Even if it’s “just a conversation”, no means no

Not long ago, a friend – let’s call her Lara – told me of an experience she’d recently had with a frenemy – let’s call her Maggie – with whom she had an ongoing feud.  They were both due to attend the same party, so Lara dressed up to the nines, put on her warpaint, and headed to the bar.  There was Maggie.  They locked eyes, simmered, and moved into a secluded corner to power into their long-awaited blow-out.

And then it happened.

A man swaggered up and placed himself squarely in between the embattled women.  His face inches from Maggie’s, he offered to buy her a drink.  Mid-sentence and somewhat nonplussed, Maggie politely turned him down, before returning to battle.  The man was undeterred.  He asked again.  She repeated that she wasn’t interested.  After several attempts, the interloper became quite unpleasant, hurling a few choice comments at the recent object of his affection, before stalking off to lick his wounds.

Brief interlude over, the war continued.

Except it didn’t.  Because mere moments later, the scenario was repeated.

In fact, it was repeated twice more.  The third man in particular got aggressive and called the two women cunts, merely for having the audacity to turn down an unrequested advance.  But all of the men were worryingly persistent, with none taking the first “no” for an answer.  This happened three times.

Lara told me this story the following day with comical exasperation and presented it as evidence of Maggie’s unassailable beauty.  Lara is also bloody gorgeous.  And unfortunately some men presume that stunning women in a bar are there for the sole intention of getting a drink/date/shag.  This isn’t exactly breaking news.  In practice, some women may be; others are not.  (This is also not breaking news).  But what was noteworthy in this particular instance was that Lara and Maggie weren’t visibly looking for company, offering smiles to those who approached, but clearly preoccupied by a loud, ongoing argument.  Is that how deep the sense of entitlement runs, for some men, to the company of pretty women?  Not just one man, who could be an insensitive douchebag anomaly, but three men in 20 minutes?

There are many factors at play, but one I want to focus on here is the fear factor.  And I don’t mean fear of rejection – which I accept is troublesome – but fear of being raped or killed.  It sounds melodramatic, but it’s very real.  It’s hard to explain the deep-seated nervousness to those who don’t have to worry about approaches from strangers in the same way that women do on an uncomfortably regular basis.  That’s not to suggest that men are invincible, nor that all are inherently dangerous, but that – for their own safety – most women’s primary reaction to every unsolicited advance will necessarily be “is it safe”?

Or, as one Tweeter put it:

Just a couple of days later, I was unlocking my bike next to a couple of women sitting on a bench.  They were approached by a young man who, it became clear, wanted to talk to one of the women.  He hadn’t politely introduced himself and enquired whether she wanted to talk to him, but insisted on her attention.  She made it clear that she was having a conversation with her friend, and wasn’t interested.  Instead of admitting defeat, he continued saying “I just want to talk to you”, getting increasingly louder, more aggressive, and physically closer.  When he tried to touch her, she defensively put out her hand and this enraged him still further.  I intervened, saying “She doesn’t want to talk to you.  You need to leave now” whereupon his wingman slimed up, gave me an approving once-over and leered “I want to talk to you“.  These guys move in packs; there were four of them watching the main one move in on his prey, providing sniggering, intimidating back-up.

Eventually, they slunk unsuccessfully away.  The woman at whom his attentions had been directed self-assuredly repeated “I didn’t want to talk to him”; but her friend was far less confident.  I asserted that her friend had every right to refuse his advances.  But she didn’t look reassured; in fact, she looked terrified.  “You should have just talked to him”, she whispered to her friend. “What if he’d had a knife?”

I hadn’t considered that.  I’d barrelled on in there regardless but what if he had?  We all could have got seriously hurt.  Equally worrying, though, was the thought I had afterwards: how many women feel they have to talk to men like this on the off-chance that they might be in possession of a dangerous weapon?

I wonder whether this particular breed of men, frequenting Clapham bars, benches outside Westfield, and many of the clubs I visited in my youth, have approached women in the past with arrogant expectation.  And that those women, sensing the dangerous undercurrent of entitlement and overly-familiar physical contact, have been too afraid to back away for fear of what those men might do next, be it frighteningly aggressive cursing, or physical assault (even if, in reality, they were perfectly trustworthy).  So the men take this lack of rejection to be an encouragement, and maybe it works out with that woman, or maybe it doesn’t; but they use similar tactics on the next one, and the next, without ever knowing how uncomfortable, even fearful, they’re making their targets.  And it doesn’t mean that men in general have sinister methods or intentions, but it does highlight a need for education on both sides.

We need to explain to these men, who genuinely believe that approaching women with intimidating bravado and swagger is sexy, that it’s actually pretty scary.  We need these men – who are not intrinsically bad people, merely misguided – to want to put the women at ease.  Since the man has chosen to approach the woman, the woman should have the same choice to walk away; and it is the man’s responsibility to give her this control.  Most men do this already, of course, encouraging open channels of communication and allowing the woman to initiate physical contact.  But there is a large enough minority of those who don’t that women, by default, end up permanently on their guard, extra fearful of all men, just in case this is the one who’ll turn nasty.  Isn’t that incredibly sad?  Surely all (most?) men want to know that the woman in their company is there because she wants to be, and not simply because she’s fearful of leaving?

So we also need all men (even the kind, lovely, thoughtful, caring ones) to understand why women feel this fear, why they’re nervous and suspicious, and not to be exasperated, or put their fear of rejection over these women’s fear of more sinister outcomes. Let’s be real: rejection is painful, but it’s less painful than rape.

At the same time, we need to help everyone realise that they can walk away if they’re not interested; that it’s perfectly within our rights to say “no”, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.  We must each do our own bit to help those less confident than ourselves understand that they should never do anything with which they’re not comfortable.  This goes for all genders; and not just sex, but everything; even going on a date; even talking.

And as for Lara and Maggie?  Well, after bonding together against the three interrupters, the argument got more and more ridiculous and in the end they called it quits and ended the night on better terms than they had been for months.  Every cloud, eh?



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