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Boundaries

October 12, 2009

I said in the Shroedinger’s Rapist post that it was part of a larger idea and might be Part I of two. Here’s Part II.

It’s all about boundaries. The Shapely Prose post started with a discussion of women’s fear of rape, and moved from there to public spaces, interruption, intrusion and boundaries. My post focused on public transit as a particular case of public spaces, and staked out the position that bothering a woman whose activities and body language are not inviting interaction is a violation of her boundaries. I’m saddened to see pushback on that.

In comments, AJ wrote something that made me think about how this comes full-circle:

I felt like this article was good in that it helps het/cismen to realize that most female-bodied-people are terrified of rape and do a lot of weird things to try to lessen their “risk.” Its the “risk” thing that worried me.
1) If a man rapes a woman, it is not her fault because she had somehow put her self at risk.
2) Because most rapists are someone the victims knows well, I dont like the perpetuation of the stranger-rape story.

And I wrote back:

Really, really good points.

(1) should go without saying. That it needs to be said at all is the product of rape culture.

(2) I totally agree that there’s a wild imbalance in the discourse on rape where stranger rape and rape in public places are overrepresented — but I see this post as not so much talking about the threat of the archetypal stranger rape, but the more general issue of boundary transgressing, which I can see from the comments here and at Shapely Prose are everywhere.

This isn’t about walking to the car with keys in hand and checking the back seat. Those are narratives that have little to do with the rapes that have happened to so many of the women I know.

This is about whether men understand women’s boundaries to be real.

And that has everything to do with how rape happens.

I’m not a radical feminist, but I do have a lot of respect for the pioneering work that radical feminists have done. On this blog in the past, I’ve quoted Dworkin with approval, even though as a BDSMer much of my intimate conduct falls into areas that she viewed as intensely problematic, and the depictions of which she attacked as part of her life’s work. And I’ll quote her again, when I agree with her. For example, in the opening lines of Chapter 7 of Intercourse, she wrote:

This is nihilism; or this is truth. He has to push in past boundaries. There is the outline of a body, distinct, separate, its integrity an illusion, a tragic deception, because unseen there is a slit between the legs, and he has to push into it. There is never a real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse: with being entered. The vagina itself is muscled and the muscles have to be pushed apart. The thrusting is persistent invasion. She is opened up, split down the center. She is occupied–physically, internally, in her privacy.

A human being has a body that is inviolate; and when it is violated, it is abused. A woman has a body that is penetrated in intercourse: permeable, its corporeal solidness a lie. The discourse of male truth–literature, science, philosophy, pornography–calls that penetration violation. This it does with some consistency and some confidence. Violation is a synonym for intercourse. At the same time, the penetration is taken to be a use, not an abuse; a normal use; it is appropriate to enter her, to push into (“violate”) the boundaries of her body. She is human, of course, but by a standard that does not include physical privacy.She is, in fact, human by a standard that precludes physical privacy, since to keep a man out altogether and for a lifetime is deviant in the extreme, a psychopathology, a repudiation of the way in which she is expected to manifest her humanity.

There is a deep recognition in culture and in experience that intercourse is both the normal use of a woman, her human potentiality affirmed by it, and a violative abuse, her privacy irredeemably compromised, her selfhood changed in a way that is irrevocable, unrecoverable. And it is recognized that the use and abuse are not distinct phenomena but somehow a synthesized reality: both are true at the same time as if they were one harmonious truth instead of mutually exclusive contradictions.

As I’m reading that, I am struck by how the language of physical privacy and boundaries is so parallel in discussion both of interactions on public transit, and penis-vagina intercourse. Dworkin is talking about a social structure that normalizes intrusion — that calls the resistance to intrusion abnormal, and stigmatizes it. That’s true whether a woman resists intercourse with the penis (and is othered as “antisocial”, “frigid”, “dyke”) or with the interloper (“rude”, “stuck up”, “bitch”).

