Personal Space and Being a Lady

[Trigger warning–something I don’t usually include at the beginning of my posts since my whole blog is a trigger for some people.]

AHEM. Hey remember me? NO? Fuck off! Just kidding. I love you, even though the thing you got me for my birthday broke 45 minutes after I opened it and I know you took a second piece of cake before everyone even had one.

SO. What I really want to say! The other day I read this article and it really grabbed me: Schrodinger’s Rapist: or a Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange women without Being Maced. That’s a mouthful, eh?

In a nutshell, the author, Phaedra Starling, claims that women, to varying degrees, constantly assess their personal risk of harm when confronted with men in daily life. This is everywhere–on the street, in the workplace, on the first few dates and even with men you have known for years if things go south suddenly. It’s not a new idea in the realm of feminist thought and discussion, but I think it’s worthwhile in the sense that the Starling takes a really matter-of-fact, non-hostile tone without cajoling or pandering. I feel like it’s the best possible way to present this idea to men who are genuinely good guys. A chance to say, hey, this thing that you may not be aware of–women’s fear of men–is real and takes up a significant part of women’s daily lives and energy. It would be great if articles like this were published in men’s magazines, wouldn’t it? AH HA HA HA HA, oh, I think I just hurt myself there.

The article is a good and essential read for a lot of people, men and women alike. Here is a snippet that gets at the essence of the problem:

Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.

“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”

Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?

So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?

I shared this article with a couple of men in my life–men I consider to be allies of feminism and pretty aware and cool guys. Men who would not stand by if they saw or heard women being slagged or hurt in cases where they could not defend themselves. Men who are aware that there are inequalities, and try to act in ways in their daily lives that move men and women closer to being equals.

“What do you think about this article?” I asked, in what I hoped was a neutral tone of voice that said, “There is no carrot for the ‘right’ answer.”

“I think it sounds pretty extreme, like an overreaction,” one of the men said. “But I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman,” he hastened to add.

I paused for a moment and tried to think if there were any women I knew who didn’t think in these terms to varying degrees, and this friend characterized the thesis of this article “extreme” and an “overreaction.” This extremely unscientific survey confirmed what I suspected, which is that these sorts of articles and discussions are absolutely critical.

It also made me think about how I live my own life, especially since having children. Before I had children, I didn’t pull any punches. If a man talked to me and I was uninterested I would ignore him or tell him to leave me alone, either neutrally or harshly, depending on my mood and the situation. Having children put a chink in that armor, and instilled more fear of strange men in me. If I acted in ways that come naturally to me to curtail unwanted conversations with strange men, which is coolly or with hostility, would the situation escalate? Could I risk some man getting angry with me because I wasn’t cooperating and watch the consequences unfold in front of or possibly to my children? Better to smile and play along.

This bleeds over to my life when I am without my children, too, which is, of course, when most men make unwelcome advances toward me. In the past, when I was only responsible for myself, I would tell men off if I indicated I was disinterested and the situation escalated. If things got ugly, it often ended in me being called a “fucking bitch” or a “cunt” or something equally charming. Now I feel I have an obligation to my girls to make it home in one piece, and so I nod and smile at whatever inanity/sexism/grossness is tossed my way.

Thinking of these compromises I make on a daily basis made me also think about the concept of rape culture, and of an excellent article I read by Melissa McEwan on Shakesville recently on the topic.

As the title of the piece promises (Rape Culture 101), McEwan provides the reader with a good background in different aspects of rape culture. Among many other great points she addresses what I think of as the perception/behavior problem.

Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.

[Links from this passage omitted but available at original post.]

(As an aside I should say that I am aware that I am a participant in rape culture, to some extent, and I actively educate my daughters in the tenets of it. This is something I have been considering writing about in the near future.)

