[CW: sexual harassment]
Hey, men friends? Y’all who believe in equality and want to be on the right side of things? I need you to listen to this one. Bear witness. Brass players, this would be good for y’all to read intentionally, too.
I’ve spent the last couple days trying to figure out how to deal with a bass trombonist close to three times my age who showed up in my Messenger inbox, completely unprompted, and decided “Hello Pretty Lady” was an appropriate and acceptable way to start his brief introduction (which ended with a link to his website). He’d entered my social media sphere as part of the absolute deluge of Facebook friend requests I’ve gotten over the past week. Most folks have been brass players, and in the interest of community, I’ve okayed the vast majority. Many of those will turn out to be good decisions; this guy was not.
Before we go any further, a reminder: a phrase like “hello pretty lady” coming from a stranger is creepy even if it’s from a guy my age. The older the man, the larger the power imbalance—and though some of the men I’ve encountered in my life may not always be aware of that reality, societally-imposed expectations of politeness and deference to (male) elders often shoehorn us into either accepting sexual harassment (with thanks, even) or risk being exploded at when we call it out. This struggle in particular is one of the most difficult parts of professionalism for me to navigate; though I am plenty articulate, even the best words can’t override a man who’s coasted for decades on the idea that his behavior is acceptable because no one he listens to and respects has ever told him it’s wrong or harmful.
Also, as my mom pointed out later, most people my age expect a greeting like that to be followed by an unsolicited dick pic. That’s maybe the easier way to explain it: there is an expectation of disrespect for personal boundaries, and that expectation is made clear from the beginning of the interaction.
The guy’s still a brass player, though, and I try not to alienate people in my fields when I can’t clearly tell what’s going on. As such, I led with my educator side, penning the following reply: “Hi! I’m not sure what tone you were hoping to strike with your greeting, but ‘hello pretty lady’ is an uncomfortably overfamiliar lead-in from someone I’ve never met who’s significantly older than me. While I love meeting fellow professionals in the field, greetings like these come across as creepy and invasive, and that’s not great for building friendships. I’d highly suggest avoiding that wording in the future. That said, I hope you’re safe and healthy!”
I check all the boxes so he can follow my logic: uncomfortably overfamiliar and way too casual for someone I’ve never met. Age difference equals power imbalance. Overall effect is creepy and invasive. It’s also worth noting I sat on this for over thirty-six hours trying to figure out how to respond. (That’s rare.) My words are literally as polite as I can possibly be while refusing to cede my own wellbeing.
In any situation, the request for correction isn’t usually the part I worry overmuch about. Most of the time, it doesn’t particularly make a difference how well I word my response, because if the guy doesn’t think he’s in the wrong, nothing I say is going to convince him. It is, however, a great way to quickly identify folks willing to do a little self-reflection versus those who aren’t interested in hearing that small, easily-fixable modifications to their behavior would leave the people around them infinitely more comfortable. My request was not complicated—don’t be overfamiliar with strangers. (It was also wholeheartedly approved by my partners, who are significantly less burn the world down than I am.)
His response was lengthy, pissed, and unkind. I’m not going to put the guy on blast by pasting it here, just like I’m not going to name him publicly, but here’s the part that matters: he ended his response with “IF an older man complements [sic] your looks, be gracious and accept the words for what they were.” (Emphasis his. Charming, right?)
I’d like to talk about that, because it’s a sentiment that extends far beyond this interaction. Compliments can be highly subjective and vary widely from person to person, but a good one aims to make the recipient feel positively about themself. More than that, they should solidly aim to not make the recipient uncomfortable. Folks in all fields, including music, have been abusing this for time immemorial. I’ve written about it before, actually, though I’ve never come straight out and named it as such. It’s the same logic as the people who come up to me after a performance and only talk about my dress or my makeup or my femininity—all of these things are great parts of myself that I love very much, but all of them come after my artistry when I’m on a bandstand. To reverse that order and put my aesthetics and performative femininity first reverts us back to the standards mass media have set forward, in which I am to be beautiful and compliant and consumable and very little else. The fact that this man prioritized my aesthetics and then immediately requested that I prioritize his artistry sets up an instant double standard.
It’s also worth noting that people who become my friends on social media primarily because we are both musicians are folks I expect to be treated professionally by as we begin to get to know each other. (The vast majority of you do great!) This still leaves plenty of room for friendly questions and even less pointed or more inherently artistic compliments, but it does mean I expect—at bare minimum—not to be immediately sexualized or placed in the aesthetic consumption category. These things tie into tokenism and performative womanhood and the maestro mentality and other things I’ve written about before, but folks, if nobody’s ever said it to you before, let me say it to you now: not all people, especially those raised as girls and women, will respond positively to your come-ons and aesthetic compliments when you’re a near-stranger or we’re only around you to do our jobs. That kind of assumed familiarity isn’t something many of us freely allow.
And to step over that line, and when corrected, berate me for not being gracious? Buddy. No.
I have no obligation to be gracious to men (or anyone) who reduce me to a consumable and act like I should be grateful for it. I have no obligation to validate their sexual harassment—yes, I am naming it—in the interest of keeping them on my good side. In this situation, I am incredibly lucky, because this man is someone I may never encounter in person. The last time I was berated for daring to request better treatment by someone I know in real life, I left the ensemble I was in with that man. (That was a different set of circumstances and a different story for another time, but the consequences of being definitively denied my expectation of respect are very real when a colleague or bandleader is the one doling out the hurt. In that situation, I didn’t have room to maneuver. I had to cower—and then I left.)
Ultimately, I have no obligation to accept a compliment simply because the man delivering it thinks I should be flattered—and when I express a boundary or make clear I am uncomfortable being treated this way, for reasons rooted in the systemic oppression of my gender, it is the responsibility of the person causing this harm to stop, step back, and use their critical thinking skills to consider how to avoid causing that harm again in the future. If you didn’t follow me all the way through that thought, read it again.
It’s an extension of the same metaphor I’ve used for dealing with various sexist and queerphobic problems for years: if you push someone over on the playground, you have to say you’re sorry whether you meant to do it or not. (And then, theoretically, you should try not to push them over again.)
For the record, I told him I had no obligation to be gracious, and I’d already “accepted” the words for what they were—an inappropriate come-on from a man exploiting a power imbalance and essentially telling me to shut up and say thank you for something that made me deeply uncomfortable. Folks, I am not interested in living my entire life with a smile on my face and platitudes in my mouth. I am not interested in being complicit in my own oppression. I am invested in ensuring that, when possible, I am actively working to highlight and correct problematic and harmful behavior so the people who come after me don’t have to deal with all the same shit. Many of my peers and friends within five years or so of my age are already familiar with the gentle corrections I give out on a quasi-regular basis; I’m able to give those judgment-free because those folks aren’t flexing a power imbalance on me. Though I will always try to be compassionate, reasonably optimistic, and education-focused in my critiques (see that first response), I won’t stand idly by when someone decides my discomfort is less important than their ego.
Most of my mutuals with this man, though, are beautiful, young, female brass players.
Chances are, his behavior will not change.
But I’m writing about it anyway, because for some of you, this might matter. So thank you for bearing witness.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @ordinarilymeg on Instagram.