In order to justify a social order where women must tolerate these intrusions, even when unwanted, there is an entire mythology that these intrusions are necessary and proper: that if a woman doesn’t want them, she is unnatural and acting improperly. Men, specifically cis- het- men, benefit from these structures (and are also subject to them in ways they often don’t even see, but that’s another discussion). And they defend them. They don’t want to seem like they don’t respect boundaries, but isn’t a Nice Guy(tm) entitled to a chance to convince a woman to accept the interaction that she shows no sign of wanting? Just a sporting chance? That’s what they ask.

The easiest way to ignore women’s boundaries, and what women say about them, in this discussion is simply to reframe the discussion from women’s boundaries to the ways and means for dudes to meet women. Reframing this as “but if she won’t talk to me how an I going to meet her” presupposes all of the major issues. The entitlement is built right into the question.. Right into the question, and it works so well that it’s often invisible, even for folks who are looking at it.

And that’s rape culture. Not a definition, or the whole, but a significant component. That right there: framing the discourse away from women’s boundaries, so that the important questions are about what the guy wants and how he may go about getting it, not what women want and whether men must take them at their word about it. Simply dodging the question of how a woman communicates what she wants and doesn’t want; deflecting it so that what women want is never discussed. A culture that can mouth the words “no means no,” and still follow them with an ever-present “but …” A culture that doesn’t understand “yes means yes” because it recognizes no mechanism for hearing or saying the affirmative.

I’m not talking about all men being rapists, or all p-i-v being rape (and neither was Dworkin — her lifelong partner was a man and she explicitly disclaimed that reading, and when I’ve seen folks try to say that Intercourse says that, their argument does not survive actual analysis of the text.)

The rape culture is the culture in which rapists, even if a minority, have a social license to operate. The prevailing conditions are such that they can do what they do and not be immediately incapacitated. In a world where we expect consent to be affirmative, the invasion of boundaries is an aberration that does not escape notice. In a Yes Means Yes world, if a woman on the subway is interested, she’ll flash a smile and let someone know. Creepy guys trying to … trying to … trying to get a conversation started wouldn’t be so common, and it would seem creepy not just to women, but to the men standing around. People wouldn’t ask, in response to a report of rape, what it was that maybe she did that maybe he thought might not be “no,” because if she had wanted sex she would have said “yes,” and if there was no yes, how could there possibly have been consent? Only a rapist would try to insert himself in a woman without knowing he had her consent, right? In a world where the knowing is normal, the guessing would be strange, and the rationalizing about a miscommunication would be incredible (not her account, which in the world we’re in always seems to the the one the credibility of which people attack, but his).

In a Yes Means Yes world, women’s boundaries are what they say they are. When a woman’s boundaries are universally respected, rapists do not have the room to operate.

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31 Comments leave one →
  1. JayJay permalink
    October 12, 2009 10:29 am

    Thomas,

    “That right there: framing the discourse away from women’s boundaries, so that the important questions are about what the guy wants and how he may go about getting it, not what women want and whether men must take them at their word about it.”

    sorry, but a different perspective on the same occurence doesn’t imply disregarding the other side. While, on the other, claiming that having another perspective constitutes such an attempt seems like just that: Framing the the question in *one* direction rather than looking at it from all possible angles. Luckily feminists have invented “privilege” so they can do that (disregard male perspectives) without getting into trouble with their own moral standards or even questioning them. Very convenient. How did you say that…?

    “The entitlement is built right into the question.. Right into the question, and it works so well that it’s often invisible, even for folks who are looking at it.”

    Exactly.

    • October 18, 2009 11:35 am

      JayJay, when you are considering approaching another person socially, their personal boundaries and their right to be left alone trumps your right to talk that person or to approach that person.

      You are welcome to have your perspective on your personal boundaries (which would be the true equivalency), but that is different from saying that your perspective on women’s boundaries is as valid as women’s perspectives on their own boundaries.

      What many men end up doing when they claim to give their perspectives in these types of discussions is to give their rationalizations for disregarding women’s personal boundaries.

      “Sure, she wasn’t indicating any openness to meet me, but …” (I’m a nice guy, I’m not breaking the law by interrupting her, she can always say no, etc.)

      When a man believes his perspective on a woman’s boundaries should have equal weight to her perspective that is a very dangerous belief. If you violate my boundaries it doesn’t matter what your perspective is, you are accountable for that violation.

