Beware the Masher!

A wonderful person called Adrastia commented to the last blog by recommending the following book: Beware the Masher: Sexual Harassment in American Public Places, 1880-1930 By Kerry Segrave. (Adrastia also recommended Suzette Haden Elgin a few blogs back… so she’s definitely in my good books, if you’ll forgive the pun.)

“Beware the Masher” is WONDERFUL! I’ve not read it all yet, but it contains excerpts from opinion pieces and letters to newspapers of that era describing both the mashers’ behaviour and its impact on women. Some examples:

A masher (street harasser) “may be described as a Moral Spittoon, and his mission on earth is to pester respectable girls with his nauseous attentions and to receive the scorn and contempt of all real men.” 1883.

“A masher is a coward too, for he knows that an unescorted girl can only express her resentment by ignoring him.” 1914.

“The man who speaks with a girl in a public place, with the evident desire of forcing his companionship on her, is showing no respect for her, and consequently is not to be recommended for a place among her friends.” 1904

chatty3As a friend of mine commented, “Those passive-aggressive Romance-era paintings make so much more sense now.”

I think we need to bring back the word “masher”: precisely because it fell out of use, it would be infinitely clearer than many of the terms we use and abuse now. We could use it to clearly label those guys who set out to interfere with women in public places – the catcallers and the joggers-stoppers and the what-are-you-readingers, and also those who harass online. We could use it to highlight the fact that the behaviour is targeted and deliberate, as opposed to innocent or accidental. We could use the label as a club to drive into some people’s heads that no, we’re not having a go at every poor bastard who’s genuinely just in need of directions to the nearest bus stop.

The term comes, of course, from a very different time: a time when social formalities dictated that men should not approach unknown women in a public places at all. Some of the quotes in the book suggested that some writers disapproved even of known men approaching women in public places; it was a lady’s prerogative to acknowledge the acquaintance and initiate the contact, if she so wished. In fact, this was a time when the presence of unaccompanied women on the street (well, women of a certain class, anyway) was relatively new and not entirely approved of. However, demanding that women only go out escorted by a male protector or a duenna was widely recognised to be generally impractical.

The mashers were seen as taking advantage of that opportunity – the availability of unprotected women in public places – to get away with behaviours that were widely held to be unacceptable. They were breaking rules, if not laws. And they were held as figures of contempt.

Things are different now. Very few people would claim that women shouldn’t go out unchaperoned because it’s inappropriate… though there’s always some guy ready to tell us that women should learn where they can and can’t go safely, and if we ignore the evidence of our own eyes it’s our own fault if we end up in trouble. Because, of course, that’s practical. If you know that there will be mashers on your commuter train, just walk those 60 miles to work. If you know that there are mashers in your neighbourhood, just move to a better one. If you know that there are mashers on the streets, just teleport. Are we stupid or stubborn that we just can’t think our way around this problem?

Other aspects of the issue have also changed. Because while street harassment was, by the sound of it, as much of a problem then as it is now, the way in which it is regarded seems to have changed a lot, at least in some quarters.

There are men now openly teaching men to be mashers; for instance, but not exclusively, the pick-up artist community. There are large and growing online communities of men proudly teaching men that women are iniquitous, cruel, gatekeeperish creatures that cannot be successfully coexisted with; and, if men show them respect and consideration, will punish them for it. So women should only be used for sex and then discarded. Like Kleenex. And that picking up those Kleenex on the street is perfectly fine; that’s what they’re there for.

There are men who aren’t mashers, yet openly fight for the rights of other men to mash; those who insist, for instance, that there’s nothing wrong about catcalling. That women should see it as a compliment. That we should not be such bitches, and smile more; we’d look prettier that way (and isn’t this wonderfully meta?). And, in case we’d forgotten, they’re happy to remind us that women in Saudi Arabia have to worry about having acid thrown in their faces, while we’re over here bitching about guys finding us attractive. We could have it so much worse. I’m sure the implied threat is accidental.

There are men who like to remind us that we, the women, demanded equality. Now we have it, and yet we’re still bitching. If we wanted to be treated like ladies, we shouldn’t have stopped acting like ladies, and we shouldn’t have started punishing men who treat us like ladies. And when we point out that this isn’t equality, because men don’t treat other men that way, we’re told that we’re wrong. To be the equal of men is to interact with them on their own terms; i.e., as individuals, and using physical force as the bottom line. And if we don’t have the means to prevail, because we’re going to be smaller and weaker on average and we don’t train or equip ourselves to compensate for that, that’s too damn bad. We should have thought about it sooner. There by the grace of men go women; and if we come to realise it only now, that’s our own fault.

It’s easier to drive holes the size of Kentucky into this sort of arguments. It’s also draining, though, particularly when you’re having to do it day in, day out. And it starts to feel entirely pointless where you’re having the same arguments with the same people month after month. Thankfully, these guys are in the minority; but they’re surely a very vocal, very time-consuming minority.

