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How to compliment a woman without sexualising her


It may come as a surprise to some people, but not all women wish to be reminded that they are starring in a Red Light Special inside every man’s head. This is not to say some women do not appreciate a well worded compliment from time to time. However, to assume that all women measure their self worth on whether or not they are seen as sex objects (or pretty, or hot, etc.) is insulting at best, disgusting and even threatening at worst. The media tells us differently, but it’s a fact: many of us would rather have some of our other positive qualities recognised.

Believe it or not, it is possible to give a woman a compliment without being sleazy. Perhaps I’m being an old fashioned “women’s libber” but I think some men could use a bit of instruction when it comes to this.
Why do I think this? My attention was drawn recently to a tweet by an attendee of TAM Australia who said that, with all the beautiful intelligent women around, it was “like the Playboy mansion.”
I know this was not ok, because the person who showed it to me was mentioned by name and she was disgusted. It was patronising. It was lewd. It was insulting for this man to imply that intelligent, skeptical women’s presence was along the same lines as the “booth babes” hired to attract the nerds in attendance at Comicon: An object to be ogled and to fulfill his puerile fantasy.

One could argue that it was their intelligence that made them sexy, and how could it be insulting to be told you are intelligent and therefore sexy? The insult is in the assumption that every woman desires to be desired sexually. It makes some women EXTREMELY UNCOMFORTABLE knowing that some guy they hardly know would rather see them in scant, sequined, bunny costume. To them, it’s akin to Miggs in Silence of the Lambs shrieking at Clarice as she passes his cell. Sure, it’s not as extreme, but the sentiment is the same. “Because you are a woman, ESPECIALLY because you’re the rare and exotic Smart Woman, my only thought is what you’d be like spreadeagled on my bed.”

And that is kind of gross.

Besides, how many times have people used old Playboy photos of Jenny McCarthy in skeptical talks as a way to subtly discredit her? If people in the skeptical movement are so quick to dismiss someone for their past as a centrefold, then why would it be safe to assume that someone will take such a comparison as a compliment?

What this misguided fan could have said is, “It’s great to be at a convention where the women are more than just eye candy.” Or perhaps, “I’m pleased to see the women in this movement represented by such strong figures as…”

When complimenting a woman, there is nothing wrong with complimenting her appearance, but choose your words wisely. “Elegant,” “radiant” and “lovely” are good. Words such as “sexy” “hot” “tasty” are not so good. Unless you already have established a flirtation, or if the woman styles herself as “sexy,” then stick to words you’d use to describe your sister or mother. Better yet, compliment a woman based on personality traits or accomplishments, rather than her appearance.
“She’s done so much to promote science education, I’m in awe of her.”
“I’m just thrilled to have met her, she’s so funny. Such a delight to be around.
And guess what? That makes a gal feel good without making her wonder if she’s safe sitting next to you at the bar.

I can almost already hear some dude saying, “But if someone calls me sexy I would take it as a compliment.” That is not the same. It’s not just because you’re a guy – though guys aren’t constantly being reminded that your only value is your sexual attractiveness, as women are. “If a woman told me I was hot, it would make me feel good.” “I love going to gay bars, I like being the centre of attention.” (Really? How about a prison shower?) It’s all well and good to say that you like being objectified, admittedly some women like it too, but it is not logical or fair to assume from the outset that everyone feels the same way you do, especially people you don’t know.

It’s not a double standard, because I think that women shouldn’t make this assumption about men, either. We women do it all the time too, and while it doesn’t carry with it the same sort of threat, it is not always welcome and we ought to recognise that as well. Especially when we women are in a position of power.

The point is, everybody likes compliment, but not everyone judges their worth by how many people want to see them naked.

  1. 05/02/2011 2:28 am

    1) Love this post and am grateful you wrote it.

    2) “It’s not the same” in regards to the defensive response, “If someone called me sexy…”
    It’s not the same, but not because it’s a guy. It’s not the same because it’s not about what HE is okay with. It’s about what OTHERS are okay with. “Well, *I* like it” is never an excuse for failing to consider others.

    3) I’ll argue that the Jenny McCarthy point is not a great example. People show her in a PB Bunny outfit to discredit her because that’s what she did for a living, not medicine. If she was a checkout clerk at Walmart, showing her in her smock would be appropriate.

    I’m sharing this!

    • noblecaboose permalink*
      05/02/2011 10:38 pm

      @badrescher: Regarding your third point, I would have to mention that being a Playboy model was not Jenny McCarthy’s only career. She has also had a relatively successful acting career, hosted her own sketch comedy TV show and haswritten several bestselling parenting books. Granted, none of this should give her any more credibility than being a centrefold, but specifically cherry-picking the fact that she’s famous for showing her boobs always seems to me like slut-shaming. It’s a very subtle poisoning of the well: “Everything she says is bullshit because she’s only qualified to pose nekkid!” She’s a misguided, dangerous fool, but reducing her down to what was, essentially a very small portion of her early career is a cheap tactic. The reason people believe her is because of her successful pregnancy and parenting books and her status as a celebrity wife and mom; the reason people shouldn’t believe her is not “because she was just a Playboy model.” If we’re going to play that game, Penn Jillette is “just some juggler,” the Mythbusters are “just some special effects guys” and Randi is “just a magician.”