      • October 19, 2009 9:05 am

        When a man believes his perspective on a woman’s boundaries should have equal weight to her perspective that is a very dangerous belief. If you violate my boundaries it doesn’t matter what your perspective is, you are accountable for that violation.

        And while there are specific dynamics in play men v women here, I think this is true regardless of gender. If you violate someone’s boundaries, you are accountable for that violation. (Which answers the constant “But what if I need to tell them they’re house is on fire?” examples. Do that. And you are accountable for the violation and presumably will be forgiven by them.

  2. Ellen May permalink
    October 12, 2009 11:48 am

    Still doesn’t get it. You’re a better human than I am, Thomas, to continue to engage, and so politely. At this point I would just call JayJay a douche and move on.

  3. October 12, 2009 12:14 pm

    I loved both of these posts and have been thinking/talking a lot about these ideas recently.

    My boyfriend – whom I have been in a really positive enthusiastic communicative relationship with for ~10 months which has more or less radically changed a lot of my ideas about sex with cis/het men for the better – met me by approaching me, in public, in a fairly ‘invasive’ way — and I loved it, because I invited and wanted it and enthusiastically responded and reciprocated (which of course is the argument against those p-i-v=RAPE arguments as well.) But because of this it becomes difficult for me to talk about these with the sort of extreme definitions I’d like to because it’s so difficult to quantify — and because having such a strong personal counterexample (and in turn, having that potentially disregarded by those with similar ideas to me) is ALSO part of ‘rape culture.’ Why the hell should I find it SURPRISING or CONFUSING that I met a strange older man in a bar and ended up…. not feeling threatened at all and being happy, ‘empowered,’ and communicative?

    This plays into something my friend’s fiance brought up — the disgusting “romantic” notion of men having to “woo” women, because the woman is expected to say no (and often feels ashamed if she really means ‘yes’ because it would be ‘too forward’ or ‘unnattractive’ or ‘weird’ for her to say ‘yes’) and if the man just tries over and over again, she’ll give in because she really means “yes” and like JayJay posited, if he can “make her” understand why he’s worth a “yes,” she’ll give him one since he’s worth her attention.

    This is the inverse of the problem, too, obviously, which is a huge part of this but we often don’t address as much — women are trained to say no and then give in when John Cusack shows up with a boombox outside their window, blah, blah, blah. Since anonymous ‘creepy forceful man’ assumes that when a woman says ‘no’ she might mean ‘yes’ — and because she VERY WELL MAY MEAN YES THANKS TO BEING SOCIALIZED INTO SAYING NO — the hope of that 0.1% chance of ‘yes’ overpowers the potential intensity of the 99.9% ‘please, please, please, NO.’

    It’s not only that he thinks he has a right to talk to her, it’s that society and all has lead him to expect that if she says no she might really mean yes, and this will actually be true 0.1% of the time. Which obviously is the whole point of this book/blog/etc — she should be able to say ‘yes’ just as easily as he should respect her ‘no.’ I just think we need to emphasize that half of it as well — it’s not that the situation is always a bad one or that any men don’t have a “right” to some sort of loving personal connetion with a woman, but that the ways in which we socially ‘expect’ these things to happen are pretty fucked up. And so as usual just ends up illustrating how hard the situation sucks for both parties.

    • osoborracho permalink
      October 13, 2009 12:09 am

      I agree that stereotypical courtship practices and notions of romance are f-ed up and encourage misunderstandings, and worse.

      My rapist was an on-off boyfriend… I don’t think it was an intentionally malicious act on his part, but he misunderstood and assumed I was playing hard to get. He didn’t ask what I wanted. If he’d asked, I probably would have said yes, but instead he assumed that a lack of ‘no’ was the same thing. He’d been taught that the best way to approach women was be persistent and try to seduce them. That’s what is shown in most “romantic” movies, stories, etc. Don’t ask her directly what she wants because she’s been socialized to say no and drag her feet. It’s not sexy or romantic to ask or say yes. It’s supposed to be this grandiose GAME.

      Fuck that.

