Sunday, April 19, 2015

Life Simply Is... Determining Safe from Predatory

Trigger warning: feeling unsafe, unwanted romantic advances

NOTE: While I identify as queer, this post is about the interactions between men and women – particularly important because of our cultural training and expectations within the patriarchy. I do not mean to imply #allmen, or that these issues are exclusive to heterosexual encounters.

Several years ago I set out on a backpacking trip with my late dog Jackie. It was my first solo backpacking trip in a very long time. I felt determined, strong and independent, but also a bit nervous.

On the hike in I passed a man hiking out. In short order, all with a friendly demeanor, he asked me if I was hiking alone, how long I was staying, and what camp was to be my final destination. There was nothing about him or his physical behavior that sent up red flags. Being the good docile woman I was raised to be, and without having prepared for this, I gave him full disclosure.

From that point on, my thoughts circled around that interchange. Now he knew that I was traveling alone, and he knew where I was setting up camp: i.e., where I would be sleeping. How extraordinarily vulnerable I had just made myself, if he had ill intent. What if he had ill intent? Was I in danger?

And then my thoughts went to the absence of things feeling “off” with him, and wondered if he was just being friendly. But his questions were all wrong. What kind of insensitive, clueless man asks a woman that he sees hiking if she’s hiking with anyone, and where she’s setting up camp? Even if his intentions were harmless, his ignorance was inexcusable. The more I thought about that possibility, the more I wished I’d schooled him in this: “Are you really asking a woman hiking if she is alone, and where she’s going to camp? Are you trying to make her scared?”

(While nothing untoward happened during my camping trip, this encounter utterly ruined it for me. I could not sleep because of my need to listen for someone approaching, and running scenarios through my mind of how to protect myself.)

I use this pair of interpretations a lot: either a man has ill-intent, or he is oblivious. And even if he’s oblivious, he’s culpable. How can you be a man living in society today, and care about women, without being aware of the safety issues they face? How careless, reckless and damaging to play into women’s training to put accommodation before personal safety, to put them in that position? It is just another form of patriarchal mistreatment.

I like to say that I was born a feminist. I can remember as young as 10 crossing my arms across my chest and scowling at boys holding the door open for me, or being defiant if someone referred to me as a little lady. It makes me laugh to think about now. I guess my feminism has evolved since then.

But at the same time, I loved looking at myself in the mirror. Putting on hats, tilting them just so, smiling, turning my face this way and that. I was vain. I liked being pretty.

It is complicated being a woman in today’s society. It is complicated being a feminist. And so as my body has started to age, I have grieved the loss of that easy youthful beauty. As much as I embrace the concept of aging, and the importance of all life stages, it was hard to see that go. Really hard. At the same time, I looked forward to what many women admit to looking forward to: no longer being the object of men’s attention. This is a fact: many, many women look forward to becoming “invisible,” so that they no longer have to navigate the world of sorting out the clueless from the predators.

A few years ago I looked in the mirror and realized that my changing features no longer fit the hairstyle and color I’d been using. So I cut my hair short and let the gray come in. On the one hand, I was delighted to find that letting my hair go natural, and letting go of my youthful style, was actually more flattering. On the other, even though I liked the way I looked, I assumed that my short, gray hair would instantly make me invisible.

Not so.

Perhaps part of it is my age, and part is my social anxiety, but I cannot imagine ever pursuing romance with someone I don’t already know. It would be far too uncomfortable, for one. And for two, making a romantic connection is such a random thing, I don’t believe it can be done without first spending face-to-face time with someone. Chemistry cannot be determined over the Internet; at least that has been my experience.

And becoming romantic with someone would be a big deal for me right now. Big deal as in it would challenge my need for safety and predictability. I would have no interest in embarking on this challenge with a stranger.

Imagine my surprise to find strangers pursuing me. After moving to the California coast, several single neighbors took an immediate interest in me. Actually it felt like a contest, a race to see who could lay claim on me first. I was rather irrelevant. I must have been irrelevant, since their pissing contests started long before they got to know me.

I find that terribly demeaning and offensive. It feels objectifying, because they are interested in me based solely on my physical appearance and my single status. They don’t know me. And not surprisingly, with these particular strangers, I found as I got to know them a bit that they were terrible listeners. The two in particular who did the most vigorous pissing: one had a habit of negating everything I said, while the other would listen and then simply continue his own monolog. Flattering? No. Even after having the opportunity, they showed they werent interested in actually getting to know me.

Very recently a stranger asked me to connect with him on LinkedIn. I didn’t see any connections in common. However I have often asked to connect with strangers based on my career and personal interests in order to build my network. I accepted.

Soon after I received a message from him: it was a romantic invitation. It wasn’t graphic, I’ll give him that. But it was entirely inappropriate. He played a feel-sorry-for-me card (I won’t share what it was, just to preserve anonymity), and I can’t help but wonder if he often plays it as an excuse for making inappropriate romantic advances. He waxed on about my inviting smile, my charm, getting to know each other and “see how it goes.”

At first I was going to ignore his message, as I ignore those random “other” messages from strangers that show up in Facebook. But this one got under my skin, so I shared it with some friends for their thoughts.

Being a woman in today’s world, it is essential to know your safe places. Home should be a refuge (sadly it isn’t for many women). Work should be a refuge since it is a place of business, and a place we must be in order to make a living. Sadly it also often isn’t: I’ve frequently been propositioned by coworkers and customers who barely know me, if at all.

We already know the streets aren’t safe. And walking anywhere after dark isn’t safe. (During my years as a park ranger I did have the amazing experience of being able to walk nature trails in the dark and feel entirely safe, and it was completely liberating and life changing.) Group events are a mixed bag. I can understand people joining a book club or political group to find romance, but I am often frustrated to find men there trolling for fresh meat. It’s one thing if the suggestion of romance is the result of a budding friendship, and if the man is actually cued into the feedback the woman is giving. But it’s another for romantic or sexual overtures to come from a complete stranger, and/or to come despite signals of disinterest from the woman.

Men are taking advantage of our socialization, of our schooling to be courteous and accommodating. They are taking advantage of us, period.

So we find our safe places, devoid of unwanted advances, where we can breathe in peace. But when these questionable or outright inappropriate advances come into our safe places, it feels like a violation. It felt like a violation at work, it felt like a violation in my neighborhood, and it felt like a violation on my LinkedIn.

If men care about women, they need to open their eyes, stop playing the innocent card, and start considering how their actions might feel.

Intention isn’t good enough. It’s a hostile world out there for women, and we are busy night and day trying to navigate and interpret it. Men who love women need to school themselves. Here is the message I wrote back to the fellow on LinkedIn:

I don’t know you, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – that you are simply oblivious, rather than predatory. LinkedIn is a professional network, not a dating site. If you are looking for women to date, go to a dating site. For you to send a stranger a romantic invitation on a professional network is entirely inappropriate, offensive and creepy. You don’t know me. You don’t know if I’m charming or inviting. All you know is my appearance based on one photo. You might be surprised to find that women are not flattered when strangers make unexpected romantic propositions to them. In a world where we are not safe to walk alone after dark, where we always have to interpret whether a man’s attention is safe or predatory, actions like yours add to the feeling that the world is unsafe. If you are in fact an honorable man with honorable intentions, then you need your actions to line up with that. Do not make romantic invitations towards women in inappropriate places, ever. Do not approach them in ways that might make them feel unsafe, ever. And I might suggest that in the future you start with an invitation of friendship, not romance. I don’t need or want to hear back from you. If you take to heart what I have written, you will do things differently in the future. If you don’t, I definitely don’t want to hear about it. Either way, it’s none of my business.