A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness.
Gavin de Becker wrote this in his book The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence about America in the 1990s. In fact, the edition I’m quoting from was published in 1997, but so many years later I found myself returning to that quote more than once. It’s still true on various levels, not just those de Becker writes about, though important shifts are happening in terms of how both men and women perceive and conduct communication with each other.
Lots of examples that come to mind in connection with unwanted attention relate to interactions between strangers who will not necessarily get to know each other. I’m guessing they wouldn’t want to, either. Some are easy to shake off or don’t leave an impression at all. Will this ever become a topic that I and other women will have nothing to add to? A topic the women arriving after us will have nothing to say about at all? I don’t think so. It’s human nature. To make it clear at the start, I’m talking about “everyday” occurrences which, small and fleeting though they may seem, are still marked by a dart of upset, tension, feeling uncomfortable afterwards even if you know exactly how to deal with it, and knowing nods from your girlfriends once you share an experience you had.
So what’s the trigger for this post? Nothing major, just being paired up with a classmate who made me uncomfortable during a language class. I had spotted him immediately upon entering the classroom and thought that I didn’t want to work with him, because I probably already knew I would be, since we were the only ones sitting alone. Before I could join my usual teammates, one of them a twinkly-eyed bachelor in his late fifties whose jokes and polite door holding never gave me any twinges, this stout, slightly hulking man of seemingly the same age was sitting down next to me and staring at me while I spoke, turning brick red in the process. We were answering questions for vocabulary training, and mine was what I would pack for a vacation. I paused to remember the words for “different clothes”, and my exercise partner pounced in with a cackle: “A bikini!” I stopped what I was doing, looked him in the eye and said, “That’s not funny.” It worked.
When I told my girlfriends this story, head shaking and supportive sentences followed, as well as the valid observation from one of them that it would have been a totally different situation if I was paired up with a woman who said that, especially a woman my age, and I have to say I felt myself agreeing one hundred percent.
It wasn’t alright because it didn’t feel alright, besides being, in my opinion, a textbook example of Things You Don’t Say to a Woman, Especially One You Don’t Know Well. I’m reminded of a good colleague of mine who mentioned that there was construction going on right next to her house and she had to walk past the site every morning on her way to work. Despite going out early, as is often the case, there was usually someone there, already busy. We were chatting and she frowned suddenly. “There’s this one worker who always says good morning to me, he calls it out even when I’m clearly in a hurry or focused on walking. I never initiate this and it doesn’t feel nice.”
I didn’t have to say anything as we looked at each other, because I knew what she was talking about, and the additional probable components she wasn’t mentioning: knowing that man would notice you even before you walked out your door and not enjoying the thought, seeing him straighten up out of the corner of your eye, pull up his jeans or lean on something, grin or tilt his head, call out the greeting with an air of mutual acknowledgement that was never established, feeling his eyes follow you as you walk along in the summer dress you were looking forward to wearing.
Change individual bits of these stories and they transfer easily to a variety of experiences, and these are the “harmless” examples. I don’t walk around expecting any of this, in whichever version, but I’m prepared for it, and my mind switches to all the self-protection and self-soothing strategies that have been there so long, I can’t even remember when I started being conscious of them. A conversation with my own mother rapidly proves that what I talk about is as familiar to her now as it was when she was my age or even way younger, and since she’s my mother, she can usually guess where I’m going before I get there in my story. My mother gets approached plenty. So does my father, but that’s another blog post.
With the dude from my language class, I remember suddenly feeling extremely irritated and thinking, Why can’t you be an attractive, well-mannered, well-adjusted man paying attention to me instead of this? But the truth is, a well-adjusted etc. man wouldn’t have acted in a way that made me feel the way described above. Also, I wouldn’t have cared or noticed what he looked like.
Are we too sensitive? No. Are we forgetting all the good guys? No. They are even easier to spot. Are we tense and frightened of any sort of interaction with a man coming our way? No. But it’s in us to be wary if necessary. The perhaps strongest feeling I usually experience if I get unwanted attention is a sort of proprietary anger: why the hell do you think that I would want to hear this, from you? I didn’t ask you to do this or infringe on my time. That’s it.