So I have been thinking about this a lot since reading the Schrodinger’s Rapist article. Do I give my energy to being pleasing and compliant to the wishes of strange men who actively pursue conversations and interactions with me that I don’t want to have? Or do I go back to resisting: unsmiling, ignoring, intolerant, which is another sort of energy drain?

I walked out of my building, which is smack in the center of downtown, with a half-formed resolution in my head: for a month I would try the old way. I would not dial things up to defcon 1 the minute a man said “hello,” but if I didn’t want to talk, I would not. Something that is important to know about my typical demeanor is that I walk fast, avoid eye contact, and have giant can-style headphones that block everything out except the most annoying leafblowers. I am not sending the message that I am available for casual conversation.

I approached the corner and immediately there was a man standing next to me, trying to get my attention. I deliberately turned my head away, waiting for the light to change. A couple of times I turned my head forward, and saw him in the corner of my eye attempting to get my attention to speak to me again. I looked at him and watched him take a breath to speak and turned away again. He attempted to speak to me, even after this. This made me think of a passage from Starling’s article:

Women are communicating all the time. Learn to understand and respect women’s communication to you.

You want to say Hi to the cute girl on the subway. How will she react? Fortunately, I can tell you with some certainty, because she’s already sending messages to you. Looking out the window, reading a book, working on a computer, arms folded across chest, body away from you = do not disturb. So, y’know, don’t disturb her. Really. Even to say that you like her hair, shoes, or book. A compliment is not always a reason for women to smile and say thank you. You are a threat, remember? You are Schrödinger’s Rapist. Don’t assume that whatever you have to say will win her over with charm or flattery. Believe what she’s signaling, and back off.


So if you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.

Did this man on the corner scream at me, pinch me, light my hair on fire? No. What he decided was to try to initiate conversation with me four times, after I deliberately and pointedly ignored him, with my body language and with my headphones.

There are exceptions to every situation, of course, but when the light changed and I walked away, I realized that women DON’T do this. Women do not interrupt people wearing headphones unless they need something. I pick a woman to interrupt, and I see other women at places like bus stops do the same. If a woman interrupts me, there is a good chance that she needs directions, the time, change for a dollar. If a man interrupts me, nine times out of ten it’s to say he likes my hair color. That’s nice; I don’t care.

Starling is right: if you behave like this, “your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone.” Put another way, a man engaging in these behaviors is not treating a woman like an equal. Would this man make four attempts to pay a compliment to a man on a corner who was also keeping to himself? If I had to guess I would say no.

So here I am, resolved to “reclaim my space,” as one of my friends said. I am letting this little experiment run at least through the end of the month. I will let you know how things shake out.

32 thoughts on “Personal Space and Being a Lady

  1. Great post. I have been trying to act with that kind of attitude for the past few months now, as every few weeks I take a train home for the weekend. It takes two buses to get to the creepy train station in a huge, dirty city. Every time some guy has started to talk to me, even if I was very creeped out, I was never able to tell him to go away. I don’t like putting myself through that. I’m trying to grow some balls. :/
    On a related note, this last trip home, this woman decided that I was the best recipient for her life story. I had headphones on and was doing a sudoku, yet she still started a conversation, and me, being the people-pleaser, took off my headphones and listened. I still continued to send “SHUT UP AND GO AWAY” signals, but to no avail. I need to get better at saying “no”.
    Anyway. So women can ignore the signals of other women, too.

  2. this article is awesome, thanks for bringing it to my attention. it reminds me of a line i read once in “the gift of fear”. i’m (probably poorly) paraphrasing here, but it went something like “men spend their lives afraid that women will embarrass them. women spend theirs afraid that men will murder them.” i never finished the book, i should, but it’s all about trusting your guts.

  3. I also read both these articles a few weeks ago, and linked to the Schrodinger’s Rapist one on facebook which started an argument about women who “bring it on themselves”.

    Thanks for posting on this, it’s helped to clarify a lot of my own thoughts on it.

