Sunday, February 21, 2016

Now Is Not a Good Time

A while ago, I wrote a series of essays about my experiences of street harassment, and I noted that I often say, "Thank you," in response—not because I'm grateful, but because I've found that it's generally the fastest way out of the situation. In my experience, cursing at someone in reply risks starting a confrontation I'm not prepared for. Saying nothing often leads to the harasser pursuing some type of reply ("Hey! Did you hear me? I said, 'Hi, beautiful!'"). Saying anything else forces me to think more than I'm able to in the moment. So I default to thank you even though it settles in my stomach and burns me later because it seems to be the response most likely to end the encounter quickly and safely.

Sometimes, though, saying thank you really hurts. I'll give you an example.

I recently attended a kink conference with a woman I've been seeing. We were having an emotional moment—we'd encountered some triggering material in one of the classes, and we stepped outside together to take a breath and process a little. She was sitting in a chair, and I was kneeling on the floor beside her, rubbing her back and offering comfort. She was talking to me about what had bothered her in the class.

Enter creepy random dude. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he'd slowed his pace walking through the hall, and was eyeing us up. "You ladies look so beautiful like that," he said.

As often happens, my experience split in half—my brain doing one thing and my outward expression another.

My brain:

Really, asshole? You can't see that we're in the middle of something? What the hell makes you think your "compliment" is so important that it's worth interrupting us to insert it? I wish you would go away and leave us alone. I don't have the energy to deal with this right now, not on top of everything else.

My outward expression:

Tight smile. Mumbled: "Thank you." Quick return of my attention to my girlfriend, slight shift of my body language to put my back to him a little more, to shield her a little from his scrutiny.

Dude picks up on approximately none of this, or chooses to ignore it, and walks back and forth several more times, circling us, obviously wanting to receive more attention. Finally, he drifts off and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Because I was already having a hard time, because I was already dealing with being triggered, because I was focused on trying to be present with her and her emotions, and for a million other reasons, this guy's attention felt beyond unwelcome, threatening, and violating.

This particular incident felt like a breaking point to me. I don't mean thank you! I just feel like I have to say it! What I really want, desperately, is to be left alone. To be able to be in public without being treated like public property.

So I've give a lot of thought to something that could take the place of thank you. It needs to be something I think I can actually say, something that I don't think will increase the risk to me (or anyone who happens to be with me). What I've come up with is: "Now is not a good time." It's true, and I hope it will save me from appearing to express gratitude to a person who is making me feel unsafe and intruded upon.

And a word to the wise: now is never a good time. I do not want to be randomly approached in public with a sexual motive by anyone ever. I gather that many people feel the same way.

Another idea I have, something I wish I knew how to implement: a black armband that communicates this information. In debates I've seen on this topic, I see people saying that it's confusing for them. They want to be "friendly" and meet people (as in potential sexual partners), but it's so hard to tell how to do that. For me, the answer is don't. I want to go about my business in the world without unwanted sexual attention. I wish there was something I could wear that would inform the public to that effect. Like, some kind of real-life version of the do-not-call list. I am not kidding that I would wear a black armband every day if that (or some similar wardrobe item) would communicate this information to the general public.

I've been to one con (Bound in Boston) that had a version of this (a black lei that signaled you weren't interested in being approached). I wish it was standard procedure at kinky events. I am not there as entertainment for others. I'm there as a human in my own right.

And, just a side comment, I notice that when I attend a kink event with another woman, I experience an increase in people who apparently believe their random intrusions and comments are welcome. I'm not there with a woman to have that relationship vetted, approved of, or admired by men. Really, I'm not. I wish there was something I could put on that would say so without forcing me to have lots of interactions with inconsiderate people.


  1. I am not kidding that I would wear a black armband every day if that (or some similar wardrobe item) would communicate this information to the general public.

    Alternatively, perhaps anyone who found he had a problem understanding these kinds of boundaries could wear the armband—over his mouth.

    By the way, in a somewhat different (and definitely lighter-in-tone) context in a story of mine once, a character envisioned people having taxi-style indicator lights to convey whether or not they welcomed being looked at.

    1. Thanks for the needed humor, Jeremy! (And for reading).

      I love the taxi-style indicator lights. I would be very into that. And I can imagine the LED set-up that could allow it.

      What story was that?

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    4. It's called "The Nude, Stripped Naked" (originally published in RKB's Only You, and now in a free PDF of mine called The Fabric, I wrote the story in 2010 or thereabouts, and I have to say that if I were writing the same story now, I might hesitate to go near that particular topic in the way I did. I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with what I wrote; but the more I've learned about the constant barrage of unwanted attention that women routinely face, the more it seems like it might be just too sensitive a topic to dip into in a light, humorous erotica piece, especially one written by a man from the point of view of a male protagonist. My character is very concerned with not being a source of unwanted attention—and hopefully it's clear I'm in earnest there, and not in any way making fun of anti-harrassment discourse—but still, it's possibly in dubious taste, all things considered.

      [P.S. Sorry for the repeated delete-and-revise instances!]

    5. No worries about replying and deleting!

      In my experience, it helps a lot when a person (usually male, but not always) is aware of that question—whether his attention is wanted or not. I also understand the fantasy of the story—artist wants model, and model wants him, too.

      That said, the points you make in your comment are well taken. I have fantasies about being able to be free with my body in various ways without anyone in the room deciding that means that they get to take it farther or making me feel pressure to do anything else. I think a lot of my fantasies are about being allowed to set my own pace/stop whenever I want/not see my actions taken to mean anything beyond what they are. I've noticed that a fair bit of my erotica has involved men refusing women, asking for things to slow down, and giving plenty of space for the woman to figure out what she wants.

      Anyway, I think some of this involves which side of the male gaze one is on. (A possible fantasy on one side is about that gaze being welcomed and returned, and a possible fantasy on the other side is about experiencing that gaze without expectation or pressure.) It's complicated to work out how to have one fantasy in a way that doesn't negate the other, and I think that's some of what your story is about. I love the lights idea so much, still! In the case of your story, Nicola's lights would be green. And if I were an artist's model, mine would be red… I still do wish there was some kind of way to display this.

  2. It's complicated to work out how to have one fantasy in a way that doesn't negate the other

    Well put! And that, I think, is related to an inherent ethical dilemma I sometimes reflected on in writing erotica: those issues of "if I show the party of the first part coming on to the party of the second part, does it come across like I'm endorsing a certain kind of presumptuousness?" I generally comforted myself with the belief that in cheerful erotic fiction, the deck is stacked by the author: it's OK (within reason) to show a character expressing desire in a way that might, in real life, risk making the other party uncomfortable, because we (author and reader) know that in this fantasy world, the party of the second part will be immensely glad that the party of the first part spoke up. Because that, as you note, is the fantasy. But this also might be one of the reasons I instinctively often made the initiative-taking party in my stories a woman—to avoid the cultural baggage associated with men coming on to women.

    And thank you for reading! And for all your wisdom, as always.

    I'll let you know if I ever spot those body-mountable indicator lights in the real world. (:v> Maybe the company that made mood rings is looking for a new project...