It's a typical winter day in Los Angeles and I'm strolling down a residential street toward a coffee shop a few blocks away. This city often feels like the driving capital of the country, but there are other people out: people walking their dogs, people with sweet bundled up babies in strollers, couples, singles, groups of friends, executives. It almost doesn't feel like L.A. at all, there are so many people out and about. It's lovely. It feels safe.
I turn up the music up a bit, letting Tchaikovsky carry my footsteps in the chilly afternoon air. The sun is sinking into the ocean behind me and everything feels golden. A more perfect day to grab a coffee has never existed and will possibly never exist again.
Just then, I notice a man walking in my direction. There are different kinds of walks. There are walks that suggest someone is on his way somewhere, with nothing but the destination in mind, and then there are walks that clearly indicate that someone is walking because they want to walk. The pace says they're enjoying the walk for the pleasure of walking, taking in the sights and sounds and flickering warmth of the disappearing rays of the sun.
And then, of course, there is the walk of someone who is approaching you. You, specifically, though you've never met this person in your life.
"Spotted heels" via Shutterstock.
I look through him, without hesitation. I am sending a message (it says: "I'm not stopping, don't get in my way"), but I'm also assessing him. He's slightly taller than me, slender. Probably outweighs me by fifty pounds at most. It's not a terrifying specimen, but caution -- as always -- is warranted.
I don't know when I started doing it. I know that when I was 19, I never thought about my body language or assessed people like this. I wandered all over the world, walking around cities and towns at all hours as though they belonged to me. I didn't feel wary of other people's glances; I didn't take into account my immediate surroundings. I didn't feel nervous at all.
At some point, that changed. I can't pinpoint the exact moment -- in retrospect it feels like a series of events more than any particular moment. A guy at a club saying he wants to buy me a drink because I'm cute followed by a hand on my thigh. A business meeting where a man interrupts my discussion of the contract to inform me he thinks we would have great sex. A man standing on my lawn right outside my study window, watching me. A man standing beside me at a crowded bar, crossing his arms to hide his fingers as they reach toward me to caress my breast through my blouse.
A man asking me to dance and yelling that I'm a bitch and a whore when I politely decline. Reasoning through my apartment door with a neighbor who's shown up at three in the morning -- shirtless -- because he thinks that my borrowing a bottle opener earlier that day means I want him. A man following me home from a bookstore in his car, pulling into driveways and making wild U-turns as I desperately try to out-maneuver him on foot.
I no longer see compliments as nice, spontaneous gestures -- I see only the strings attached. Everything has strings and every string represents an obligation imposed upon me -- an obligation I neither need nor want. My inability to decline without being pursued further, placed at the receiving end of abuse, or chased down the street has turned me into a woman who can't be approached without being hit with an adrenaline jolt so strong, I could probably leap frog a sky-scraper to get away. If that sounds cool, it's only because you haven't recently have had to come down from such a powerful chemical rush. It's not cool.
But it's hard to explain it to men. "Those guys are assholes," they say. "Most guys are not like that. I'm not like that." That’s the thing: if I don't know you, I don't know what you're like. My experience is the only evidence I have and this evidence says waiting around to find out usually results in very unpleasant situations. No person in their right mind would seek out unpleasant situations.
You could be a perfect gentleman, an upstanding, tax-paying citizen who has never broken the law and who treats everyone who crosses his path with the utmost respect, but I will never see it when I'm walking alone or sitting somewhere unaccompanied. I will only see a potential threat. By the time you get within three feet of me, my survival instinct is already engaged. You ask me how I'm doing but I only hear: fight or flight?
The girl who used to smile at strangers and wish them a good day is gone. When I'm walking down the street, my music may be low enough so I know what's happening around me at all times -- but I wear the headphones or hold a phone to my ear to make it clear that I can't hear a man or have the ability to stop and talk to him. Flight has become my default. I don't break my pace for anything.
The man who is approaching me is five feet away now. He starts talking, "I was driving down the street when I saw you. You're so beautiful; I had to go around the block and park so I could talk to you."
They use these kinds of scenes in novels and films all the time. I've read or watched them and even liked them. But you have to understand that in these moments, I don't feel like I am the protagonist in either a novel or a film. I am vulnerable, and as such, I am incapable of perceiving the statement as anything but a foreshadowing of the opposite of everything I hoped for this stroll.
I don't even break my pace. I keep walking, focusing on the music coming through my headphones so I can't hear him yelling.
And he is yelling. He's yelling, "HEY! I'M TALKING TO YOU! CAN YOU HEAR ME? I SAID I WAS TALKING TO YOU! HEY!"
I brace myself for contact. It's coming. I can run or I can fight. There is a crosswalk ahead and a green light, so the rushing cars would prevent me from crossing. I could turn the corner. Will there be people there? I know there are more crosswalks and a lot of cars. I'm trapped. I suppose if he reaches out, I can take hold of his arm, turn and disable his knee-cap.
