Sunday, November 02, 2014

Alas, Poor Fantasy!

Last week, I had a novel experience: a woman flirted with me in public! I've had a woman or two flirt with me before, but those were women I was at least acquainted with, and it's certainly not something that's happened more than a couple of times. This was new because it was a woman I didn't know.

A woman I didn't know came on to me in a bar.

Reading those words, high school me -- who spent a large amount of thought, time, and preparation trying to get women to profess their attraction to me -- would be very excited!

Unfortunately, current-age me is just bewildered, disappointed, and kind of angry about the whole business. Who could have thought that my perceptions would change so much in only <checks watch> twenty years?

Hmm...probably everyone.

I had spent the late part of an evening in a music club here in town. I had friends playing, the bar is well-stocked, and I had been pleasantly surprised by a friend as soon as I sat down. She and I had spent a large part of the evening listening and chatting, before she left to get sleep before an early morning.

After walking with her to her car, I returned to the club. I listened on for the better part of an hour, before noticing that the two women and a man who had formerly occupied the booth behind my bar stool were now standing directly behind me. Looking into the mirror behind the bar, I could see that the two women were posing for pictures directly behind me, with their male friend taking pictures from a couple of feet from my right shoulder. They were having a good time and laughing, but their proximity to me -- if I sat back in my chair, I believe I would have collided with the nearest woman -- made the little voice in my brain say that they were laughing about me. I didn't know how or why, but the little voice in the brain rarely has any concrete information to provide to back up what it says.
Nonetheless, the feeling continued.

Then an arm snaked just past my right shoulder, to place a drink on the bar not far from my right hand. Again, it's one of those things that triggers the "person inside my bubble" sense. I felt the urge to lean away in surprise, but just sat there, figuring a reaction was probably not going to do anything productive.

Fast on to midnight, the band was wrapping up their performance. Suddenly, a voice in my ear, as the drink hand went back to the bar. "Are they done?"

Finishing off my own beer, I answered as nonchalantly as I could while slightly turning my head in the direction of the voice. "I'm afraid so. Nine to midnight."

"Awwww...," came a pouty voice. The band was playing a little ending ditty, vaguely reminiscent of circus music. "I want to hear circus music," she said, with an on-the-nose bluntness that can only belong to the intoxicated.

"Well, they're playing it now," I said, with the most helpfully unhelpful tone I could summon.

Finishing my beer, I stood, making a special and pointed effort to thank the bar server. She'd been the only one to cover the entire place on a night that wasn't supposed to be busy. Perhaps that meant that she'd lost out on some business due to being single-handed, but I tipped well. She earnestly thanked me and my earlier companion for being patient.

I turned and gently excused myself past the woman who'd been speaking in my ear. I honestly don't even know what she looked like, because I never did make direct eye contact (and the club likes to be dark). I wasn't particularly in a mood to deal with... whatever it was she thought was happening. And -- as I mentioned -- the whole process was new and unfamiliar to me. But my gut said, "it's late and time to go home."

I moved past her as she made a pouty noise and said something. I made apologetic noises as I headed to the bathroom, situated at the very back of a shotgun-style saloon. When I proceeded back out to make my way to the door, the trio of people had taken over my position at he bar.

As I made to move past, the woman's friend plucked at the woman's sleeve, getting closer and more insistent as I made to stride past.

The woman moved quickly up and stepped into my path. "Heyyyy. You don't have to go." I stumbled a bit, not expecting to have my stride broken. Responding that it was very much my bedtime, the woman said, "Come on... your girlfriend doesn't have to know." She gave me a sly smile.

I had suddenly arrived at being completely sober. "My girlfriend," I said as realization smashed a memory over my head. She meant the friend I'd sat next to. Which meant that I'd been under observation for a large portion of the evening.

I collected my thoughts as I stared fixedly at the little lamp glowing on the near table. Flatly, I said again, "My girlfriend. Right."

My head hurt. "Excuse me," I said, threading myself past her and not looking back. I stopped at the bandstand on the way out to greet a couple of the friends who were now packing up their instruments. I felt like eyes were upon me as I shook hands and strode out the door.

