Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Women Owe You Nothing, Part 1

So, I've been participating in a pretty heated discussion over at Sociological Images about gender, dating norms, and the bar scene. In light of this, I want to talk a bit about how men can pick up women, without being disrespectful.

It's no secret that lots of women have problems with the "meat market" atmosphere of most bars and clubs. But, judging from the comments on the socimages thread, it seems that men are just as unhappy. The unhappy men seem to have two major complaints. First, they feel that women are too quick to view harmless flirting as harassment. Second, they feel exploited by women who happily accept free drinks, and then split.

In this post, I do my best to address the first concern: the fear that feminists are trying to ban men from hitting on women. I'll do another post soon about the phenomenon of women "trolling for drinks"--and why men should cut them some slack.

My goal here is not to be anti-male in any way. Instead, I want to open up communication between genders, by explaining how things look from a woman's point of view--and how guys can respond.

Guest blogger Starling wrote an excellent post on a similar topic over at Shapely Prose. In this post, I rehash much of the same material, though with a different emphasis. I don't agree with all of Starling's arguments, but I highly recommending her post.

Let me also say: I recognize that my post here is incredibly heteronormative, and I'm sorry. Given my own life experience, it's the best I can do right now. I would love comments about how these or similar dynamics play out in same-sex flirtation.

Yes, We Know "Hello" Is Not Harassment

Whenever there's a discussion of gendered dating norms come up, some guy inevitably complains that feminists are trying to ban male flirting. In practice, this concern is usually misplaced. Most feminist women don't want to stigmatize harmless flirtation. What we do want is for men to show us some basic respect.

Let's say you're a guy at a local pub. You walk up to a woman and say, "Hi, my name is Joe, can I buy you a drink?." This is a perfectly innocuous behavior. Most of the time, no one will judge you for it.

There are some caveats here, but they're mostly common sense. It's important to be sensitive to the woman's social cues. If a woman is clearly deep in conversation, or if she's brought her laptop to the bar (yes, there are women who do this), then you probably shouldn't approach her. If you do, you're sending the message, "I am more important than whatever you are doing right now!" Women, understandably, may react to this with annoyance.

In a similar vein, If you're too drunk, too stoned, or too tired to read a woman's social cues, even at the most basic level, then this is not the time to approach a new woman. When your judgement is impaired, it's easier to make the a thoughtless mistake that will get you a slap in the face.

With that in mind, there's usually nothing wrong with trying to strike up a casual flirtation at a bar. Typically, how men go wrong is not by approaching a woman in the first place; it's by approaching a woman, getting a reaction they don't like, and then failing to respond appropriately.

If you're going to approach some stranger in a bar, you have to be willing to accept that she might turn you down. Maybe she'll ignore you outright. Maybe she'll respond to your attempts at conversation with monosyllabic grunts. Maybe she'll accept a proffered drink, but her voice will convey unmitigated boredom. As before, pay attention to her signals. If she's clearly disinterested, take that as your cue to move on.

A woman may give you the cold shoulder for any number of reasons. Maybe she doesn't want to flirt because she thinks you're creepy, or because your deodorant isn't working as well as you think. Or, maybe she's busy writing a symphony in her head, and she doesn't want to be interrupted. Maybe she's in a relationship. Maybe she doesn't date men. Maybe she just doesn't feel like socializing on this particular night.

If a woman rebuffs you, don't take it personally, and don't get indignant. You have no reason to think that her behavior reflects negatively on you, or on her. She is simply asserting her right to decide how, and with whom, she spends her evening. Accept this and move on. Do not, under any circumstances, try to pressure her into paying attention. Don't track her down later and try again. The woman has made it clear that she wants you to leave her alone. Honor her wishes. It's a matter of basic human courtesy and respect.

Remember: the woman you've approached owes you nothing. Yes, you were "nice" to approach her, flirt with her, and offer her a drink. But she didn't ask for any of those things. Expecting her to reciprocate your "niceness" is completely absurd. Doing so puts you in the same category as those squeegee men who swoop down on cars stuck in traffic, wash their windows, and then demand payment. It's extortion, pure and simple.

Women don't owe you their attention--even if you're handsome, and charming; even if you offer them drinks. When you refuse to honor a woman's desire to be left alone, you are denying her fundamental right to personal autonomy. You are failing to treat her like a human being, who deserves your full consideration and respect. And that is always, always wrong.

Feminist women are not trying to outlaw harmless flirting. We understand that trying to buy us drinks is not harassment. But we do want is to be treated like full human beings, even in the club, at 1:00 am.

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