I keep walking, mentally preparing myself. Self-defense tends to be useless in a lot of these situations, but there are a few that enable a woman to put in practice what her father has taught her. I keep walking, going over the necessary moves in my mind.
I can still hear him screaming, but there is nothing else. He doesn't reach out. My heart is beating so fast, it feels like it's punching my lungs. I almost can't breathe.
When I arrive at the intersection, the Walk sign is flashing. Soon, I've crossed and turned the corner, and then another corner, and then I'm lost in a crowd of people. And then I'm almost safe. My heart doesn't stop. It's still racing an hour later as I try to have a conversation with a friend I've met at the café for a cup of coffee.
Walk in my shoes
A few months ago, a group of writers decided to write about what it would be like to wake up one morning and find they were the opposite sex. My friend Jackie Summers, one of the greatest writers of our time, wrote about what it must be like to be an attractive woman, but he focused on women's response to her figure and confidence. Women are jealous. Women hate beautiful women. We've heard all about it a thousand times.
But we never really hear about the darker side of attention. Assault, yes, though it's often clouded in victim blame ("well, what was she wearing? What were you wearing when the guy chased you down the street?"). Yes, we hear about assault. But these incidents that don't result in some violence or intrusion are rarely acknowledged. If women bring them up, they're often told they’re overreacting. Just guys being guys. Don't you know? Guys are dogs.
I hate this line of thinking. It's offensive. Men are not dogs or pigs or any animal other than human. They are capable of reason, emotion, empathy -- just like women. This is why I am writing about this. A man will never really understand what it is like to be a woman -- hell, even a man who is an incredible observer and writer didn't think to make mention of situations such as these. This is why I am writing this: in the hope that it will allow men to turn the tables for a moment. Not because they're dumb or beasts or assholes, but because it's very possible they haven't had occasion to think about it before now. Bear with me. Take my hand and let's go over some valid questions.
"It was just a compliment," you say. I could easily have stopped, thanked him, chatted with him for two seconds, taken his number (if only to throw it away), given him a fake number, and gone on my way. "What's the big deal?" you want to know.
It's not an unreasonable question. The big deal is I don't want to have to stop what I'm doing, whether it's walking, reading a book, sipping a drink, or something else -- even for a best case scenario like the one you presented above. Don't I have a right to do these things without having to stop and listen to people who feel compelled to speak to me when I haven't invited it? Unfortunately, "no" is rarely an option when a woman is approached. Saying "no, thank you" -- especially without a very carefully worded and perceivably good excuse -- will result in yelling, insults or unwanted physical contact. This is my experience, and that of many other women.
Even before the yelling starts, there is discomfort and this discomfort should not be so quickly dismissed. There is a reason why harassment laws exist. Discomfort can cripple the social or workplace experience. What is harassment? Any interaction that is disrespectful or threatening or just unwelcome. What someone says to you doesn't have to be vulgar or sexual. Even a non-sexually explicit evaluative comment, such as "you’re so beautiful," can be considered harassment if it is unwelcome and makes the recipient uncomfortable. It may seem silly to you, but this discomfort limits how often I go out in a very real way.
These days, I don't go out much if I'm alone. Even during the day, when there are people around, the very possibility of discomfort and the memory of the crippling after-effects of the adrenaline surges that tend to accompany it keep me indoors. It doesn't matter how nice a day it is: it never feels worth it.
Do you know what it's like to feel you can't leave your house or grab a bite to eat unaccompanied in what most people perceive to be a pretty safe neighborhood? You're lucky if you don't.
A walk in his shoes
I've asked you to imagine being me for a while and consider the situation from my point of view. I think it's fair now to consider the situation from the point of view of a man -- the decent, law-abiding fellow that isn't going to scream at a woman in the street if she doesn't stop to talk, or insult her if she declines to dance. Let's say you're that guy. You see a woman and you want to get to know her better. What do you do?
Don't follow her in your car. I get it, I do. It's like Prince Charming only instead of a horse, it's a car. A car you worked hard to own or restore. A car you're proud to own. A car she would probably like if you showed up to pick her up in it for a date one day. Believe me, I know this is confusing. But it's about context. Until she knows you, being followed by a car is never going to be anything other than creepy at best. And that creepiness is only quadrupled when she's on foot.
Don't yell. Whether it's out the car window, across the street, from a table at an outdoor café -- it doesn’t matter. Don't yell. It is still inappropriate if you're just greeting her and want to make sure she hears you. Yelling does not trigger receptivity. You know that whole bit parents tell kids about indoor and outdoor voices? Use only the indoor voice when speaking to a stranger, even if you're outside.
