“A gentleman, is simply a patient wolf.” — Lana Turner
This morning, I was waiting in line for my coffee and the man in front of me motioned for me to go ahead of him. I replied, “thank you, I appreciate your kindness” with a big warm smile. We then continued in light-hearted banter about the holidays and the need for more sleep before we went on to place our orders.
When I went out to the street, he was lingering there (I’m pretty sure he had been waiting for me) and the next thing I knew he was inviting me to go to a movie with him at the new iPic theater. I politely declined, smiled, and walked on.
No big deal, right? Even flattering, many would say. But what may seem like a harmless incident is only one version of a scenario that’s been repeatedly played out over and over in my lifetime.
The story above is a fairly innocuous one. I have many others. There’s the one where my friendly smile to a man on the subway was taken as an invitation for him to get off at my stop in Brooklyn and follow me down a few dark sidewalks. Every time I would pause to see if he would pass me, he would hang back. (I eventually lost him by waiting in a corner bodega.)
Another time, a casual hello in an ATM line led to me gaining an unwanted escort for five blocks. Like a used car salesman, this man was relentless, verbally assaulting me with pick-up lines and rude innuendo; “c’mon baby, I’ll treat you right, I know what you need.” I had to sternly let him know that I was not going to go out with him, ever and ask him to please leave me alone or I was going to call the police.
There have been plenty of unsolicited bar and nightclub experiences too. One night while dancing with friends on the crowded floor of the old Ritz in the East Village, I accidentally bumped up against a guy that was behind me. I smiled and apologized which was immediately seized as an opportunity for more. He followed me to the bar, and before I could say White Russian I was pushed up against a wall with his tongue being shoved down my throat.
An attractive, 25-year-old colleague shared with me recently that for a few weeks she would regularly see the same taxi driver near the entrance to her train station, so they started to say hello to each other. One day he decided to approach her, barely giving her any room to walk, encroaching into her personal space so much so that their bodies were touching. He proceeded to bombard her with personal questions about where she was going and if he could join her. When she told him to back off and leave her alone he became infuriated calling her every degrading “F” and “C” word under the sun.
At dinner recently, a friend was enjoying her meal so much that she asked the waiter to please pass on her compliments to the chef. As the night progressed and the restaurant quieted down, the chef came out of the kitchen, approached our table and introduced himself. My friend was polite, thanked him again for the delicious meal and assumed the exchange was over. To her surprise he was waiting for her in the parking lot when she left. He followed her to her car and was quite forceful that she should join him for a nightcap. She refused and he berated her with insulting remarks and accusations calling her a “cock tease” and a “fat, ugly bitch that would have been lucky to have him.”
“There is nothing in this world more dangerous than a humiliated man.” — Kai from American Horror Story
By the time we are young women, most of us have had the experience of being the object of unwanted, objectified attention.
We’ve had to learn some basic rules of safety because men, we are told, cannot be trusted. I was taught not to walk the streets alone at night, to travel in a group, to carry my keys like a weapon and always park my car in a well-lit, public area. Mothers and fathers alike, are teaching this to their daughters.
As a result, we learn the art of “cautious friendliness” because any “careless warmth” may end up coming at a price, and this price is one that many women have not been willing to pay.
From a tender age, we learn that friendliness, kindness, even a smile, might be interpreted as a sign of interest. So, we modify our social behavior developing an (often unconscious) autopilot defense system.
The consequences of this are profound and the ripple effects run deep.
For starters, we’ve had to make a choice: be ourselves, in whatever way that feels right for us while running the risk of unwanted attention, or, be selectively guarded to stay safe from predatory behavior.
If you believe as I do that we teach people how to treat us, then in terms of the collective “we”, friendliness between the sexes has taken a hit as well as an air of caution and suspicion.
Men have proven to women that things are not always as they seem and women have proven to men that we can be (at the very least), apprehensive and mistrusting towards their kindness.
Sometimes there is an actual threat to our physical safety but more often we are fending off the annoying advances of the pick-up-artists who have virtually ruined it for the nice guys. – The behaviors of the brazen tend to overshadow the respectful.
Men and women have been engaging in this power dynamic since the beginning of civilization. We are so accustomed to this as a way of life that we barely give much thought to the consequences. Each passing generation reinforces these behaviors and further perpetuates the dissonance and discord.
Raised to believe that women are the weaker sex, we grow up with the feeling that most men could dominate us if they so desired. Physical strength has long been an unspoken justification for the imbalance of power behind a male dominated society.
And in a system of patriarchy, both men and women pay a price. From a very young age, boys are expected to “play their part” as much as girls. We all get cheated in this deal. We are all robbed of our ability to express the full spectrum of who we are and the complex layered aspects of our shared humanity. And through conditioning, this torch has been passed with each new generation.
So how do we live fully and considerately in a culture where patriarchy, sexism and misogyny are still very much alive and well? How can we coexist as sexual beings while still retaining our freedom for flirtation and affability?
What do I tell my 19-year-old daughter who’s shared with me that she’s had to be careful with her male friends because as an affectionate and touchy-feely woman, they have often misinterpreted her?
My answer is this: Speak up!
We must teach men how to treat us and the only way to do that is to speak our truth when we feel disrespected or harassed and not hide behind the fear of disappointing a man or rocking the boat. We must use our voices to express what is and isn’t okay for us.
The sense of entitlement that many men feel they have, continues, in large part, because we do not speak up.
And, we also need our conscious men to speak up and call other men out on their misogynistic bullshit when they hear or see it. This must be a team effort.
There is an interesting paradox here: Men, in general, want to serve and protect women and yet their behaviors are often the very thing keeping us from feeling safe.
Once we demonstrate that we are not victims willing to tolerate whatever unacceptable behavior some entitled males feel like dishing out, the tides can shift.
When men can appreciate the inherent need that a woman has to feel respected and safe, perhaps we will see some radical change.
This education needs to start early. In Nairobi, Kenya where on average, one in four women get raped, they have introduced “consent classes” in schools, hosted by the organization “No Means No Worldwide.”
As a direct result, rape has been reduced by 50 percent and assault of any kind by 74 percent when boys have intervened. Girls are being taught self-defense and boys are being taught positive masculinity.
Education is the foundation of change.
I am older and much more confident now. I’ve acquired the wisdom and insight to “the bigger picture” and therefore feel more comfortable to speak my mind without fear.
I want our men to know that our smile, hello, casual conversation, short skirt, low cut blouse or fishnet stockings are not anything other than our birthright to express ourselves without fear of hurtful consequences from them.
Together, we can teach each other and create a new paradigm for social behavior to flourish respectfully; one where men can really enjoy that sometimes, a smile, is just a smile.