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Too Much Information — why we say “I have a boyfriend” when we don’t

It says a lot when fictional men are getting more action than the real ones.

“No, I’m definitely washing my hair that evening. And every day after that for the foreseeable future.”

There cannot be a woman on the planet that has never claimed to have a boyfriend when trying to escape the clutches of a would-be suitor that we have no interest in. Why do we do this? Because simply saying that we’re not interested doesn’t work — it turns into a negotiation or a fight.

But indicating that we are the property of another man kills the inquisition dead, in most cases. I’ve encountered plenty of guys that will still give it a go, though, to a worrying level of persistence. Whatever stage of the bargaining we’re at, it’s always uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous.

It’s really intimidating to just be stopped by a random guy when you’re going about your everyday business, but this is compounded by the message from society that women should be agreeable, and the assertion from “rational” men that there’s nothing wrong with “just saying ‘hello’”. It’s never just saying ‘hello’. If it was, we’d both exchange pleasantries and be on our way. When I just say ‘hello’ to someone, I don’t ask for their phone number, invade their physical space, or make comments about their body. I certainly don’t suggest meeting up at a later stage for sex when I randomly encounter people in the street. Perhaps we have different understandings of the word ‘hello’.

A captive audience

It can happen anywhere, but somehow, through trickery I have not yet outsmarted, these guys manage to get you cornered. I’m pretty sure that body size and language comes into it, but is this something they learn? A natural instinct that men are born with? Whatever, it makes you feel like you’re backed into a corner when you might be stood in the middle of a field.

These encounters follow a pattern:

1. A passing gentleman stops you as you go about your business.

2. You feel compelled to enter into polite chit-chat, keeping it brief as you have no time for this shit.

3. Dammit! You walked straight into that one, and now you can’t get away.

4. You attempt to make your excuses, give enough info to placate.

5. The gentleman persists, for he believes you owe him your attention!

6. You give a little more information, slightly more specific, and more than you want a stranger to know about you.

7. It’s still not enough!

8. You attempt to make your excuses and leave.

9. The inquisitive gentleman comes up with a cunning diversion to keep you in his thrall.

10. Eventually you relinquish your contact details and make your escape.

11. You make a break for it, pissed off that it’s happened again, but glad you still have your life and some small piece of your dignity.

“Fucking hell, I only came in here for a soy latte. How am I going to make it out again?”

It is very much a predator-and-prey situation. The hunter will not let go until they have subdued their quarry. And it is only men doing this, and only women are on the receiving end (go on, someone prove me wrong). Men that harass women in the street are doing it because they feel it’s their god-given right to do so. It’s their territory — a woman generally would not presume that this sort of behaviour is acceptable in public, because we’ve never been conditioned to believe that we own the space.

From a woman’s perspective, it’s a fuckload of hassle, and it feels unsafe. Would men go up to a strange man in the street and just assume he can walk all over his boundaries, make sexual comments and demand his phone number? Huh. Why might that be? The thing is, most women do not have the physical presence in comparison to some random dude in the street, so our mere existence generally isn’t intimidating enough to scare them off. Our only defence is the Little White Lie.

“You’ll be wearing that pint if you don’t piss off, mate.”

Close Encounters of the Slurred Kind

In the spirit of solidarity with the sisterhood, I’ve tried to rely on the truthful argument of I’m Not Interested And I Don’t Need A Better Reason Than That. It has failed almost every time, and I’ve been drawn into a conversational game of cat-and-mouse. So of course I’m going to pretend I have a boyfriend — this tactic does work almost every time. But a little part of me dies inside.

To give you an idea of how common this problem is, here is a selection of some of the places and scenarios in which I’ve been accosted by random men trying to get my phone number / access to my bedroom:

Buying bread in Tesco (“can I come back to yours for some toast” is the most bizarre chat-up line I’ve ever heard)

An eBay pickup (my 5-star seller rating was maintained, but that ain’t what I’m selling)

While volunteering on a suicide prevention hotline (several times)

While waiting for a train

While waiting for a bus

At the checkout in Spar (great, now I have to walk an extra block to the Co-op)

On my way home (too many times to mention)

While seated for dinner at a private function with a group of friends and holding my boyfriend’s hand (the one time that this excuse would have held up)

On my way home from school

On my way to school

Travelling between lectures at university

On a bus

On a train

While out working

While in the office, working

At a work conference

In a lecture

In a tutorial

In the library

In a café

In a restaurant

Outside, anywhere, at any time

In a queue at the supermarket

In a nightclub

Outside a nightclub

While taking the bins out

While waiting outside my professor’s office for a meeting

While in my hall of residence (same guy, every day for a whole fucking year)

“Unless you’re checking my ticket, can you just fuck off, please.”

The Giving of Information

I’m gonna say it up front: I do not have a boyfriend. But outside of our literary bubble, I do. It’s far easier to invoke my fictional boyfriend when I’m getting hassle from a guy, as I have discovered to my detriment. A little honesty causes you a world of trouble if you’re not careful, and slipping up by revealing your availability leads to a fraught discussion.