  2. 06/02/2011 10:18 am

    LOVE the post! It says what I’ve been saying for YEARS, but says it concisely and elegantly. In fact, I have an entire tag on my LJ about such things – and people STILL don’t get it. It’s not about not wanting to be desired, it’s not about not wanting to feel attractive – it’s about the assumption from a stranger that we value our appearance, and that our worth as people is directly tied to our appearance in a way that men’s worth is not.

    The two best quotes that sum this whole thing up:

    “The insult is in the assumption that every woman desires to be desired sexually”
    “The point is, everybody likes compliment, but not everyone judges their worth by how many people want to see them naked.”

    • 06/02/2011 10:23 am

      Forgot to add:

      Of course some people enjoy compliments on their physical appearance and/or sexuality – it’s the assumption that I am one of them that makes it the insult, as you said. Is it really that hard to have a conversation with me for 5 minutes to try and learn something about who I am, to give me a unique and tailored compliment?

      Compliments should be about what the recipient values, not necessarily what the giver values. Awesome if they coincide, but in the end, who is the compliment for? If it’s for the giver, it’s not a compliment.

  3. 08/02/2011 11:08 am

    Also grateful you wrote this. You’re always a delight to be around, too.

  4. 08/02/2011 4:22 pm

    I really like this post, with one exception… I’m a nerdy woman who dresses in ways that some people think is sexy. I have a love of corsets, but I still don’t want to be told by some random ass hat that I’m hot.

    Just because I enjoy being corseted does not make me any more comfortable with being the object of unwanted attention. So the suggestion that if I’m dressed in a way that someone else perceives to be sexy doesn’t make it acceptable to objectify me.

    One of the problems with the assumption that wearing a skirt or heels is inherently sexy to some people is that entitlement. People think that because you’re dressed in a specific way you’re fair game, and it’s never appropriate.

    Even the booth babes (I’ve done booth babe duties for friends at Dragon Con – it’s actually quite fun), deserve respect. They may be there to sell stuff or promote some product, but they’re also human beings, often gamers and geeks themselves, and simply because they’re ‘sexy’ does not give anyone the right to harass them.

    • 11/02/2011 12:06 pm

      @alumiere I have to agree with the idea that you can’t tell by attire how she wants to be treated. I’m a costumer & most of my costumes are “sexy”. I don’t get upset at people noticing me, heads turning, or people *thinking* I’m sexy – I can’t control their thoughts and I don’t want to, and it would be irresponsible of me to wear clothing that I *know* is considered provacative and expect everyone to keep their eyes averted and their thoughts pure. But I DO get offended at people thinking that I am dressed sexy *for their pleasure*. I’m not, I’m dressed for my pleasure.

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell guys “if you absolutely must compliment a woman on her appearance because you have compliment-tourettes or something, tell her that she has a nice outfit, not that she looks hot in it.”

      I WANT people to notice my clothing when I’m in costume. I made my costumes myself and I’m damn proud of them. That’s something I value – my ability to make things. I’m aware that I’m most male geek’s wet dream when I wear my Slave Leia bikini out of real copper, but those same geeks do not have the right to treat me as though I am appearing before them for the purpose of fulfilling their adolescent jack-off dreams.

      Compliment me on the final outcome of the outfit, be impressed by the work I put into it. Don’t tell me how sexy I am until you’ve had a conversation with me and I know what your compliments *mean* – are they expressions of your entitlement or just admiration? – and you know what kind of compliments have the most meaning *to me*.

      • 13/02/2011 9:15 am

        I agree; I want people to look when I’m dressed in something I’ve made or I’m out at a club. What I don’t want is them to think that my choice in clothes means I’m looking for sex, that I want to be hit on, or that they are entitled to touch or grope or…

        But the other thing is that there are people who seem to think my floor length skirts and baggy shirts are sexy – as a woman who presents as feminine I must be there for them. And the same goes for people who think jeans and a t-shirt are sexy, or those who think a Sari or a Muslim woman who wears a khimār or…

        Just because I’m presenting as feminine does not give you the right to treat me any differently than you would a man. It’s one of those pet peeves.

        And why, when my boyfriend (who’s quite beautiful) wears a skirt or a dress or a corset, does he not get treated as an object of sexuality once people realize he’s male? Well, at least most of the time… Although it is funny when cars slow down to hit on us, and then they realize only one of us is female so they take off quickly.

      • 17/02/2011 11:48 am

        I think you hit the nail on the head exactly @alumiere – being admired for attire (or appearance) is one thing, but interpreting what my attire (or appearance) *means* is something else entirely, and the crux of the problem, I think.

        Making assumptions about what my clothing or appearance means – particularly if that assumption includes anything to do with the rights or privileges of the person making the assumption – is the key element to when someone’s behaviour is appropriate or not. My clear and explicit verbal permission is the only “clue” or “hint” that means anyone has any right to any liberties with me.

