This Throwback Thursday entry is brought to you by the fact that the original article to which it was responding, Stop Saying “I Have a Boyfriend”, has been making the rounds again. The original title for this piece is I’ll Stop Citing a Boyfriend When My Consent Starts Mattering; it was published on September 10, 2013. I have shortened it and added in the sentence about cause and effect.
Before I started dating, I listened to a lot of men. One of their biggest complaints was that women aren’t straightforward enough. “Why don’t women just say no?” they lamented. “I waste all this time pursuing women because I don’t know for sure that they don’t want me.”
I have always believed in honesty and directness, so it seemed absurd to me that all these women weren’t just saying “no” when “no” was what they meant. Sentiments like those found in this article could’ve been snatched from my lips in those days.
I think the solution is simple — we simply stop using excuses. If a man is coming on to you […], respond with something like this: “I’m not interested.” Don’t apologize and don’t excuse yourself. If they question your response (which is likely), persist — “No, I said I’m not interested.”
Just be honest and all will work out, right?
You guessed it: wrong.
It’s not always so simple.
In my experience, many men take any kind of response from a woman they’re hitting on — any kind of reaction at all — to be good. The theory that all publicity is good publicity is not lost on them. By saying “no” to a man like that, a woman is acknowledging his presence and the fact that he is hitting on her, which, alone, is a win for him. He could take it as a challenge, a reason to engage and pursue, an opportunity to debate the woman as to his merits as a man.
Other men believe that a no is merely a yes in disguise. A “no” will mean escalation, often into the physical: cornering, following/stalking, groping, and so on. Still other men take it even further, interpreting the “no” as a challenge to their manhood and a personal insult to them. Reactions range from insults (“you’re not even that hot! No wonder you’re single, turning down a good dude like me!”) to threats (“I’ll show you what a real man is!”) to physical violence (grabbing, pushing, shoving) to, in very extreme cases, various forms of sexual assault (so-called “corrective rape” is an LGBT-specific example of this).
All that for daring to express a lack of interest in a particular male someone.
The alternative? Lying in a way that those types of men understand. Men with such sexist views will be more likely to leave a woman alone, or at least not harm her, if she tells him that she’s “taken” by another man. It’s similar to street harassment: a woman is far less likely to be hassled by men on the street if she’s accompanied by one or more men. Obviously, not all men are like that, but women often have no way of knowing if a man is that kind of man until after the fact.
Honesty is only the best policy when it’s a two-way street, when your word is fully accepted as honest by the other person. In the case of some men with some women, such is hardly the reality of the situation. Feminist theory is all fine and well until, say, there’s a man much larger and stronger than you trying to grab your shoulders and force you to kiss him.
The idea that a woman should only be left alone if she is “taken” or “spoken for” (terms that make my brain twitch) completely removes the level of respect that should be expected toward that woman.
It 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. It is basically a real-life example of feminist theory at work–women (along with women’s choices, desires, etc.) being considered supplemental to or secondary to men, be it the man with whom she is interacting or the man to whom she “belongs” (see the theory of Simone de Beauvoir, the story of Adam and Eve, etc.).
And the worst part of the whole situation is that we’re doing this to ourselves.
It’s gross, and it’s messed up, but alas, this is the world in which we live — which is why that last line makes my brain twitch. Women aren’t “doing it to ourselves,” we’re making choices based on reality. I’d love to quote Simone de Beauvoir to some sexist who can’t take no for an answer, but unless it’s online, to do so often represents far from the best choice. Telling women that “we’re doing this to ourselves” confuses the cause of this poor behavior in men (the sense of entitlement that sexist men feel towards women to whom they are attracted) with its effect (women having to lie to make said men leave us alone).
It disgusts me to my core that I have to use my partner as a shield against men who can’t take no for an answer. It upsets me that those men don’t respect my consent, my agency, and my ownership of my body. It infuriates me that my word is not taken seriously. Every time I use such an excuse, I’m angry. Unfortunately, in the end, my anger is safer for me than some man’s.
Update 5/8/14: In the original, I failed to mention that, threats aside, women are hardly obligated to educate overly-aggressive men. We have the right to lie to extract ourselves from a hassling man. Furthermore, when you’re rejecting him is hardly the ideal time to open someone’s eyes to his sexist behavior. Most people feel defensive, not receptive to feedback, when being rejected.
One thought on “Throwback Thursday: Stop Telling Me to Stop Saying “I Have a Boyfriend””
The major benefit to direct rejection is not in cluing in the person being rejected – people tend to be reasonably good at interpreting indirect rejection – but in cluing in bystanders that behavior/attention is unwanted. For example, I have been in countless circumstances where I’ve had a great deal of trouble determining if a woman is flirting with or attempting a soft rejection of someone nearby. This is, in and of itself, a function of rape culture, where playful rejection is considered a form of flirtation in the first place instead of simply being taken at face value. Of course, women should feel free to take the course they see as safest when they perceive a possibility of violence. I’m certainly not insisting that women (or men, or non-binary-gender-identified people) need to abandon soft rejection techniques. I am suggesting that anyone who finds oneself the target of unwanted attention should include in their behavioral calculus the fact that a clear, unambiguous rejection gives bystanders permission to intervene (a behavior that many contemporary anti-sexual-violence efforts have been strongly advocating recently, which I think is a good idea).
This may not be useful in contexts where one has no reason to suspect that someone else will intervene. It can be especially useful in contexts where there is a formally specified party (e.g. bartender, bouncer) responsible for intervening nearby (though, obviously, bartenders and bouncers can buy into sexist norms and may not always help when they should). I have seen bartenders intervene to prevent/end harassment a good number of times, and I have had one intervene on my behalf once, when I was being verbally and physically harassed by a very intoxicated woman who would not heed my soft rejections. My eventual direct statement of, “You need to leave me the fuck alone,” clued her (the bartender) in that what was happening was not welcome, while my attempts to ignore or less forcefully deflect my harasser had not. I agree with pretty much everything in the post, but since it doesn’t consider the role of bystanders, I thought it might be good to bring that into the discussion as well.