  4. I’ve never thought it through like that before, but I think I know exactly what you mean. The question is, what to do about it? I really hate talking to strangers, but when someone insists on talking to me I try to defuse by letting them have my attention. Which probably isn’t the best way to go, but I worry about becoming a target, especially when there is a group of guys involved or watching the exchange.

  5. I remember one time when a coworker of mine remarked in the course of a conversation that she could easily walk to where her car was parked “unless, of course, it’s after dark” (or words to that effect). I, clueless as I often am, asked why not after dark (we worked in what I thought of as a safe area, but one that was not particularly well-lit). She sort of looked at me like I had asked a stupid question, and I stared back blankly, still puzzled at what she had meant. Then she simply said, “I’m a woman”. I think that I stared blankly for a few more seconds before I really understood what she meant. That really stuck with me as an example of how radically different women’s perceptions of danger often are from men’s.

  6. That article pretty much echoes everything I have long suspected. On one hand, I feel relieved that I have been operating (usually) based on the likelihood these fears were valid. On the other hand, I’m depressed that those fears are valid, at least some of the time. (clearly not all though, because I have encountered a fair number women expressing a nearly opposite sentiment)

    Well, back to avoiding eye contact and unsolicited commentary. =(

  7. Wow, do I feel like an oblivious moron.
    I guess this never really occurred to me.. then again outside of college I don’t think I would have ever talked to a strange woman that wasn’t pretty obvious about wanting to talk to me.. then again I am a scruffy looking and generally oblivious..
    This is a great post.. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while.

  8. Great article, excellent post. I think a lot of men should be reading this article so they can see the world, and themselves and their actions, from outside of their shoes.

  9. Solowren: Every time some guy has started to talk to me, even if I was very creeped out, I was never able to tell him to go away. I don’t like putting myself through that. I’m trying to grow some balls. :/

    –It’s risk, though, right? If someone is creepy, particularly if it’s a man, we instinctively fear provoking them. It’s such a double-edged sword. Being compliant sends the message it is okay, but saying no can get you insulted or hurt.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

  10. What a fantastic post Assy. I am just enjoying being 52 = invisible. And not having to scowl all the time b/c I am not having importunate people do the type of behaviour you describe.

  11. So, I’m gonna refer my kiddoes to this post when we are reading CANDIDE next semester–they (male nor female) never GET the reality of Cunegonde’s experience; they ALWAYS think it is at once an exaggeration for the fiction and a “back in the day” thing–nothing to be taken at all seriously or of implication in their own lives…you know, like Candide’s is…?

    They are high school seniors. Can’t WAIT to hear their reactions to your banner… I’m juss sayin’! ;-}

  12. Awesome analysis! I guess I’ve never given much thought to men who try to invade my space when it’s clear that I’m not interested. When I was younger, I was more accomodating and would tolerate it, but now I have enough confidence and boundaries to say, “You know, I’m not interesting in talking to anyone right now.”

    The thing is, I think society also encourages men to “be more persistent” to get the girl. There are countless romantic comedies that depict the “geek/slob/loser/whatever” going to great lengths to convince the hot chick to go out with him and eventually she gives in. They fall in love and realize they are perfect for each other. The End…BARF!

    So, I think it goes both ways. Women are constantly bombarded with propaganda that tells them to look pretty/inviting/unique and men are encouraged to be assertive/agressive. At what point does that cross boundaries?

    But the truth is, ironically I would rather have an assertive man approach me and do the “chasing” instead of the other way around!

  13. I’ve been trying to put this into practice as well. On Hallowe’en, some guy got behind my friend and I on the stairs to the subway and started telling us to hurry up. We did not, in fact I told him to climb over the railing to the other side of the stairs if he was in a hurry. He did not. Of course, he bolted past us as soon as we reached the bottom. Did he miss his train? Of course not. None of us did. So what does he do? Start trying to make nice with me while also insisting he had some right to tell us to hurry up. I told him he didn’t but he didn’t seem to get the message that I wasn’t interested in what he had to say. So I looked him in the face and said firmly, “You know what? I don’t want to talk to you.”