Don't make noises, whistle, snap your fingers or clap. I don't know who raised some of these people, but I know I don't really have to tell you that this is not appropriate by social standards in most civilized countries. Ever.
Don't approach a woman in places that make her feel vulnerable. A street is one. An elevator is another. An empty hallway is another. If you're at a club and it's too loud to talk, don't wait for her in the small passage leading to the bathrooms. Choose a place that clearly allows for her exit and don’t get too close.
Place barriers between you and her. You could approach her at a coffee shop and say a few words. Or you could have a server deliver a note. The server acts as a barrier. That barrier allows her to make the choice of how she wants to react to whatever you wrote on the note.
Give her a choice. We all know a person who doesn't shut up. Maybe it's a neighbor or a colleague or a relative -- whoever it is, we know not to start any discussions or look like we're too available because we know that once they start, they're never going to stop. Don't be that person. If you approach someone and start talking and they don't look interested, stop. It's easy to tell. They may be short in their answers. They may look away from you. They may not even stop what they're doing – reading, writing, typing on their laptop or phone, etc. These are signs and these signs say: I don't feel like talking with you. Not feeling like talking often involves not feeling like listening. Stop. The better bet is introducing yourself, saying you would enjoy having a cup of coffee, or lunch, or whatever is appropriate based on where you are, adding, "I will be over there if you decide to join me," and then leaving.
Accept no. Don't ask why. Don't say, "come on!" Don't offer more suggestions. In fact, don't keep standing there at all. There is a fine line between genuine interest and blatant entitlement and that fine line becomes a big and obvious one the moment a woman says no and a man keeps pushing. I know that "no" is not the answer you were hoping for. I hate hearing it, too. But that's life. Instead of interrogating her, badgering her or insulting her, thank her for her time and keep moving. Most women are so unused to class in men when accepting a rejection, she'll probably be impressed. That's something, isn't it?
Watch what you say. "You're beautiful" is not a bad compliment, but in the wrong context, it can be only one or two degrees away from "nice ass!" Why? Because it says you're checking her out and that connotes all kinds of things you may not intend. This is personal, but I borderline hate compliments from people I don't know because they're often given not as genuine expressions of appreciation, but as openings for conversation. This makes them feel cheap. I would much rather have someone introduce himself to me -- by full name, to show he's willing to be held accountable -- and flat out tell me that he is interested in talking with me. I may not be available or willing to do so, but the transparency is much more welcome than "you have beautiful eyes! Do you come here often?"
Don't nickname a stranger. Nicknames imply a level of familiarity that is altogether inappropriate when you're first talking with someone you don't know. I am not "Stems" or "Legs." I have a name and until I give it, "Ms." will have to suffice. Terms of endearment also fall into the category of excessive familiarity -- as does shortening someone's name when they do give it to you. Nothing suggests entitlement more strongly than excessive familiarity. Entitlement is the domain of people who badger a woman when she declines and chase her down the street like she owes them a conversation because they said she was pretty. Entitlement is the domain of those incapable of seeing anyone else as a person who has anything else going on at the moment they decide they must speak with them. You're not that guy, so avoid excessive familiarity and save yourself from giving a woman that impression.
Don't touch. It doesn't matter if she really has a piece of lint on her shirt. Ignore it. Don't touch anything. Not her hair, not a book on her table, not her coat, not her hat -- it doesn't matter if it has a pom pom at the tip. It's not your pom pom, so leave it alone. And while we're on the subject of clothes, even if she is wearing the tiniest black dress in the universe, keep in mind that she is not wearing it for you. You don't know why she's wearing it. She may be on her way to a party or waiting for a date. It's not for you. She's never met you. She has no idea who you are. To assume this is an invitation of any sort is patently absurd.
Don't request personally-identifying information. "Do you come here often?" "Do you live around here?" "Where do you live?" More often than not, these things are asked as a way of making conversation. A man may mean well, but the only thing I'm thinking when these words come out of his mouth is: future stalker. Try not to ask questions that reveal too much about a woman, especially where she lives or works.
If she gives you her first name only, do not push for a last name. Remember, it's nothing personal. She simply doesn't know you're not a psycho. (If you're thinking it's unfair that I suggested you give your name but I don't feel women need to, consider the rule of thumb for callers: the person who calls should always identify themselves before asking for the person with whom they wish to speak. Asking "who is this?" when they are the ones who initiated the call is rude. This works the same way. Never forget you're the one who is imposing. Yes, you're imposing! It's okay -- just be polite.)
If you see her frequently somewhere and she has already told you she's not interested, don't try and try again. Seems counter-intuitive. We've all been taught "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again." This is not applicable to people. You may try more than once, but space out your attempts. If, after a second or third try she still declines, let it go. There are plenty of women out there in the world for you to speak with. Remove the biological blinders that are keeping you focused on this one woman and go meet them.
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