Y’all are in for a treat this week, lemme tell ya. Because today’s question is SO REAL… and yet completely hypothetical! It’s like a magic trick made entirely of shared discomfort and painful personal experiences. So let’s talk about how to shut down unwanted sexual advances without making things more awkward than they already are.
Or, alternately, even MORE awkward. Because sometimes we just want to watch the world burn.
[Reminder: Let us help you get out of any sticky situation! Just email us at [email protected] and we’ll devise the perfect exit strategy for your problem. Or at least an exit strategy. Unless you’re a bear, stuck in a trap. Because fuck you bear — you can just STAY THERE! MWAHAHAHAHA]
With so many sexual misbehavior stories in the news recently, I’ve been talking things over with friends and found a few points that we’ve all agreed are common-enough situations that we don’t quite know how to handle. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions for ways to deal when we women want to make our boundaries clear without having to lecture about consent and harassment or cut off our interaction completely (or pull out a bear trap, as you might advise).
I’ve gone out with groups that include people that I don’t know well (friends of friends, co-workers outside of my usual circle, etc.) and been approached by men in some discomforting ways. If my friend patted me on the butt or whispered something vulgar in my ear, I’d be fine telling him (very) directly, “Knock it off” and putting a stop to it. However, if it’s my roommate’s boyfriend’s buddy that I’ve not met before or Joe from Accounting who I don’t usually interact with at the office, I’m unsure how to be polite but clear that I want him to stop whatever it is he is doing.
We’ve also all been on dates where the fellow has tried to go a bit further than we are comfortable (resting a hand on our thigh or lower back, going in for a kiss). Perhaps we’re not ready for that kiss YET and we’d like to make that understood, but we don’t want to rule out the possibility of a kiss in the future. Or we do want to rule that kiss out entirely but we don’t need to call him a sexual predator and storm out.
We all agreed that we know exactly how to handle things when someone’s advances are completely unwelcome and we feel unsafe - we’re all fine with making a scene when it’s warranted - but we’re searching for a good way to make our boundaries clear, when something has made us uncomfortable enough that we need to address is but not so uncomfortable that we need to get away from the man. Is there a low drama way to shut things down effectively but politely?
Wow, does this question take me back. Like, all the way back to my first unwelcome sexual advance experience! I was 11, sitting on the floor of my friend’s house playing video games, when I felt his hand sneaking under my ass to tug on my shorts. I scooted away. His hand followed. I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening, because I really like video games and also I figured somehow this must be a mistake because why would anyone wanna touch my bony, scrawny barely-pubescent ass? But it wasn’t a mistake, and so I left, stayed up all night wondering WTF that was all about, and never hung out with him again. The end.
Well, not “the end” really — it was just the beginning! I’ve had my vagina grabbed by a hand that seemed to come out of nowhere in a packed nightclub. I’ve woken up to find a friend’s hands up my shirt, groping my breasts. I’ve had multiple just-friends try to kiss me, despite the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, I’d given zero indication that I was interested in being anything other than just-friends. Oh, the kisses I’ve dodged! And in all these instances, my reaction was more or less the same: total avoidance, with an occasional side of run-the-fuck-away-and-never-look-back.
But I’m not saying that’s the only solution, or even the best. And the situations you presented are really wonderful in their specificity and complexity, because the fact is that the people who make us uncomfortable aren’t always shadowy strangers. Sometimes we kind of know them, or at least know we’ll have to see them again! Sometimes we even like them, but don’t want what they want right now! Sometimes we want to keep our options open, and not burn our bridges, but still want to enforce our own boundaries. So let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?
The Problem With “Polite”
When we discussed this question as a group, it was Emily who came in with the gut punch: “Fuck polite.” And she’s right! If a tangential acquaintance, like in your roomate’s friend/random coworker scenario, isn’t respecting your boundaries, then why should you spare their feelings? Unwanted, non-consensual touching isn’t OK in any situation, but I think the issue here is the common misconception that saying “no” is somehow impolite.
It isn’t. What that other person is doing to make you feel uncomfortable? THAT’S impolite. But telling someone to back up and give you space, or asserting that you’re not interested, is actually a perfectly polite response — and the fact we might ever feel otherwise is a problem.
Why is it polite? Well, I consider it respectful to acknowledge another person’s interest head-on, and it’s considerate to give them a proper response (even if it’s to decline them). And funnily enough, being respectful and considerate of others is literally the definition of “polite”! Sure, there are ways to go about it — you can choose to say “Stop” instead of “Get the fuck away from me, asshole,” or “Not today” instead of “Not today, Satan.” But the fact is that if you are clear and direct in your response, then any awkwardness that ensues is on them for being offended. And if they’re offended, it’s only because your response underscores that they were crossing the line with their behavior, and they knew it. And the only thing people like less than not getting what they want is realizing that they’ve done something wrong.
So instead of worrying about how to be “polite but clear” in your response to these situations, I’d say it’s better to focus simply on being clear. Because by not respecting your boundaries, the other person has already taken “polite” off the table. We all have the right to refuse unwanted advances, and while we can choose not to do so rudely, we can’t decide how the other person takes our refusal. All we can do is be as honest and up-front as possible, so if they do get pissy, it’s their own problem. They’re making it awkward, not you.
