I’m Interested In You. That Doesn’t Mean I’m Trying To Have Sex With You.

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“I’ve been a part of this industry a long time, Megan. You haven’t. Yet you seem to be quite close to some very powerful people,” my male colleague told me over our twice-annual post-work cocktails.

“It just doesn’t add up,” he continued. “And I really don’t know how you pay your rent in Manhattan. I’ve wondered at times if you’re an escort, and I’ll be straight with you: others wonder the same thing.”

Winded, I uttered, “That’s absurd. You’re kidding, right?”

“That’s why Evan* (a mutual friend in the industry) acts uncomfortable around you. He has the same questions.”

Anger is pretty much the only emotion I have trouble accessing. This isn’t unusual for women who’ve been socialized to be agreeable (even in response to having your success attributed to prostitution by someone you thought respected you!). We fear being labeled “crazy”–or worse, validating our accuser’s perceived judgments–and we thus seek to remain composed.

And in that moment, I was so confused and humiliated I couldn’t cultivate anger despite the fucked-upness of the situation. My mind swirled as I imagined the entire wellness industry believing I was sleeping my way to friends and mentors and opportunities. Overwhelmed with shame, I shakily assured my colleague I was not, in fact, an escort. I choked out a robotic I-statement expressing my “frustration” as “I’ve always prided myself on my intelligence and my integrity!”

Over the next couple days, I shared the story with several people, asking their opinion. Their responses were thick with anger and disgust, ascertaining my colleague’s assumption (and delivery) was not okay (though one did gently share there’d been a rumor within our past workplace that I’d been hired because I’d “slept with the CEO”). Their validation allowed me to access that all-too-often suppressed anger, and I felt compelled to highlight this fucked up thing we do with women. This observation is far from groundbreaking, but clearly reveals an oppressive perception that’s still insidious in our culture:

We interpret friendliness in women of reproductive age as seduction.

I recalled the male psychiatrist who’d told me it was my fault a client we shared had developed feelings for me and attempted suicide as a result of his “unrequited love” (had I been a male therapist with a female client, we would have referenced her borderline personality disorder and evaded any responsibility). Five years later, that psychiatrist’s words are still seared in my mind: “I knew this was going to happen with you. From the moment I met you, I knew this was going to happen,” he had sneered.

I recalled the male therapist I saw for consultation following that incident, who told me because I wasn’t in a relationship, I must be unconsciously trying to seduce men. After all, there was no way I could be happy single. Ashamed, I decided to stop wearing mascara to work.

I recalled the comments from doctors when they learned I was the most requested therapist at the student health center–they smirked and muttered that my clients must be wanting to ask me out (no way it could be that I was good at my job!); or the times I told people what I did for a living, and their responses were, “I’m sure you’re very popular with the tradesmen” (the majority of my clients were heterosexual female nursing students).

I recalled the boyfriend who told me I was “too much of a flirt,” because I had male friends, and because I asked his roommates about their programs and dating lives.

I recalled the times I’ve physically fought off sexual assault after I accepted a ride home or an invitation for a nightcap after a date (I only made those mistakes once, respectively, before learning accepting such invitations was interpreted as consent–not unlike wearing a low-cut shirt!).

The perception that the extroverted, “friendly” woman seeks to seduce perpetuates rape culture, slut-shaming, and disconnection, and pressures women to be highly selective in their kindness (i.e. better be “bitchy” to be safe!).

In our increasingly isolated society, I am a friendly person. I smile at strangers on the street with the hope that I might give them a moment of connection. I look people in the eyes when I’m speaking with them. I take advantage of opportunities to joke or be self-deprecating because I like people to feel comfortable around me. I ask questions–real questions–because I’m genuinely interested, and I actually listen to the answers because I actually care. I’ve dedicated my entire life to understanding the human condition, and offering support and connection, because I want to reduce people’s suffering.

I am interested in you.

That does not mean I’m trying to have sex with you.

Let’s entertain that idea.

Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a psychotherapist, wellness coach, and host of Forbes The Failure Factor. She specializes in perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Follow her on Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

*name has been changed