There is a difficult thing that happens to me regularly that I’ve never talked about before.
It happened again just this morning.
Many men send me friend requests on Facebook, which is great in general, since I’m a relationship coach who works with men, women, and couples.
I only accept requests from men who 1) I have lots of friends in common with (friends in common who I know and respect) AND 2) who have a thoughtful profile, OR 3) who write me a nice note.
Still, it happens often that when I accept a request, the man decides to “love” all my “cutest” or “sexiest” pictures, and perhaps comment “SEXY!” on some of them. Or, he might go and “love” every single post I wrote that has a pretty picture with it, within a timeframe that shows he couldn’t possibly have read them.
When this happens, I feel disappointed and afraid. It’s scary to be so blatantly treated as a sex object. It’s overwhelming because I’m not sure how far he might go.
Most of the time, I go unfriend this person immediately and hope that he will stop paying attention to me.
Today though, I decided to engage.
In addition to “loving” many of the pictures of me and commenting “SEXY!” on one, this man had sent me a friendly message, which said “nice to meet you,” and included what appeared to be a website for his business.
So I thought it might be possible to share the impact his actions had on me and have a helpful and insightful discussion, for both of us.
“Hello! So, by the way, when you go and ‘love’ all the photos of me like that I feel a little bit afraid and I don’t like it.”
“LOL. Come on…!”
I said “this response is making it worse.”
And then he went into a lecture about how as a “yoga and tantra teacher, seriously?! [He didn’t get my profession quite right]. You should enjoy this sort of thing.” He said he was “just being his spontaneous self, having some fun.”
The message was clear:
I shouldn’t feel the way I was feeling.
He left me a short voice message that I was too shaken to listen to.
Then he said “I hope you find some peace.”
I get it that my communications were not the most skillful here. It was not the easiest thing for me to do in the midst of the strength of what I was feeling (more on this later).
And yet what hurt the most was that I found no empathy, no curiosity, and no attempt to take responsibility for the impact of his actions. The message I got from his reaction was that I wasn’t being a good sport, I wasn’t being ‘fun’, I wasn’t living up to the image he projected on me, and so therefore I was letting him down, and it was all my problem.
— — -
I’ve read a hundred snarky articles shaming men for their actions, and I can feel a pain that might make writing that way tempting. But I’m not here for that.
I believe the surprise of today’s “inappropriate liker” in response to my pushback was genuine.
And I also understand that we fail to teach our youth, especially boys, about emotional awareness, communication skills, and healthy relationships. So how could I expect him to know how to respond with empathy, to meet my fear with presence and care?
Even more, we were two strangers writing on the internet, without the ability to read faces or emotional tone, which makes challenging exchanges extra hard.
And yet this interaction, and the many similar experiences I have of just being a pretty object to mine for cute pictures in the wake of a friend request, shake me quite deeply.
— — —
Over the course of my life, I have experienced daily harassment walking down the street, driving my car, and being out anywhere. In California, in broad daylight, men have followed me down the street making barking noises or loud kissing noises. I have been afraid to look both ways when crossing the street if there was a man behind me, lest he think I was looking at him and follow me.
I stopped looking anyone in the eye and kept my head down when walking, possibly adding to my danger, but it was better than the inevitable leer or lewd comment that an accidental eye contact would elicit.
At stoplights, men in cars next to mine have rolled down their windows to toss out unwelcome sexual comments.
In southern France, walking home from an office job, men followed me down the street to whisper “prostitute”, or ask if I wanted to get married.
I stopped wearing heels so I could run, and I took to cross-body purses. I made sure to sit next to women on public transportation.
And my experiences were pretty tame compared to what I’ve heard from other women.
Whenever I would bring up what felt like a daily battle, these were the standard responses:
“Well maybe you should dress differently” (blame the victim)
“Enjoy it while it lasts” (this was from my mother)
“I would love it if women did that to me” (this from 2 male friends, after expressing exhaustion and fear from fending off followers on a daily basis in a particularly difficult neighborhood).
— — —
In this recent online interaction, the energy felt the same — making me think I was the problem, I was crazy, how dare I object to a man just “being himself.”
It’s hard to get through to others who’ve never experienced this how pervasive, relentless, and dehumanizing it is.
The message I get is that I don’t matter as a person. Not my thoughts, feelings, or accomplishments. Only my body matters, and it’s for men.
I have traveled across the world by myself. And in taxicabs (driven by men) the world over, I get asked the same question: “Are you married?”.
The focus is relentless: men have shared with me their challenges on multiple levels — being very visually-oriented and being expected to pursue and initiate.
So when I stepped outside the box today and said “I feel afraid when you do this,” I get that it might have exploded every expectation about how these interactions are supposed to go.
I get that my pushback might have been surprising and challenging.
I can also understand why I might not have been able to get across what I wanted to say in a way that could be heard and understood. It took a lot of courage for me to speak up, and I was already shaken when I decided to do it.
But I am determined to get better at this.
With the “inappropriate liker” from today, I went back to screen shot our interaction and the likes he made on my pictures, but all trace of him had disappeared. Unfortunately I don’t have the record to study.
I do the work I do because for me the only way out is through: I want to listen, understand, empathize. While I continue to speak up about my own experiences and ask for empathy, understanding, and healing, I also do my very best to embody those same qualities of empathy and listening that I ask for in others. (Though I realize not everyone has the resources or safety to do this).
This ability demands a lot of awareness in the face of strong emotions, which is something that takes practice, dedication, resilience, and the subtle skill of knowing how and when to open in the face of attack.
And these qualities are not often taught or valued in our culture.
Yet if our only responses to perceived threats are to defend and fight back, there certainly will be an ever-escalating war. On the other hand, finding the courage to open and get curious about what the other person might be feeling and needing (while also taking care of yourself) — now that takes a real, deep inner strength.
And the strength of vulnerability leads to what we all say we are longing for — true connection, and an opportunity to give all those “likes” and “loves” in a way that feels great.