“Not right now” is better than “No” — And fuck anyone who thinks otherwise
Regarding your second scenario — the date getting a little to forward — I again think that being direct is the best. Look, I’m conflict-averse and if a stranger puts their hand on me, I’m more likely to slide out of their grasp and away from them than turn around and be like “What the hell, dude?!” But in a situation where you are trying to keep the option of future physical contact open while shutting it down in the present, I think the only real solution is to speak up and say that. Take the hand off your thigh, or turn your cheek when they go to kiss you — but don’t stop there. Look them in the eye and say what you’re thinking. “I like you, but I’m not comfortable with this yet.” “I don’t kiss on the first date.” “Can we get to know each other better first?”
Is this foolproof? No. Some dates will absolutely take offense to this, because again — they aren’t getting what they wanted. But in this case it’s a matter of establishing expectations. They’re already establishing that they consider your relationship to be physically intimate, or ready for that level of intimacy, and if you don’t agree then you need to communicate that. Tell them your expectations — that intimacy takes time and you’re just not ready yet, if this is someone you’d like to continue seeing. If they’re interested in you, they’ll recognize that you haven’t shut the door entirely, and they’ll wait. And if they’re only interested in their own desires, then they may move on to easier targets — and you’ll likely have dodged a bullet.
Of course, if you aren’t interested — if you don’t think you’ll ever want to kiss them — then say that too. Again, there are ways to turn someone down without being mean. You don’t have to say “Ew, gross” when “I’m not interested” would suffice. Turning down a kiss from a hopeful friend isn’t the same as calling them a sexual predator. I mean, obviously! But you also can’t control how they respond, and some friendships don’t survive a decline like this. There is no perfectly low-drama way to handle these kinds of situations. If that’s what you want, the best you can do is make sure your response is as drama-free as possible. Everything else is on them.
OK But Realistically, How Can We Just Get The Hell Away?
What I’ve presented so far are the honest, straight-forward options — but we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean the awkwardness will end. And you know what? Sometimes, when someone makes me feel awkward, I just wanna make it worse. I wanna wallow in that shit. After all, why should I be the only one uncomfortable?! So here are some other ways the Overlords suggested addressing unwanted advances:
— Genevieve recommended shooting the offended party a pointed look and saying “Excuse me?” because let’s face it — they know what they did. Other vaguely shame-inducing responses the Overlords pitched included “Do I know you?”, “Have we met?” or “What are you doing?” (that last can be delivered as if you’re genuinely confused, if you really wanna fuck with them).
— Kate, as usual, took it a step farther: screeching “Bible’s Width Apart!” or just hissing at them like a cat.
— Dustin suggested: Maybe whisper quietly in their ear, “If you touch me again I will break your fucking hand.”
— And ok, maybe actual breaking a person’s hand is too much for you, but you can always try throwing your elbows out! Then pretend that you just startle easily. If they’re close enough to get hit by an elbow then they’re already too close. I’ve also crouched down in a fake-panic when someone tried to speak into my ear from behind, just to really make it weird.
— Emily once backed a dude the fuck up by sneezing in his face. So practice sneezing on command.
— Have friends that are willing to pretend to be your very possessive boyfriend/girlfriend/romantic partner-friend, and make sure they’re paying enough attention to rescue you when needed. I got away from a pervy priest that way (ok, so “Father Moe Lester” was his Halloween costume, but also he was handsy and I wasn’t into it).
— If you’re dealing with a professional colleague, simply saying “This is inappropriate” can be a sufficient boner-killer without having to threaten to escalate matters to superiors or to HR.
— And I know I’ve already said this, but avoidance works. Slide out of their grasp and move as far away as possible. Usually they’ll shift focus to an easier target, though if they are persistent I like to double-down and completely ignore them. Like, pretend I don’t hear or feel anything. Oh, does that piss them off.
One of the topics that came up in our discussion was the fact that no matter what we do, not everyone is going to like us — and that’s OK! And then Genevieve put it perfectly: “We do not all need to be Cool Girls.” The fact is that we often spend so much time and energy on worrying about other people’s feelings, or not burning bridges, and what it all really boils down to is trying to remain likable in situations we don’t like. And that’s shitty, because so often those situations are not of our choosing. So why do we need to be the ones to smooth things over? Why do we need to be calm and understanding and spare their feelings? What’s the worst that can happen if we enforce our boundaries — people start to think that we’re uptight? What that usually means is that they didn’t find us accommodating to their whims. But we’ve got whims of our own. Like, you know, not being groped or whatever. And there’s no reason our desires should be any less legitimate than theirs.
But I can also see the benefit of not making a scene in these sorts of muddled, middle-ground scenarios, because the men we’re talking about usually aren’t predators. They’re taking some big swings, and they’re missing. Maybe it’s worked for them in the past, or they watched some bullshit pick-up artists and learned some cues, but they’ve got some wrong-headed expectations. And if we want them to learn otherwise, we need to get more comfortable meeting them head-on with our own expectations. We need to get comfortable saying “no” — and more than that, we need to believe that our “no” isn’t some awkward, unsociable, or bad thing. There’s no need to lecture further, or justify ourselves. Saying “no” is our right! And it’s also an exercise in respect and consideration for another’s feelings. IT IS POLITE, DAMMIT. This is something I’m working on myself, and it’s not easy. On top of everything else, we also have to constantly weigh how likely a bad reaction could turn to violence when we turn men down. But then again, we can’t control their reaction no matter what. They could cause a scene. They could dump us, or never speak to us again, or tell their friends we’re uptight. They might not even take “no” for an answer.
We can’t control them, but we can control ourselves. And the more comfortable we get with saying “no,” the more comfortable they’ll get hearing it.
Besides, we’ve always got our fall-back options: lighting them on fire, or surrounding ourselves with bear-traps.
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