      I kept thinking of several movies where the hero and heroine meet on a train while reading the last post. A romantic encounter with a stranger on a train makes for a nice movie, but in real life mace is more likely to be the outcome than wild sex.

    • matejcik permalink
      March 5, 2010 9:06 am

      MC, you are awesome. You managed to say precisely what i was thinking about – and what’s more, you said it in a way that was accepted and didn’t offend anybody. Kudos!

      What i’d like to add is this sort of “what’s in it for me” issue.
      First off, i’m a male, i pretty much agree with the “Schrödinger’s rapist” post, and i’ve been brought up with a very strong “no means no” mentality.
      So, i’m that very nice guy who will not cross a boundary unless invited.
      All nice and well.
      So let’s imagine this situation: i’m riding a subway with a friend and sitting opposite us is a pretty girl with her eyes closed and headphones on.
      I, being a nice guy, respect her boundaries and not do anything. End result is that i just made the world a tiny bit friendlier for her.
      My friend, being slightly less nice, walks over, taps on her shoulder and strikes up a conversation. End result is that he gets a phone number and a date next monday. Plus, she actually gets that date too, a date with a very nice guy, whose only “flaw” is that he doesn’t recognize headphones as a barrier.
      This hypothetical guy has just won the 0.1% lottery, while i haven’t even entered.

      Question is: Did i actually help someone by not doing anything?
      Okay, i contributed to the other 99.9%’s -chance- to come home and not think “gee, this guy on the subway was creepy”.
      But i sure as hell didn’t get anything from it. Maybe a hint of good feeling. And moreover, by not being a competition, i actually helped my competitor to score a date.

      to rephrase: A guy can actually *win* by not respecting the rules. And he doesn’t lose much if he loses.
      Why would he then pass this chance to somebody else? Because that’s the right thing to do? Oh come on.

      Again: i am not arguing against any of the OPs. I’m not saying that anybody should disregard them.
      What i’m saying, in terms of game theory, is that the status quo is a stable equilibrium and it can’t be destabilized only by “teaching men proper manners”. That is only part of the solution.

      • kschenke permalink
        August 13, 2012 11:00 pm

        “And he doesn’t lose much if he loses.” And herein lies the problem .. no accountability. Also, ponder this … while your hypothetical friend did go past what you think of as personal space boundaries, her immediate response was acceptance of his action. Every woman chooses her boundaries and your hypothetical friend didn’t go past HER boundaries. But there’s a big difference between testing the waters and seeing if she’s interested (which is still not suggested especially in a close space like a bus) and seeing if she’s interested, her showing through body language that she’s entirely not interested and then continuing to talk to her. In your friend’s case, he still tested the waters but only continued when he saw she was interested in talking to him.

  4. Miranda permalink
    October 13, 2009 4:40 pm

    MC,

    Good point. We need to start saying yes when we’re interested and ditch the hard to get game entirely. Guys need to learn and respect the ideas behind yes means yes (and no means no), but it’s going to be rough for them until we clear up that whole mess.

    Guys,

    I know it’s difficult to recognize your privilege and see things from a different point of view, but come on already! Try harder!

    You just don’t have a right to approach a woman you don’t know- period. I don’t care if you really really want to. Get over it. As much as you really really want to talk to us, we really really want to be left alone.

    Good news though! There is one acceptable way to try and meet a woman you don’t know when she doesn’t flash you a gigantic inviting smile first. Write her a note, give it to her, and then leave. You have to leave right away though- no waiting for a response. That way there’s no threat. I know that you’re a wonderful, fabulous, and generally amazing guy, and you would never do anything to intentionally hurt or threaten a woman. But like the post says, we don’t know that. Guys follow women down the street yelling at us because we won’t talk to them. We don’t want that (or worse) to happen to us, so we have to be polite and talk to you. If you give us a note and go away, there’s no pressure and no fear. In fact, it might be kind of flattering. If a woman feels flattered and unthreatened, she’s much more likely to call you later. Writing a note instead of trying to talk to a woman transforms you from that creepy guy on the bus to that guy who wrote me a sweet note about the book I was reading. Women want the creepy guy as far away as possible. But we might want to meet that guy who wrote us the sweet note (which should ideally say something more than “hey, you’re hot, here’s my e-mail”) So even if you don’t care about respecting women’s boundaries, you should adopt this approach as a practical matter. It’s a win-win!