In this awkward situation where a greeting turns into a twenty-minute interview, I try to give some vague answers in the hope of extracting myself from the situation. But that’s never enough. At this point, the pressure increases with the demand for more information. More tidbits are offered, in the hope that they will satisfy — but they usually don’t. It’s inevitable that more specific information is required to get the hell out of this situation, and yet that’s the last thing you want to give away. Whether it feels unsafe or just unwanted, the motivation is to get out of the situation swiftly and painlessly. And in that moment, sacrificing a little of oneself feels like a small immediate price to pay for longer-term peace and safety.

And so we concede a little ground, maybe answering the questions about what we do for a living, what course we’re on, the district we live in. And then it becomes more intense: where are you going, can I have your phone number, are you busy tonight, would you like to come back to mine? We squirm and squirm, giving information out piece-by-piece, knowing that the full story will be extracted eventually.

It does work, kind of. Our admirer will eventually leave us alone, once he’s got our phone number, home address and inside leg measurement. And he won’t fuck off otherwise. That’s the real problem. We have two options: divulge our entire life story and provide this random dude with a hook to reel us back in with, or to simply say that we’re already spoken for. What’s the harm in a little white lie, especially one that ensures our personal space and safety?

“Fine. I’ll stay for one more drink. But I’m not going home with you.”

Guilt

I do actually feel bad when I reject a guy, like it’s impolite to do so. As well as the strong urge to get the hell out of the situation, there’s also a strong sense that I am the one in the wrong — even though it’s not true. Women & girls tend to be socialised to feel this way, to feel pain for denying a man the right to our time, presence and bodies. But who made this rule? How do we reconcile this with what society tells us we should do, that is to say no, walk away, when we know that what society says and what society expects are so far from one another?

Telling a man that he can’t have you because someone else got there first feels like an acceptable way of letting him down gently. Because to say you’re not interested might bruise his fragile ego — and that rarely turns out well.

The possibility of danger is no doubt at the back of our minds while we’re struggling with etiquette, but the perceived need to not offend, to be nice, to do as one is told, is strong and unavoidable. Instead of a simple “not interested”, and walking away, we try to talk ourselves out of the situation, inadvertently talking ourselves in to it. That feeling of dread, the familiar “not again”, the frustration at ourselves for not being more assertive and imposing boundaries.

But it’s not all on us. Sometimes conversation can be a lifesaver (possibly literally) when a man insists on walking with you to your destination (that you lied about so now you have to replan your route), or won’t leave until he has your phone number (which he calls as soon as you’ve given it to him to check you’ve not given him a fake number), or when he blocks your path so that you’re literally cornered. We perform this dance to avoid something worse — it’s an action performed under duress.

“I thought they were supposed to go away when you gave them your number.”

The Hit Rate

I have no data on how successful this tactic is, but judging by the number of women who complain about this intrusion (pretty much everyone) versus those who think it’s a legit pickup technique (literally fucking no-one), I’m gonna take a wild guess and say it’s not that great. Which means the whole thing is just a huge annoyance — for both parties. Men aren’t getting laid in spite of their “best” efforts, and women aren’t getting shit done because they’re getting hassled every five minutes by some horny rando.

The only person coming off well from this encounter is my fictional boyfriend, and he doesn’t even know the innermost secrets I’ve divulged to strangers accosting me while going about my daily business. At least he’s always got a date, I suppose.

“Oh my god, what do I have to do to get him to leave?”

Accepting Rejection Gracefully

Us ladies have been brainwashed into being polite, agreeable and compliant when asked for something — even, or especially, when we don’t want it. But it’s the 21st Century and this shit has got to change. It would be great if we could feel safe in just saying ‘no’ to unwanted attention — but we’re not there yet. Being honest with men can lead to coercion, violence, ridicule and stalking. Believe us when we say this — we’re dealing with this crap every day.

There is no right way to approach a woman that you don’t know to ask her for personal information and/or a date. She doesn’t know you, why would she trust you or even want you in her space? “Just saying ‘hello’” means saying ‘hello’ and then moving on, not following, harassing and pleading with a woman until she gives in. We’re not interested in random dudes trying to pick us up on the street. We honestly just want these men to fuck off — and to accept our rejection and leave us alone.

There is an even darker side to the issue of politeness. For many women, they just did not know that they could ‘do’ something. We’ve learned to be polite ourselves, to just put up with these intrusions, to take it as a “compliment”. It’s part of the same conditioning that warns us it’s not safe to say ‘no’ — why would anyone take us seriously if it’s something we should know to take in our stride? Raising concerns about this treatment could make us feel like victims, and when you’re already disempowered you’re not going to want to admit it. And so we inadvertently add to our predicament by doing what’s expected and keeping quiet.

“You told him to stick it where? Oh, my.”