    The look on his face was priceless. He said, “That’s rude,” but shut up after that. Douche.

  14. amazing post, thank you for the insight. “Rape Culture” really really got me, so very disturbing and true. I have spent my life being “nice” and listening and smiling when I didn’t want to or didn’t care about what was being said or who was saying it. I am thinking about this post, and I am thinking about running my own experiment. Thanks for your words.

  15. Great post – thanks so much. Also loving your podcast. I would be really interested to hear about these issues and what you say to your daughters about them. I know you said that’s something for a future post, but hoping it’ll make it to a future podcast as well.

  16. Wow, that’s so true about it being different after you have kids. I was always pretty brash with men who tried to chat me up before I had kids, but now I do the compliant smiling female thing, and it really chaps my ass. As much as I would like to be belligerent to men who try to interact with me, it doesn’t feel worth it to have my kids feel scared or potentially be threatened.

    I have to read my copy of The Gift of Fear, too. I saw Gavin de Becker on Oprah some time ago and he was a pretty compelling dude.

  17. @Kathy

    Not to mention all of those dating sites/DVDs/techniques/etc which are focused on turning women from people into conquests. How to break down any opposition, get them to do whatever you want, etc. That type of material is only encouraging men to view their wishes over the wishes of any woman they run into.

  18. When strangers try to talk to me, it makes me so uncomfortable. I don’t like it. I have my headphones on. I’m with a friend. Please, don’t talk to me.

    Part of it is I’m shy. The other part, though, is I don’t like strangers. I don’t want to be approached out of the blue unless you need to ask a question and then you’re going to leave.

    With all the classes I took for Psychology of Women and Psychology of Human Sexuality, I have to say this post is spot on. And pretty scary.

  19. Pingback: » Schrodinger’s Asshole

  20. Thanks for posting this. It got me thinking about the situation some and I wrote a bit on my own BLAWG including quoting you.

    Your experience of being more likely to approach other women than men is a common one. In one of Shapely Prose’s more controversial posts, Kate Harding asked women who’d never been hassled by a stranger to post. There were a LOT of “I’ve never been hassled except for this one time/two times/every evening” posts. Some of the dialogue that resulted revealed that most people are hassled by women, especially older women, who feel free to Hold Forth about whatever to their captive (waiting in line, riding the bus, whatevs) female audience. Society, in general, kind of treats women and their time as disposable. It is nowhere near as valuable as a man’s time. So others feel free to waste it and invade personal space.

  21. I wish I had something smart to say here but basically, Amen, sister.

    That’s how I live. Pain the ass.

    There was another cool thing I read which was basically making fun of all the ‘how not to be raped’ lists. It was a ‘how not to rape’ list. Since the burden is always on us–and geez, like that makes any sense.

  22. What you said about fear of provoking them, this is my issue right here. I get approached a lot by random men when I’m by myself (London is full of creeps) and my first problem is, how do I tell them to go away without getting into an discussion about, “why don’t you like me”j 6t

  23. Hur, please delete the last comment, lappy fell off my lap as I was typing. I’ll start again.

    What you said about fear of provoking them, this is my issue right here. I get approached a lot by random men when I’m by myself (London is full of creeps) and my first problem is, how do I tell them to go away without getting into an discussion about, “why don’t you like me”, “what is my problem, is it because you have a boyfriend” or an extended conversation in which they’re trying harder. I remember once I was sitting on a step at a train station, quite late at night, and a bloke comes up to ask if I’m ok. I told him “Sure, I’m just waiting for someone”. He kept talking. The clear point here was that I was waiting for someone that wasn’t him. I don’t understand why people completely MISS these hints or gloss over them like they’re irrelevant.