    Alright, that’s my $.02 on how this post should affect your life and a way to approach women without violating our boundaries (which, again, you have no right to do). If it’s a repeat of a previous comment, I apologize- reading the comments of guys who ignore a woman’s right to be left alone was too much for me to deal with right now.

    • Boris permalink
      October 15, 2009 3:05 pm

      I think the note is a good suggestion for reducing the fear issue. For me personally it still feels like a boundary violation to get an unsolicited note, because there’s still the expectation that I should respond, and I worry about seeing that person on the bus the next day. For what it’s worth, I was stalked years ago and I’ve been more aware of boundary issues since then.

      In the past I’ve used the following to talk to people, women or men, who seem to be open to chatting — I look up from my book, catch their eye, and say “Great book”; then before they could possibly respond, I turn my face back to my book and make as though I’m reading a particularly engrossing part. That’s to make it absolutely clear that no response is required, and if they respond with “Yep” or a grunt then the conversation is over. Obviously the response IS a grunt a lot of the time; I’ve never gotten a creeped-out look in response.

      Reading this and the previous post, it sounds like a lot of women would feel that it’s a serious boundary violation even so. Since I don’t have any particular need to talk to women on the bus, perhaps I’ll only use it with men in the future (who do deserve to have their boundaries respected, too, but who may be less afraid of brushing off other men.)

      • October 18, 2009 10:38 am

        Boris, I disagree that your suggestion would be viewed as a serious boundary violation by women here because you preface this with directing those words only to those who seem open to chatting and do not view your perception as the same as reality or as giving you any rights related to that person.

        The only reason to limit interacting with women in this way is by reassessing what you perceived as indicating being open to chatting by reviewing the negative responses you got.

    • mdh permalink
      July 28, 2010 3:59 pm

      “As much as you really really want to talk to us, we really really want to be left alone.”

      I don’t think it’s accurate for you to try and speak for all women and say that every woman wants to be left alone. I am 100% certain that not every woman wants to be left alone! The fact is that if no one ever initiates first contact, then no one ever gets to have an interpersonal relationship outside the bounds of professional and familial relationships.

      That’s just silly.

      At the end of the day, every single human being – regardless of religion, race, gender identity, sexuality, or what’s between their legs – is just that. An individual, with their own hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, desires, etc. Even beyond that, people are fickle. We change. I may not want to be approached by anyone some of the time, but I might want to other times.

      I think that open communication is the best solution. Approach people as individuals. Talk. Don’t be afraid to be explicit. Don’t be afraid to be friendly. Don’t be afraid to be blunt.

  5. October 16, 2009 9:29 am

    I’ve been struggling with how to frame this for the JayJays in the world as well.

    One counterargument that has been raised is that “all boundaries are negotiation” so there is no right to be left alone. This is sort of JayJays point.

    (In fact, it often feels like a slippery slope. If you say “this is the real world situation, they want to argue from broad principles. If you argue from principles, they want to argue that the real world is complicated and full of exceptions.)

    More and more I am thinking of it – as you are Thomas – in terms of boundary violations and consent.

    Mainly, do we start from an “opt-in” or “opt-out” position? In other words, should your default assumption be that people are not in a state of consent for whatever it is you want to do, and then see if the situation makes this an exception? Or should you assume they are in a state of consent and look for signs they are not?

    I think in a world where boundaries are respected and people are good at this, the end result would look much the same. However the world is not perfect and neither are people. It seems to me that people usually err on the side of what considers the default state, and so therefore the “opt-in” approach is preferable.

    • October 18, 2009 11:02 am

      LC, I believe many men who argue against those who say to not interrupt women unless those women are indicating openness claim to follow the opt-out model. I say “claim to follow” because many of these men also talk about having the right to change a woman’s mind — which means continuing after they know she has opted out and doesn’t want what they want.