        I knew a guy who continues to get confused when women wear short-shorts and tank tops over to his house to hang out, and then decline sexual activity. He thinks the clothing “means” something. I tell him “yes, it means that she lives in Florida and it’s fucking hot here. You are not part of the equation.”

    • noblecaboose permalink*
      12/02/2011 8:10 pm

      In my own defense, what I meant by “if the woman styles herself as “sexy,”” was not “if she dresses sexy.”
      I see how unbelievably misleading that sentence was.
      What I was trying to say was, if the woman presents herself as sexy, if it’s clear from her demeanor that she is attempting to attract sexual attention.
      Though, when I think of it, it would be difficult to discern this without first talking to her.
      Bah! Never mind, you’re completely right.
      My bad.

      • 13/02/2011 9:23 am

        No worries – we all miss things sometimes. I get what you’re trying to say, but even go-go dancers (or strippers) who may be projecting sexy do not necessarily want sexual attention. There’s a difference between appearance whether it’s a preference or part of a job, and the perception that because someone appears to be sexy they want sexual attention from strangers.

        So, you’re dead on – you have to talk to people. And generally we’d prefer it if you didn’t start the first conversation with hi, you’re hot. Even if you want to talk about what we’re wearing, there are lots of ins to the conversation without being a dick. Ask us where we found that lovely top, or what our t-shirt means, or who made the dress. Tell us you think our hair is cool, or the necklace we’ve got on is beautiful, or…

      • 17/02/2011 11:58 am

        I’ve known several strippers and bouncers who tell stories about being hit on by customers. If customers knew what these girls thought of them, and said about them later, they’d never behave in such a fashion.

        Many guys try to solicit the dancers, not just for sexual activity that might be a reasonable assumption or mistake (i.e. lap dances, *friendly* lap dances, etc.) but for personal encounters outside of work. Usually, the girls tell the customers that they have a boyfriend, whether they do or not, in order to give them an easy out that clearly says “no” but doesn’t insult the customer at the same time.

        A depressingly large percentage of customers then counter with “oh, but he doesn’t have to know!” The universal reaction, as told to me by the girls & bouncers, is usually a sarcastic “he doesn’t? You mean I don’t have to tell him that I had sex with a stranger without his permission? Why didn’t I think of that? This changes EVERYTHING!” (never said to the customer’s face – this is what they say to friends later)

        The bottom line to this anecdote is that even obviously sexualized behaviour does not imply desire or intent for further sexual activity, does not imply an availability for sexual or romantic activity, and does not imply even an appreciation for sexualized attention outside of the stated boundaries of the event or encounter.

  5. Bill permalink
    14/04/2011 4:13 am

    Aw come on, men like women only for sex and housekeeping. That’s all there is to it. DEAL WITH IT.

    • noblecaboose permalink*
      14/04/2011 7:18 am

      Without the use of smilies, I can’t tell if you’re making a joke. I’d like to assume you are, given that if you actually felt that way, chances are, your spelling and grammar would reflect your tiny brain size. But look: you’ve used punctuation, you’ve placed an apostrophe in the appropriate place and everything is spelled correctly. So, I feel 75% sure you’re probably making an attempt at humour.
      If so, bravo. Ironic, postmodern misogyny is soooo fresh and current. *wink* I’ve NEVER heard someone pretend to be a chauvinistic pig before. *wink*
      If you’re being half serious, as in “Most men think this way, aren’t they awful?” I personally think this kind of stereotype, the one that excuses men from having to have an evolved point of view, does men a disservice. Especially the many men I know and choose to associate with who are interested in women as complete human beings with thoughts, feelings and interests. You know, something more than a Roomba with a Fleshlight duct-taped to its back.
      If you’re 100% serious or just trying to get a rise out of me, please go away. Any further attempts at this kind of thing will be blocked.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. 21/06/2011 1:21 pm

    Nice post. I’ve had it with men feeling entitled to “take me home” because they are “men after all”. To me it is offensive and disrespectful. I don’t go around salivating and making men uncomfortable….

  7. 19/07/2011 8:52 am

    Gee, I’ve always said things like, “Hey, that’s a nice ____” with respect to something a person (not confined to a woman) has had a choice in. Like, clothing. Or decor. Or taste in wine. Or literature.

    I think I do this because complimenting someone on something over which they’ve had no choice is cheap flattery and an insult. Hey, congratulations on having been born with blue eyes. It’s silly.

  8. Michael Kingsford Gray permalink
    10/10/2011 5:22 pm

    …they are starring in a Red Light Special inside every man’s head

    I stopped reading at that outrageous & overblown hyperbolic lie.

  9. NobleCaboose permalink
    12/10/2011 8:41 pm

    Crying no tears over the loss, mate. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. NobleCaboose permalink
    12/10/2011 8:50 pm

    Is it just me or is this dude’s accusation coming across a bit “How dare she make such a sexist accusation!” Which, given the tone and content of my piece, which he didn’t bother to read, seems a bit rich. Well, my apologies! It must be so hard being a white male and always being subject of such stereotypes and accusations! Wow, I hadn’t stopped to consider the small minority of men who don’t objectify women sexually, or who objectify women non-sexually! Heaven forfend that I could have lumped you in with such a gross generalization! /sarcasm


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