    I’ve noticed that people aren’t asking for my number as much as they used, but more my Facebook. It seems like Internet communication is an easier bet for gaining some sort of access to people. I can understand the logic behind this, but I’m unsure of why they think women would be more ok with it. I guess that’s another story though. Sorry for the novel! Loved the link x

  24. You’ve struck a cord Ms A. This is an experience that every woman has but no one talks about. Thanks.

  25. This is not a subject that I’ve ever consciously contemplated, but it is some kind of twisted relief to know that I am not the only one who worries about these things all the time. This is a great article.

  26. I read this (outloud, to my bf), then went out to The Bars the next night. There were a couple persistent guys: I did the smile politely but give “go away” signals, to no avail.

    I said “I DONT want to TALK to you. GO AWAY” quite rudely which apparently made him want to kiss my cheek.

    “NO TOUCHING” brought me from multiple guys “you are going to be a bad mom”, and “who are you?! who do you think you are?” “are you a germaphobe?”

    Finally I pulled one guys hood over his head and cinched the drawstring so the opening was the size of a quarter. Still, he persisted. Two guy friends came to my aid which was SO frustrating because I felt like that was the only solution!! WTF is wrong with people! Don’t make me be a bitch!

    Then I walked alone to my car, thinking about all the guys that forced me to be outright rude to them, and if they might be pissed enough to follow. Ugh.

  27. Amazing. Thanks for articulating something I’ve felt for a long time now. I especially like Starling’s point that “your desire trumps her right to be left alone.” I used to ride the bus all the time to and from University; I would wear sunglasses, read a book, and have earphones in. What part of that equation says, “Oh yes, please talk to me! Pick me!!”? Clearly, to me, none of it does. But how many times did men talk to me despite these (what I thought were obvious) clues? I don’t like living in the described rape culture, but it’s a fact.

  28. I hate when you do actually tell a guy you’re not interested and they keep on bugging you, wanting to know why or even better yet, pretending like they aren’t either. Why can’t we just have a conversation? Because I just said I DON’T WANT TO!

  29. Of course, the guys who DO assume their interest in a woman trumps the womans desire not to talk, are probably more a chance of being an actual rapist than those guys who would do otherwise. Selfish, self important mindsets?
    Pretty obviously most men are not rapists. If even half were, it wouldn’t be 10% of women assaulted, more like 100%, right?.
    I think it is like other crimes, one guy robbing ten houses, not ten guys robbing one each. Far and away most people don’t steal.
    None of which is meant to belittle the fact of rape as an assault is terrible.

    It can only help the cause of “a sane world where no-one is a predator” if more men learn of this sad calculation women have to make as they go about their lives.

    I just don’t hold out any hope of it changing any time soon. Some people are predatory, it is a fault in the animal. As Janette says, it is a fact, we live in an imperfect world.
    Maybe one way it will help is making more men thoughtful or more likely to reign in their friends?. I can think of a few occasions in the past where I have not said something to acquaintances who were pestering a woman.

    I wonder if it would help in most situations, a passing man pointing out the obvious “Hey, pal, she obviously doesn’t want to talk to you” or would it act as a trigger such as you said you deliberately avoid on your own?.

  30. I recently moved from a city with a large, visible lesbian population to one that well, not so much. One of the many nice things about previous city was that when out with a girl at the bars any display of physical affection toward said girl would make guys go away – us. without any further comment.

    This does not work in this city. Was out with boyfriend and best girl friend last week, sitting at a table at a busy bar. She and I were holding hands. We were approached by drunk dude who would not go away even after I said, “Please go the fuck away.”

    Didn’t even occur to me until reading Sport’s comment above that boyfriend could have said, “Hey, pal, she obviously doesn’t want to talk to you.” Hmph. He will in the future!

    Someday my wish to be left alone and not have my physical appearance generate unwanted commentary will be respected as a right, right?

    Going out in baggy sweats becomes more and more appealing the older and crankier I get!

    Thanks for post and opportunity to comment.

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