      • October 19, 2009 9:10 am

        *nod*

        Exactly.
        I mean, you can do that in “opt-in” as well. Like I said, if you actually respect the boundaries as indicated, the two look the same. You can violate it from either side, too.

        I do think the “I have the right to change their mind, see if they *really* have that boundary up” is a huge problem, though.

        I do see it easier to screw up/abuse the system in the “opt-out” model, which results in exactly the situation you’re describing.

  6. Starling permalink
    October 18, 2009 4:40 am

    Thomas–
    You’ve nailed what I wanted to say. All unknown men who want to initiate relationships with women have to earn some trust–enough trust to be given a real name, to get a phone number or an e-mail address, to meet for coffee sometime, maybe to go out on a real date. They start out from a default position of possibly being The Love Of Her Life and possibly being a rapist–a default with a probability of between 3.4% and 6.7%, depending on your study of choice. That original risk is adjusted according to the man’s willingness to respect boundaries. Women’s attempts to signal “Leave me alone!” in a public space are routinely ignored by some men, but this is a boundary violation that is going in the black mark column.

    It’s a simple formula for men, but it was posted on a feminist blog whose readership is overwhelmingly female. I sent it to my male family members, my boyfriend, and a few other men I like very much, but it was the women whom I really wanted to reach.

    You see, I’ve noticed that women don’t give themselves permission to enforce boundaries and to take boundary violation seriously. We tend to dismiss it as “just being nice” or “just complimenting me” or “not a big deal” when we feel it’s creepy. I don’t want women to start thinking all interactions should seem creepy, but I do want women to understand that we are allowed to respect the feeling when it occurs.

    What we vaguely consider “creepy” is actually a real boundary violation that has real-life safety implications. And Creepy Men are not men that we should feel obligated to get acquainted with. It’s not that women get hauled off the subway and raped by strangers who ask about the book they’re reading–that’s very unlikely. But we endanger ourselves when we start relationships in which our partners don’t respect us enough to listen when we say no, and that’s a very easy problem to diagnose.

    I hope the essay gave women tools to identify and respect the source of their unease. New title: Schrödinger’s Rapist, or Just Say No to Creepy McCreeperson.

    • October 19, 2009 9:14 am

      Oddly, the primary objection I encountered to this piece (among people I know who had already been filtered for not being complete misogynistic asshats) was exactly that side of it… “Really, women just need to be better at enforcing their boundaries.”

      Which sort of missed the point that what this was saying was “when you ignore our boundaries, why are you surprised when we then enforce them by saying no/being rude/not striking up a conversation/thinking you are creepy?”

    • November 19, 2009 2:35 am

      When I watched the movie “Bruno” I was struck by the way men easily and immediately defended their boundaries.

      “Bruno”, for those who don’t know, is about a homosexual German man who comes to the US in pursuit of fame and fortune. The main characters are actors, but during the movie they interact with real people who don’t realize they’re being filmed for a movie.

      Anyway, on several occasions, our eponymous and very effeminate hero approaches an oblivious non-actor guy to talk to him – just walks toward the guy, mind you, without touching him or saying anything yet – and the guy barks, “FUCK OFF” and SHOVES HIM. See, Bruno looks gay, and these guys are straight, and so they scream and assault him JUST IN CASE he was thinking of hitting on them.

      Could you even IMAGINE a woman doing this? A guy comes up to her in a nightclub, clearly about to offer to buy her a drink, but before he can even speak: “FUCK OFF!” *shove.* Good lord, it took me years to even be able to tell a nightclub guy “Sorry, I’m not looking to meet anyone tonight.”

      I’ve had my boundaries invaded a million times, and every time I make excuses for the person invading them (“It must have taken a lot of nerve for him to approach me” “She’s probably just lonely and needs someone to talk to” etc.). I knew that men are more assertive about what they want and don’t want, but I never realized how much. It was quite the revelation to see a guy YELL AND PUSH SOMEONE just for walking toward him!

      • Alex permalink
        February 4, 2011 9:31 pm

        Oh my god, that is so true! In Borat as well, there was a man who said, “If you kiss me, I’ll pop you in the fucking balls!” and another who asserted, “I ain’t gonna kiss you!” I loved Borat and liked Bruno, but now you’ve given me a totally new reason to respect those films.

