to PC beliefs decivilizes our society. It undermines our rule of law and destroys the force of Reason. You women make things worse for all of us with all your bitching and fear-mongering.

  • manabouttown

    Besides just think about how sexist it is to say that you think that you are being victimized because someone looks at you, follows you or whistles at you. Mel Gibson or Johnny Depp might have a case if some woman from Idaho shows up at his Beverly Hills mansion and follows him around, and even then they would still just be one of many fans who do so. You're just some chick walking down the street, and technically, according to popular "law" any guy who looks at you or who is walking behind you is committing a criminal offense. It's merely up to you to decide whether to have him arrested. What kind of nonsense is this.

    It's the kind of nonsense that we men live with every day.

    And that is a large reason why we can't take women, or their complaints about men, seriously. Not to mention that the odds are high that you will get raped anyway despite all your bitching, and most-likely by someone that you choose to date, either consciously thinking that he wouldn't rape you or subconsciously hoping that he would.

  • manabouttown

    ...and the fact is that what I just said will never pass "moderation" here but it's undeniably true.

    Have a good life in your Denial.

  • Dorothy

    Why, yes, I started to miss the MRA's ...

  • k

    manabouttown, it simply isn't logical that you expect me to "stop whining" about being shouted at, solicited for sex, and grabbed on the streets of MY city. I don't care what your capital-R "Reason" tells you about your dick and the power it naturally confers on you - public space is for everyone to use, and to go about our routines, without having to deal with idiotic comments from people who think our bodies exist for their enjoyment.

    So mind your own fucking business in the public square, because that's what it is for. And if you can't adhere to a reasonable standard of civility by respecting other people's right to mind their own business, maybe YOU should move.

  • je di

    Ugh I stopped reading his diatribe because it was so boring but I did see some key phrases, "nuclear button" & "PC" I'm guessing FOXNEWS, Rush or Walton & Johnson.

  • je di

    I find it amusing when pseudo-intellectuals think they're making a good point when really they are just reguritating what they've heard in an incohesive manner. That said I don't think most men are as ignorant as some of the trolls on here make them seem. It's not a fair sampling; intelligent, confident men aren't compelled to defend sex-offenders & harassers. Much love for the real men of the world! -j

  • Jenny

    Honestly, it's such a lot of words just to say, "I hate women."

  • TheHobo

    I "really" just want to take manabouttown to "task" for unnecessary use of "quotations."

    When we live in a world where it is up to any man to decide whether or not he wants to rape a woman, based on a conversation he had with her clothing, with her insobriety, with her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just because he thinks his god-given penis should be allowed to go anywhere it wants to, then yeah, I'm okay with countering that with leaving it up to a woman to decide what actions a man is taking toward her are threatening.

    I don't need a thicker skin. You need a much thinner sense of entitlement.

  • je di

    "I don't need a thicker skin you need a much thinner sense of entitlement." So very well said. -j

  • b-bop

    My thick skin is kind of funny...

    I wear hearing aids, so it takes me slightly longer to register what someone has said if they are being creepy or unusual...this ususally results in me behaving as though I have heard something completely different. It is a shut-down that comes so naturally I don't even realize I've done it until I think about their confused expression later. Another tactic is to keep saying "what?" until they have humiliated themself..

    "Nice ass"

    "What?"

    "I said Niceass"

    "...What?"

    "Nice Ass!"

    "....I'm sorry, what?"

  • supplementfacts

    manabouttown:

    1. I think a polite style will tend to elicit a more polite response, among women and men alike. Of course, it's very easy to slip into impoliteness in these discussions, on the Internet and in real life, even against one's intentions.

    2. I don't think the label 'harassment' is used simply because the behavior is disliked. For example, I might dislike all the handing out of flyers on city streets, but I would hardly call that harassment. I think the label 'harassment' comes from the fact that its sexual tone crosses over into a woman's personal life, as well as from the fact that many won't take no for an answer. Suppose a panhandler just wouldn't leave you alone, or suppose the panhandler somehow made the unwanted encounter overtly personal: that would clearly count as harassment. Maybe the key idea is that harassment crosses the personal boundaries taken for granted among strangers in public, in a way that merely handing out a flyer or asking for change doesn't.

    Also, I don't think anyone would say that whenever a woman feels threatened, or whenever the bare possibility of rape arises, harassment has necessarily taken place, much less the sort of harassment that counts as a criminal offense. Instead, I think people are drawing attention to a sort of caution: often enough, perfectly reasonable women drawing on experience will feel a little threatened by the approach of a strange man without the stranger being guilty of any wrongdoing. And if some hypothetical woman were to accuse a man of harassment for the sole reason that he politely asked for the time, that accusation would of course be false. This point holds good despite the fact that it can make sense for women to be a little on their guard when strange men approach them and politely ask for the time.

    As for catcalling and wolf whistling, I hope you agree that they cross over into a woman's personal space, violating the boundaries we take for granted as strangers in public. If so, then I hope you see why the term 'harassment' makes sense, even if whistling is by no means a criminal offense. And I hope it also makes sense that women would be a little extra anxious when someone violates those personal boundaries concerned with sexuality: the worry naturally arises that this individual might well be willing to violate further personal boundaries concerned with sexuality.

  • C.H.

    @b-bop

    LMAO, I do the same thing. And after about the fifth time of repeating it (if they're that brave) I repeat it really loudly "You like my ass?" Mind you, it does take a truly brave soul to hang in there after I've made him repeat something more than 3 times, however, that is exactly the one I let have it. Usually, after the second or third time, they wander off in embarassment.

  • C.H.

    As for the rest, I think the post is a little confusing. Having "thick skin" in a professional setting is different from having a "thick skin" in the case of constant sexual harassment which begins about the time a female gets boobs. It's constant. It doesn't matter how you dress, it doesn't matter if you look and feel like crap cause you have the flu, it simply doesn't matter.

    I generally work in high testosterone fields and will admit that you need a thick skin but not (generally) because you are being sexually harrassed, but because there is tremendous pressure in those fields and if you take every single thing personally you will not survive. I will not have a thick skin about being out in public minding my business. My rule is if you wouldn't walk up to another man or your mother and say exactly what you said to me, you shouldn't say it.

  • http://ubuntulinuxtipstricks.blogspot.com Mackenzie

    b-bop (#20):
    I find asking "I'm sorry, could you sign that?" in sign language makes people get a O_O face and wander off too. If you know a second language that isn't Spanish (because that's common enough that random people on the street *are* likely to know enough to say "tu caliente" or something equally simple), babbling in that language and pretending not to speak English may also be useful.

    This post is great. Occam's comment (#4) as well.

  • Pingback: Quick Hit – On “thick skin” | Geek Feminism Blog

  • http://latingodessrun8@hotmail.com Megan Black

    I am a police officer and on more than one occasion I have been told by my captain that I should grow thick skin,,,,,(I am one female officer out of 15 male officers within our entire force. I was a Soldier for 8 years and have heard those words from so many higher ranking officials, which we refer to as the "Old Boys Club," I have never been offended by any sexual related comments, but when men in high ranking positions reminded me that women did not belong in the military I reminded them that I was here and not going anywhere... The same went for those men who were not so obviouse.... who advised me that I should "Grow thick skin"... In other words; so they (the boys) don't have to use there big boy words....I was much more understanding when these words came from anchient military personnel, but now as a civilian police officer I guess I had a higher standard for those who live and breath the law in which they hold every civilian within thier juristiction accountable for....well excep thier selves...shame on those supervisors who call themselves leaders who continued to disrespect officers of the opposite gender!!!!!!!

...