Discussion of Trump’s so-called “locker room talk” was still in full swing Oct. 9 when an incident on board an Alaskan Airlines flight resulted in a passenger being booted from the plane before takeoff.
The male passenger had yelled out "Ooh sexy,” as a flight attendant was making the pre-flight safety presentation, then protested he was "just playing" when she told him to show some respect.
A female passenger described the incident in a Facebook post, and the Internet exploded in controversy. Six thousands shares and even more comments later, social media still has not reached consensus.
Some thought the crew’s swift, unequivocal response in putting the heckler off the plane was an overreaction -- and that the flight attendant should have dealt with it discreetly. That she was being “too sensitive” and should just get over herself. Some even seemed to think she should have been grateful for the compliment – after all, aren’t women always trying to look sexy?
Steve Vaccenzi in a comment on the original Facebook post harshly criticized Alaskan Airlines, which he accused of clocking itself “in the high moral ground of political correctness.”
“My complete sympathy rests with the passenger here,” Vaccenzi said. “Throwing a passenger off a flight for saying ‘ohh sexy’ is just about the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
But many – and not only female commenters – applauded the airline’s summary response to the incident.
Durga Nagulpally said she hoped all airlines follow Alaskan Airlines’ lead.
“I truly hope women could use this moment to push for our right to dignity no matter where,” Nagulpally wrote. “Unfortunate that such men have long ways to go to realize we need it as much as they do.”
Women’s rights advocates said men who think women should take such comments as compliments don’t understand how unwelcome and even subtly threatening such attention can be. They noted that harassment and violence against women exist on a continuum, with the latter a more extreme version of the former.
Some excused the incident on the basis that it was “just talk.”
“To the person experiencing it, it is an action,” said Julie Bornhoeft, chief development and marketing officer for Women Escaping a Violent Environment (WEAVE) in Sacramento, adding that verbal slights and put-downs are common in abusive relationships – as are minimizing and justifying them.
Talk can have enormous power, said Karlyn Crowley, director of the Cassandra Voss Center and Professor of Gender Studies and English at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisc.
“Words lead to objectification; objectification leads to making someone appear less human. You can do violence to someone who is less human.”
Bornhoeft said it is common for women who stand up for themselves to be attacked on the basis of their gender.
It can be subtle, she said, but “it is part of that continued use of gender oppression.
“When you create an environment that is charged and toxic, it is an action,” Bornhoeft said. “Sexual harassment is an action, not just words, not just talk.”
For those who still want to minimize and dismiss, Bornhoeft asked them to try for a moment to put themselves in the shoes of someone whose authority and respect are being challenged in front of an audience.
Bornhoeft said this is not just about one isolated incident of a man behaving boorishly. Women have been putting up with bad behavior going beyond the verbal for far too long.
“Women are standing up and refusing to let it be the status quo. Women are pushing back and saying this is unacceptable,” Bornhoeft said. “It’s really sad when a woman insists I’m going to do my job without disruption, and there’s all this anger, (women are) saying, you don’t get to control us by default, and there is a wave of pushback.”
Unfortunately sexual harassment of women by men is so normal that its insidious impact is downplayed, Crowley said.
“I don’t think we’re having an honest conversation about how frequently women are harassed,” she said, noting that it probably was not the first time that flight attendant experienced harassment – and maybe not even the first time that day.
Regardless of the outcome of the Alaskan Airlines incident, Crowley and Bornhoeft welcomed the discussion it prompted, even the anger – which inevitably comes from bucking the status quo.
“Equality can feel like oppression to someone who’s been privileged,” Bornhoeft said.
Alaskan Airlines declined to comment on the matter beyond confirming the incident occurred and expressing support for the employees who made the call to remove the passenger.