  7. October 18, 2009 8:01 am

    Thanks for coming over, Phaedra. I was really impressed and moved by your piece; that you liked my thoughts on it is high praise.

    In my head, I see a series of public service announcements, where when men do creepy boundary-violating things, the action stops and a woman in an NFL referee uniform steps into the foreground and calls the penalty. But then, there are no women refs in the NFL, and the funds for that commercial only exist if it will sell beer. There’s just no money is stopping rape culture.

  8. SoStorm permalink
    November 1, 2009 5:21 pm

    “In a Yes Means Yes world, if a woman on the subway is interested, she’ll flash a smile and let someone know.”

    In a Yes Means Yes world a smile would be flashed aimed at someone and that person would see that it was not a general smile but a directed smile.

    I had an awful experience in a bar once where I was standing laughing with some of my friends. Once in a while I would glance around the room to see if our other friends had arrived. After a while I felt a hand from behind grabbing my lower butt and vagina. I got angry and pushed the guy away. He got furious and wanted to fight. And when I tried to calmly explain that the only thing I wanted was not to be touched he said in an angry voice “but you smiled”. Evidently by smiling I had given up my right to boundaries and to my body, by smiling I invited anyone who felt entitled to come at me from behind and grab me. It’s very much worth pointing out that in an ideal world people can realize that happiness means yes to intrusion.

    • Alex permalink
      February 4, 2011 9:35 pm

      Ugh. While I haven’t had anyone grope me like that, I have been harassed because of a smile that some asshole just happened to be in the direction of. In a Yes Means Yes world, if someone wasn’t sure whether you smiling at hir, ze would ask.

  9. sara tea permalink
    November 4, 2009 6:15 pm

    i love this, all the way until the end. i think defining which actions can be interpreted as signals of consent is somewhat dangerous. i’m a survivor of date rape and i smile, a lot, and i’m not stingy. just today that smile was used against me by a man who took it as his right to violate my boundaries. i shouldnt have to censor my smile in fear that it will be misinterpreted. i hate that i have to even question that part of myself now.

  10. Dhorvath permalink
    March 17, 2011 2:46 pm

    For me, all out of the blue conversations started on transit, in a bar, on the street, etc, are creepy. These are antisocial social situations. Yes there is an expectation that other people will be there, but also that they will mind their own business. I would find it just as creepy if some woman was sitting two seats over smiling at me to try and ‘signal interest.’

  11. Dhorvath permalink
    March 17, 2011 2:58 pm

    matejcik,
    In your hypothetical, why didn’t you ask your friend to behave? This is part of behaviour, not just being good yourself, but encouraging good behaviour from friends and others around you.

  12. August 8, 2012 5:31 pm

    I love this post.

    I do not “play hard to get.” However, if a total stranger comes up to me and starts interacting, I need more information. I get that information by putting up small boundaries and seeing how they respond and whether the response is appropriate. If a smile and a turn away, equals a smile and a turn away, I will probably be open to saying something more. Going back to being left alone is a fine way to check if someone is respecting consent. If someone keeps pushing in, I will get rude. If they don’t push in but get moody, I get away, as well. Anyone who has an instant ego investment in whether or not I approve of them interacting with me isn’t someone I can trust. It’s not a “game” to interact with consciousness of someone’s respect for your boundaries. It’s how you get to know what someone’s baseline interpersonal ethics are and whether they are trustworthy on a very fundamental, interpersonal level. If someone’s enjoyment and willingness to interact with me is not contingent upon my enjoyment and willingness to interact with them, they aren’t safe. And especially if their interest seems peaked by overcoming my signals or inhibition, they are not my potential friend, they’re giving clear signs that they’re an abuser interested in power play (NOT the consensual, good kind) and testing to see if I’m a potential victim. I think a lot of us, whether men or socially outgoing personalities or adults or whatever, keep learning to check our privileges by being asked, “Why would you want to interact with someone who doesn’t want to interact with you???” It’s a very good question. Disregard for those signals, even in very common everyday situations, is a significant sign of something wrong.

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