Tuesday, May 6, 2014

On the privilege of safe responses

Can I get a little serious here for a second? I can? Aces.

I was reading an article today about women who say "I have a boyfriend" as a way to have men leave them alone in clubs or other social settings. The author argues that doing so
completely removes the agency of the woman, her ability to speak for herself and make her own decisions regarding when and where the conversation begins or ends. 
For the most part, I agree. For one thing, it's dishonest. There are countless examples online of men complaining that women "play games", that they say they have a boyfriend when they don't.  I think most of us want to be honest, and I believe that when it's clear the person is pursuing you romantically and you're not interested, saying politely but firmly, "I'm not interested"  should be enough. Additionally, the fact that that phrase is usually successful at deflecting unwanted attention is problematic in the first place. A quote in the article put it perfectly:
Male privilege is “I have a boyfriend” being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.
Boom. Yes.

But I get why people use it. Because it works. And I hate that it works, but sometimes you don't care what is the 'activist' answer or the 'intelligent' answer, sometimes you just need what's effective. Let me regale you with a (bit of a long) story.

I'm not much of a club-goer. I always feel under-dressed (or over-dressed, depending on your take on these things), I'm not a great dancer, and when it comes to drinking, the pennypincher in me hands over $8 for a mixed drink very reluctantly. I usually end up going out only with people whose company I thoroughly enjoy... which makes it all the more frustrating when I can't hear their jokes or I lose them in the crowd. That being said, I still do it from time to time, usually for a special occasion. And this particular night was a goodbye party for an acquaintance of mine before he moved to Brazil for a few years.

The bar wasn't particularly crowded at first, and I quickly found a few friends to chat with, or at least try to ("IT'S GOOD TO SEE YOU!" "WHAT?!" "I SAID IT'S GOOD TO SEE. YOU." "NO, HE'S GOING TO SAO PAOLO, NOT TO RIO!"). We drank a little, we talked shop, we ate free cheese (it was a weird night). But as we were huddled in a group, trying to figure out where the goodbye boy was, a wiry man with an impish grin moved in behind me and started talking to me. I was polite, smiling in this crazed way I have when I'm uncomfortable, and tried to respond to what he was saying but he was either drunk, high or otherwise not entirely in charge of himself and it was hard to keep up. He immediately started draping himself over me, telling me I was beautiful, offering to buy me a drink, then drinking from mine (yeeeeah. Charming). I'll be fully honest, before I saw how out of it he was, his offer to buy me a drink was at first, somewhat flattering, even if I didn't feel right about accepting it. But as he became more and more insistent and "hands-on" for lack of a better term, I began to worry about what exactly would be in that drink when it made its way back to me. I politely (Canadian politely, even, which is 3.8 times more polite than responses of other nations) turned him down repeatedly.

"No, thank you."
"I'm just here with my friends."
"It's really okay, thank you for the offer. I'm fine. No."

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Eventually my friends (who finally clued in that I didn't know this guy and was not eager to get to know him) "saved" me by steering me away from him and down to the dance floor. Problem solved, self-agency intact. Once there, we danced, we drank, we judged, it was a grand time. I quickly put the incident with Grabby Drinkbuyer out of my head.

We called it a night fairly early and were out of there by 1:30 or so. I offered to walk a friend home since it was pretty close and her street was only 7 blocks from mine. It was a nice night and I didn't mind the fresh air after the sweat and noise of the bar. We chatted until we hit her street, said our goodbyes, and I started walking home. About 2 blocks in, I gave my boyfriend a call to let him know I was on my way. He asked if I wanted him to walk out to meet me, and I brushed it off. He was home, cozily snuggled up with our dog, playing Dark Souls or Dead Space or whatever the heck he was into at the time. "I don't mind, it's okay," he said. So I relented. And I'm really really glad I did.