There are also a lot of men who says that it would be just peachy if we didn’t keep tarring them with the same manky brush. Men who aren’t mashers, would never mash, have never seen anyone mashing, wouldn’t stand for it if they did, and are summarily fed up having to hear about the iniquities of Men. Men who are absolutely right, but still get up our noses because their reaction, although perfectly justifiable, is just not what we need right now. Because what they forget is that if there are 300 men on my commuter train and only 3 are mashers, yes, the preponderance of Men is righteous and lovely and I should remember that and bear it in mind in my pronunciations. But my reality is that I I’m spending the bulk of my time on that damn train fielding the attention of those 3 assholes. The bulk of my interactions with guys are negative for the simple reason that the bad guys are the one thrusting themselves in my face. And having the guys who I thought had my back busier defending themselves than they are defending me is just so damn frustrating that it makes me want to both scream and cry… which really isn’t conducive to any useful dialogue. So then it all becomes chicken-and-eggish about who offended who first, and who ought to calm down first, and who’s exaggerating or trivialising; and in this way we not only lose some very valuable allies, but also allow the mashers of this world to drive a wedge between us. We help the assholes win.

It can all be rather disheartening. The worst of it, for me, is that the bulk of my friends and associates come from the self-defence community – the natural result of half a decade of monomania on my part. You’d think that what I hear from “my tribe” would be different, given the importance of early awareness of developing situations to successful self-defence. We’re constantly telling people that they need to be situationally aware – that if something pings them as not-right, they should respect that feeling and act accordingly. That it is not only their right, but their responsibility to respect the evidence of their own eyes.

So how is it that there are people within the self-defence community championing mashers? How is it that there are prominent teachers telling women that they we should ignore the fact that these men are deliberately crowbarring their way into our lives? Knowing how crucial it is for us to ensure that our sexual partners will respect our consent all the way through, and knowing that people’s behaviour tends to worsen the higher the stakes are; why then are these teachers trying to persuade us to ignore how despicable these kinds of approaches are, and how they are the sign of a despicable and potentially dangerous attitude towards us?

How does it make sense for self-defence experts to on the one hand be telling women that this kind of thing is NotThatBad®, and that we’re over-reacting neurotics if we respond to it badly; yet on the other hand telling us that we’re damn fools if we don’t spot problems as they develop and nip them in the bud early enough?

I don’t envy the lives of women in the 1880s. Rights-of-women-wise, they did the heaviest lifting on my behalf. I do envy them, though, the fact that their war against harassment seemed to be largely fought on one, clear front. Having to watch myself from all directions is proving exhausting.


2 thoughts on “Beware the Masher!

  1. Thank you, Anna. I too was struck by the content of the book and how familiar this content remains today. And I noted the observations of the male advisers who currently discuss women’s clothing as “provocative” and our mobility/destinations as “ill-advised, reckless or entitled”. In the period under discussion (1890-1930) women wore much more concealing clothing and had far greater restrictions on their mobility and activity.

    None of those differences (restricted mobility or concealing clothing) significantly diminished their vulnerability to harassment/threats or rape, molestation etc. Yet, as you made clear, some of our colleagues/advisers continue a pattern that has a long, damaging history. You’ve asked why.
    Have you asked it of specific people and if so, how have they answered?

    Anna, perhaps it is past time to ask your questions directly to those colleagues/instructors face to face and hold them accountable for their explanations; to say their names and open up the conversations.
    (your quotes below)
    …”why then are these teachers trying to persuade us to ignore how despicable these kinds of approaches are, and how they are the sign of a despicable and potentially dangerous attitude towards us?”
    “How does it make sense for self-defence experts to on the one hand be telling women that this kind of thing is NotThatBad®, and that we’re over-reacting neurotics if we respond to it badly; yet on the other hand telling us that we’re damn fools if we don’t spot problems as they develop and nip them in the bud early enough?”

    Presenting blatantly contradictory characterizations of us as reckless/coddled/indulgent girls ignoring “real threats” or “over-reacting neurotics” is a common thread running through SD4W advice. Their responses “don’t make sense” – except in the worst interpretation of “sense”. This position keeps the focus off of the perpetrators (too uncomfortable) and puts it back on _us_, exactly where it has been for decades.

    This issue has been simmering for a long time. It will take someone like you to bring it to the surface.
    You know this community. I leave it to your good judgement and thoughtful consideration how to proceed. Over the last 4-5 months you’ve circled back to this again and again. I will be glad to support you. Please read the linked essay:

    w/respect and appreciation, A

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Believe it or not, I was planning to post that article on Monday… I still will, as a lot of people bypass the comments.

      Re. The Question… at this point, I’m not sure as to whether I’m genuinely baffled, or I don’t want to see what’s in front of me. Which suggests that I’m lying to myself to keep the peace. (My grandmother would be so proud, at long last.)

      I’m seriously thinking about piloting a Not-A-Self-Defence-Seminar-For-Women. I can’t teach physical skills because I don’t have any. But I can try and disentangle people’s heads about some of those issues. I’ll have to talk to some people and see what can be done.

      Thank you!


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