Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who asked you?

Ever since the Schrödinger’s Rapist post on Shapely Prose, I've been giving some thought to how I'm approached by strange men.  There are a lot of complexities involved in human communication, and one of the things that's become clear to me is that it's often not exactly what a guy says, but how and where he says it, that determines my reaction.

Around a month ago, I was out at a bar with some friends when a guy who was a friend of a friend, and whom I hadn't specifically met, approached me.  He apologized for just walking up to me and speaking and then said he hoped I didn't mind if he said he thought I was beautiful.  He then clarified that he wasn't expecting anything from me, he just wanted to let me know, and then he turned and went back to what he had been doing before, talking with his friends.  I accepted the compliment and felt flattered.  Here's why:
  1. We were in a social setting where it wasn't unreasonable to think someone I didn't know would talk to me.
  2. He was not a total stranger; he knew some of my friends, and we'd all been talking in changing configurations of small groups, so he had a reasonable "in" to talk to me.
  3. He waited until I was momentarily unoccupied; he didn't interrupt me or approach me when I was obviously otherwise engaged.
  4. He apologized for the potential intrusion upon my boundaries, recognizing that I hadn't invited his attention and might not want it.
  5. He waited as I smiled and made eye contact and said I didn't mind his talking to me before he continued.
  6. He wasn't trying to get anything out of me, and he respectfully left me alone after he'd said his piece and I'd thanked him.
Today, I was standing around on campus after a class, talking to a female friend, when a guy I didn't know interrupted our conversation loudly and suddenly and said to me, "You're cute!  What's your name?  I'm [name I don't remember]."  I was completely taken aback and irritated.  Here's why:
  1. Although it was a generally social setting, there was nothing about my actions or demeanor that invited conversation from strangers.  If I'd been engaged in a conversation with a whole group of people, it would have been a different dynamic, but I wasn't.  I was specifically engaged in conversation with one close friend.
  2. I didn't know the guy, and there was no reasonable "in" to the conversation I was having that might have made it logical for him to join in.
  3. He didn't try to join in, anyway; he just butted in and cut me off mid-sentence, letting me know that in his mind, his desire to comment on my looks (as if I'd asked for his opinion) superseded my right to speak or to be engaged in something else.
  4. His demeanor demanded my attention now, and he made no apology for rudely interrupting my conversation.
  5. He completely ignored my unfriendly stare and my obvious discomfort.
  6. He seemed to expect me to jump for joy and hand him my phone number.  Despite my obvious irritation, he kept trying to talk over me, and I had to turn my back on him in order to continue the conversation I'd been having.
What really bugs me about these encounters is that I never seem to be able to come up with a way to articulate my reaction until the scene is over and the guy is gone.  Instead of explaining calmly that it was rude of him to interrupt and to comment uninvited on my looks, I just kind of glared at him for a moment before awkwardly stating my name, nodding along to a couple of inane things he said, and finally turning away so that I could continue my conversation in peace.

I didn't feel threatened by him during this encounter, largely because of the setting: a busy campus with lots of people around.  But I did feel encroached upon, objectified, and dismissed as a person.  How self-important is it just to assume that a perfect stranger gives a shit about your assessment of her looks, that she cares enough about your opinion that she won't mind being interrupted from an engaging conversation with someone else, that it's reasonable of you to demand her name after your uninvited proclamation?  If you approach a woman this way, you've already let her know that your "right" to her attention trumps her right to go about her life without being bothered by you, and by interrupting her to comment on her appearance, you're telling her that what she says is trifling and unimportant, but how she looks is not.

The whole encounter lasted maybe a minute or two, and I was caught too much off-guard to express any of this, but as I walked away afterward, I felt more and more annoyed and indignant, and I almost wished he was still standing there so I could go back and explain why.  Ironically enough, the conversation he interrupted was about feminism.  Or maybe that's not ironic at all.
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