About 3 blocks away from home, an SUV pulled up beside me. A man leaned out, flashing a smile. At first, I didn't even notice. I had been thinking about the night, what I was going to do that weekend, whether it was too late to walk the dog, really riveting stuff. When he shouted "Hey!" my head snapped up, and my first thought was "directions. He must need directions." So I was confused, then, when he asked where *I* was going. "Home," I answered, and began walking again.  He grinned at me. "Why so serious? Why don't you smile?" Oh my lord. At this point, the "give me a smile" line was something I'd only heard other women complain about - I'd never actually heard it used it real life. This guy was like a cartoon of a harasser. "Why don't we talk?" he continued and at this point, I started getting uncomfortable. It was 1:30, I was in between two well-traversed streets but where I was was now was very dimly lit. "No thanks," I said, and consciously sped up a bit, head down.

The street I was on was a one-way, heading away from me, so I passed him, and he drove away. I didn't look back but I assume he turned onto another street. I shook my head- truly this was a night of bizarre interactions.

I continued for another block, when I became conscious of footsteps behind me, speeding up. I didn't think much of it until he was right beside me, the guy from the SUV. He had parked his car somewhere, gotten out, and caught up to me on foot. "Where are you going?" he asked a second time. "Home," I said, again, a little bit freaked out at this point. "Where are you coming from?" "A goodbye party" I answered. "Why are you walking so fast?" he asked, "I don't know you," I responded.

"You don't have to speed up, don't worry," he said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I was massively uncomfortable. "I don't know who you are, okay, please don't," I said, speeding up a little more. It should be pointed out that even though I kept saying I didn't know who he was he never introduced himself.

And he matched me step for step. And he was close enough that his arm was brushing mine. And he was taller and stronger than I was. And the street was deserted. I remember thinking if I had an alderman, I should contact him about the lack of lighting in this neighbourhood.

My eyes scouted for my boyfriend, beginning to get worried. The man became irritated, his voice more clipped now, "Don't walk so fast. We're just talking. You don't have to be scared. We're just. Talking."

And that's when I said it.

"I have a boyfriend," I blurted out.

"Oh, do you?" he smiled.
"Yes," I said, and then squinted in the darkness, "and there he is."

TB came sauntering out, all 6'2" of him looking very menacing in flip flops and a grin.

"That's your boyfriend, is it?" he smirked. I had to admit, it did seem like an awfully large coincidence that just as things started to turn serious, this white knight appears out of nowhere. But already the man had changed his posture, he stood back, slowed his pace a little, gave me some breathing room. As soon as I caught up to my boyfriend I gave him a hug and said "Hi, babe."

And just like that, the tension broke completely. "Oh, sorry man," the guy said and jogged (jogged!) away from us, turning down a side street.

"Who was that?" TB asked.
"I have no fucking clue," I said, and gave him a quick rundown of what had happened. TB's face clouded a bit as he listened and then he put his house keys between his knuckles.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going after him."
"Please don't. I just want to go home."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, please. I understand but let's just go home."

So we walked the remaining block to our place. And I gave my dog overly-vigorous belly rubs and I had a drink of water, and we discussed whether we should call the cops (we didn't. I never got a really good look at him and, since he didn't actually *do* anything but be creepy as hell, I imagined there wouldn't be a lot of good that would accomplish), and we laughed a little at the whole thing, so I wouldn't cry a little at the whole thing.

As I crawled into bed that night, I thought about how I hoped that guy didn't run into another girl who didn't have a boyfriend walking out to her. And how I hated the fact that I needed my boyfriend, and how lucky I was that I had him to need. I'm not traumatized by this experience or anything, I still go out at night, I still like my neighbourhood, I still think dudes are, for the most part, good. But it does occupy a little of my brain space and occasionally, though it pains me to admit it, I do think "what if?" and shivers run through me.

All this to say, I get this editorial, I really do. "I have a boyfriend" does seem like a shitty excuse to get someone to stop speaking to you, and as was the case with Grabby Drinkbuyer, I was able to deflect that situation without any utterance of a boyfriend. The excuse supports a system whereby women are still seen to be "taken" by their partners, rather than beings with their own agency who have the ability to control who they do and don't speak with.

But when you're on a darkened street, or outside a club, or at a party, and someone is telling you to smile for him and talk to him, and isn't listening to your "please stop"s - well if "I have a boyfriend" makes him back off, for God's sake, use it. Use whatever you need to feel secure and don't feel badly about it. In a perfect world, "I'm not interested" would be enough, every time, but this world is far from perfect. And I'd rather be flawed and safe, than right and dead.

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