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease

I hadn’t heard of the last two terms in that adage until quite recently. Neither had most people until we were told about the results of a study published in 2000, that analysed data collected between 1995 and 2000 on the stress response of men and women and compared the data with previous studies that had used predominantly male subjects. Omitting female candidates, it turns out, had caused scientists to completely overlook a different form of stress response. The hormones involved in reacting to stress between males and females (of many species, not just humans) are different and present in markedly different levels. This produces correspondingly different responses to stress: men are more likely to respond with a typical “fight or flight” reaction, but women tended to “freeze or appease” — a less extreme reaction based on de-escalation.

This discovery provided validation for what many women already knew — that freezing or relenting in potentially violent situations is a normal response. I have found myself freezing when I perceive danger, and I could never explain why. Other women have reported this reaction in response to sexual violence, and the validity of their claims was questioned and broadly rejected. Turns out they weren’t fibbing. Once again, listening to women could have saved us a whole lot of trouble.

I have found myself attempting to appease men that randomly approach me and try to extract information / get a date, although I experienced anxiety and nervousness, but rarely an extreme feeling of danger. However, I have survived two abusive relationships and a number of toxic workplaces, and I recognise a pattern in both the threats levelled at me and my response to them. I would frequently be asked to explain my actions to a minute level of detail — I was allowed no secrets or privacy — and in work I would be asked to justify why I needed information or resources that were freely available to others. I think this has caused me to pre-emptively overexplain, and it leaves me feeling vulnerable because I give away too much of myself. It is as though I’m anticipating a stressful situation because I’ve learned to expect one — and so I launch into self-defence mode too easily. Perhaps it’s the entitlement to my time and space that I’m identifying as a precursor to worse — and why would someone that behaves like that stop at mere harassment?

“I literally just walked out of the door. I don’t have time for this shit.”

The Bystander Effect

I have witnessed interactions where I felt that I should step in and say or do something, but did not. I’m sure that a lot of people feel the same way. We worry about what might happen if we do intervene:

“What if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick? What if she likes the attention? What if I get attacked? What if I make things worse? It’s really none of my business. Someone else will say something, won’t they? It’s not all that bad, really. I don’t want to cause a scene. What if I’m overreacting? Why doesn’t she tell him to leave her alone? I don’t want to get anyone into trouble. It’s harmless really. What difference would it make anyway?”

And so on. Bystanders feel the same trepidation as the women involved. They know it’s “just one of those things” and that they should just ignore it or brush it off. But this collective silence enables harassers and reinforces the notion that we can do nothing about this and women just have to put up with it.

But bystanders can make a huge difference. There have been times when I wish there had been a concerned passer-by to check in and ask if I was ok, or just drag me the hell away from a situation. The responses to this thread on Twitter demonstrate just how pervasive the problem is, but also that there are some good and brave souls out there that do step in when they see harassment occurring:

Turns out this account is protected now. I wonder why that could be?

The whole thread has examples of people who’ve stepped in, people who’ve been harassed and helped out by strangers, people asking how they should help and whether it’ll be taken the right way, and more. This conversation is excellent — everybody can learn from it. The etiquette is changing, and this time we can all have a say in the rules.

“We already told you we don’t do requests, and certainly not like that!”

Who’s a Good Guy™, then?

Good Guys™ would never behave like this, it’s those other men you have to worry about. And because the Good Guys™ would never engage in such behaviour, they just can’t believe it exists. The women must be mistaken, let the Good Guys™ explain it to them. And if a Good Guy™ is ever accused of such an awful thing, then it’s obviously lies, a witch-hunt no less! For who would dare to stain the reputation of our saviours, the Good Guys™? Funny how there’s never a good guy when you need one.

“I’m not like all those other guys, honest.”

Stalemate

All of us: pursuers, the pursued, bystanders and the Good Guys™ — we’re stuck in this same old situation, again and again. Women have been talking among themselves about this behaviour for decades, and now others are listening and changes are beginning to happen. Many are resistant, and it’s those people we need to encourage over to our side. Social change takes time, and it’s frustrating for those who really need the change to happen about 40 years ago. But never mind, we’ve made a little progress. The biggest barrier to ending street harassment is the perception that it just is — that’s no big deal, it’s not that serious, and those we need to convince never witness it for themselves.

The saddest thing is that there’s no such thing as an innocent conversation anymore. Pleasantries and small talk have become a minefield. We have no idea who genuinely wants to have a nice chat about the weather and who’s about to try to get us into their car. Being approached by a stranger on the street gets the alarm bells ringing every time, and it’s because we’ve come to expect trouble as it happens so often. Crappy men have created this situation, and they are the ones who need to be less crappy and end it. If they won’t stop of their own volition — and seriously, I doubt they will — then we need to make it socially unacceptable to behave like that. Does this pose a greater risk to ordinary interactions with others while out? Yes. But maybe that’s the price we’ll have to pay for men not behaving themselves.

Proper social change will make it safer for people to raise objections when they see this sort of thing, but social change won’t happen until enough of us raise objections. There’s a tipping point somewhere, but we’ve not reached it yet. Until we do, women will keep fibbing about their relationship status to avoid uncomfortable and unsafe interactions. One day it will be safe to be single, and we will reclaim ‘hello’ as nothing more than “just saying ‘hello’”. In the meantime, I think I’ll stay with my imaginary boyfriend.