*** *** ***

Let me diverge from my story to mention this other one. This week, a campaign to reduce street harassment in NYC released a video of a woman walking through New York, while men catcalled and commented on her appearance. http://www.vox.com/2014/10/29/7088867/catcall-video-hollaback-rape-threats

And because the time we live in is now, that woman has been receiving rape and death threats since the video went public. Because that's the way the internet works.

The disagreeing comments on the video fall along several courses:

1) What does she expect, with the: way she looks, neighborhood she walked in, clothes she wore.
2) Can't she take a compliment? Most of that stuff isn't even that bad.
3) Is saying, "Good morning," a crime now?

I think all of these responses are from an insufficient amount of empathy.

I saw friends posting an article which sums up how I think about it: http://www.bustle.com/articles/46527-6-things-you-might-not-think-are-harassment-but-definitely-are-because-apparently-we-need-to . From my experience (and the experience that my friends have shared), I'm familiar with the concept that just about ANYTHING can be words of harassment, even things as harmless as "Good morning." Because the harassment's purpose is to attract a woman's attention. Forcefully attract it.

Physically harassment (grabbing someone, etc.) is harassment because it compels attention, without an obvious avenue for escape. The verbal harassment has the same goal, without the physical component. The harasser wants to provoke a response. Compelling someone to respond -- positively or negatively -- wins the game.

I know from witnessing first-hand harassment that all it takes is a word. "Hello" seems very inoffensive in theory, but it can hop the fence to harassment quite easily. It's not as though it takes very much thought to conceive of this happening, so I was bewildered when I read articles taking the whole thing to task.

There are many ways to critique the video and the campaign. Which neighborhoods did they walk through? How much was edited? Does it happen in places other than New York (some things do, I hear)? How do donations assist a vague effort to call attention to street harassment?

But one article had the author (a woman) saying that outside of one or two instances, she'd never been harassed on the street in her life. She floated the idea that perhaps she wasn't attractive enough to get that attention, but then said that she doesn't even try to dress modestly. It seemed like a hilarious misread of the issues that the original video was trying to call attention to, but then her article started talking about the "feminist left" and "rampant liberal sexual theology" and her horror of the world transitioning to "make abnormal sex the only acceptable sex." I snorted so strongly at that sentence that something flew out of my nose and onto my keyboard, and I stopped reading to get a paper towel.

If someone says, "this thing happened to me," it is not an acceptable refutation to say, "oh yeah? well it didn't happen to me!" Both of those statements can easily be true simultaneously. It doesn't prove or disprove the original point. The disputation article seemed to be saying that women should always find compliments from random people on the street acceptable -- and that's just not a point I agree with.

There are terrible people lurking, and the statistics show that they like to do terrible things to women often. Maybe hearing "hey sexy" isn't a crushing harassment, but it does break the anonymous "protection through obscurity" that people enjoy when moving on a street in a crowd. The target then realizes that they've been "noticed," which is often the first step on the road to assault.

*** *** ***

So let's return to the flirtation aimed at me in the club. And let's set aside the very-serious-and-distasteful issue of anyone saying that my girlfriend "doesn't have to know" about whatever the woman in the sequin dress was attempting to make me a party to.

I am the sort of person who would be most likely to receive this sort of flirtatious attention from a woman positively. I'm a straight man, single, in my mid-thirties, drinking alone in a bar. Yet I found the experience unsettling and strange. Maybe it's me not being in the familiar position of having women express interest. But I couldn't help feeling, even in the moment, that the gender laws of the universe had been flip-flopped for a moment.

I just wanted to listen and drink. Are there ways or people who could have approached me and received a positive response? Probably -- I'm not ruling out that at some point in the next thirty years, someone else will find me attractive or available enough to strike up conversation... and at that point, I might find it amenable. I'll report back should it occur.

I'd always had an idea -- a fantasy -- about how these sorts of dark-drinking-place conversations would go. Usually, the next line I'd type right now would be "but in reality, everything was so different and disappointing." But it wasn't that there were things that were different about this. What made it uncomfortable was how closely it resembled the unreality of what I always assumed. It went down rather like I'd expected, right down to the color of the walls and the suave way I acted. And I was in the life-position to engage it.

Nothing could be more damning for a fantasy.

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