The first time I failed to pay up, I was a high school student at a bowling alley in my small town in central Pennsylvania. An older man bought me a beer and talked to me while he shot pool. Smoking and drinking in that grungy bowling-alley bar in the seediest part of town, I felt cosmopolitan and mature. I was oblivious to the transaction taking place: by drinking his beer, I was entering into an implicit and unwritten contract in which I was expected to fulfill a sexual obligation. One of my more astute and experienced friends told the man that I had a boyfriend and had no intention of being intimate with him. He became irate and threw a lit cigarette into my hair as I left the bar. I went home scared and confused as to why my acceptance of a beer and friendly conversation had gotten me into a terrifying mess.
What I learned that day is that attention from unfamiliar men is implicitly transactional, and a failure to pay the price can result in some traumatic consequence. I admit that on this point, I have been proven wrong repeatedly over time. But I have also had enough disturbing experiences that every male stranger is suspect. It’s always possible that I am going to be expected to acknowledge a tacit, unwritten contract and obey its terms and conditions. It’s a contract only a man can create, and sometimes it feels like only a man can break it. Women are expected to sign on the dotted line.
In my early twenties, while in Galway, Ireland, I accepted a drink from an older man in a bar the night before I was to board a ferry for more remote islands off the Irish coast. I wouldn’t be in another city for a while and was craving human voices and activity. I declined the offer of a drink and company at first, aware that I might regret accepting. But after his second offer and his insistence that it was “only a beer,” I decided that I could use some conversation.
I was up front about having no intention of sleeping with this man, and I offered to pay for a round of beers. I asked him questions about things that piqued my curiosity: his opinions on Irish politics, the economy, and the European Union. I thought that by being direct, I could evade the contract, or that my company alone had value since we were two solitary souls away from home on a rainy night. But after a short while he became increasingly insistent and my rejections became harsher, until we were directly debating whether I would sleep with him. I left the bar in a disappointed huff, only to have him follow me out.
I ran away from him up the tangled Galway cobblestone streets as he yelled obscenities.
Last week at a concert, a woman friend told me that during the course of her day, she is most terrified during the brief period when she gets to the door of her house but doesn’t yet have her keys prepared to unlock the door and is momentarily vulnerable on the doorstep. When I hugged her goodbye, she slipped mace into my hand and offered to drive me to my car only two blocks away.
Another told me of a man who walked behind her into her downtown apartment building when she had been out late. He followed her into her apartment and sat on her couch while she nervously repeated that she would be expecting her boyfriend any minute and he needed to leave.
Or the countless friends who have shared stories of dates they’ve been on where the men pushed against asserted boundaries and assaulted them, even after they had said no.
The de facto existence of violence is acknowledged between women and has likely always been acknowledged by women in the private sphere. Our shared accounts allow us to relate to one another. They turn statistics into flesh and bone, and form the basis for a mutual understanding that something isn’t right. The vocalization of pain and fear is cathartic. As I’ve written this essay and taken opportunities to share my interest in this topic with other women, I’ve found that the conversation almost always leads to swapping stories of threatening encounters, of validating each other’s fears and sharing our coping mechanisms.
My conversations happened during the #MeToo movement, which even a troglodyte like me was exposed to on social media feeds. The use of the phrase “Me Too” to vocalize solidarity with assault survivors was started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, an African American woman and civil rights activist. Many brave people posted stories on media websites about their experiences of sexual harassment and violence in and out of the workplace. This accumulation of stories proved to be powerful, and the current hashtag movement sparked an unprecedented wave of accusations against men who’ve used their positions of power in Hollywood and other highly visible industries to abuse the women who were subordinate to them.
This year, many women and gender-nonconforming people participated in the #MeToo movement, but my own response was very different. I felt deeply uncomfortable and disquieted as the movement’s popularity and exposure grew. Despite my identity as a staunch feminist and my education, which allows me to contextualize my experiences as a woman, I was reluctant to participate. To share my stories would be to relinquish control over them and to expose the inner life that I have constructed. Sharing invites pushback that could invalidate my story and perhaps even lead to violence. Sharing invites conversations with my parents and former partners that I am not prepared to have. Sharing is discouraged thanks to the same mechanisms that force me to be polite to men, even the ones I wish would leave me alone. If I name the violence, then it follows that I am a victim of it, and therefore lack agency.
How did we get to the point where the sharing of women’s everyday experiences is a national news story? How did women become socialized into silence in the first place? How does a hashtag improve conditions for poor Appalachian teenagers smoking cigarettes in shady small-town bars?
As a budding academic, I presented my research in my field—geography—at a large conference when I was still an undergraduate. With my sights set on graduate school, I was glad for the opportunity to learn and network. I met many other academics and talked about my interest in doctoral programs and continuing research. One night during the conference, a fellow student, a young woman, told me that older men at the conference had been hitting on her all day by feigning interest in her work and then giving her their contact information. The stack of business cards on my hotel room nightstand assumed a more sinister aura, and I flipped through them thereafter with suspicion. The cards reflected the current data from the National Center for Education Statistics about gender equity in academic institutions, with the most influential full-time faculty positions awarded to white males, and women working a higher proportion of the part-time adjunct positions. How could I ever be sure that any of the men who had offered to help me were interested in my research or career? What if, instead, my naive gullibility had landed me with a list of numbers from older men trying to sleep with me, rather than legitimate professional opportunities? What if I met with one of them and the encounter turned confrontational?
I never contacted any of the men I met at that conference or any other, thereby reinforcing and reproducing the relations of power within the academy.
Although I crave platonic and professional relationships and interactions with men, the process of creating these relationships feels dangerous. When a man I don’t know speaks to me in public, I am both intrigued and distressed by the potential outcomes, which range from overt violence to friendship and compassion. I want to dissolve the boundaries of gender socialization that keep us all isolated and that ensure I will never know the struggles of the masculine nor they the feminine. But the threat of latent violence makes me turn my head, pretend I didn’t hear, resisting the possibility of engagement and almost always saying no.
On a spring day when I was twenty-four and in graduate school at Portland State University, I stopped on my way home to get a beer and french fries, and to read for class at an outside picnic table. As I was waiting for my fries, a man two tables in front of me asked me if I wanted to join him. I declined, thinking of the previous experiences I’d had when accepting beers from men in bars.
A few minutes later, he asked again, in a humble sort of way. His casual tone was tempting, and I hesitantly agreed.
I joined him at his table. He was friendly and interesting, an eye doctor from the South who had fallen on hard times after his medical practice went under and he lost his home, his car, his savings. But on that day he had been offered his first job in years and was looking for someone to celebrate with. We talked for hours, even moving inside when it started to rain, comparing our experiences in graduate versus medical school, talking about money and moving to Portland from the East Coast.
When I finally got up to leave, he didn’t ask for my number.
7 comments have been posted.
Jeff B: how did you manage to turn a post about leaving single women at bars alone into a stab at women's self esteem? Where exactly in this article did you read that this 'social contract' happens because women have low self-esteem and see ourselves as 'thinking we can be bought with a beer'? Every single anectode here talks about the opposite - the men who offer the beer are the ones who clearly think the woman can be bought with a beer and are therefore, what awful term did you use, 'pricing her for the discount bin'
Jaye | May 2018 | Canada
"If I name the violence, then it follows that I am a victim of it, and therefore lack agency." YES. This happens with the thousand papercuts that are the daily experience of sexism for women, and with the "just a beer" situations. It also happens in outright assault. If I admit—even to myself—that I was raped, then suddenly I am identified as a victim, a weak person who put herself in a stupid situation. In recent #MeToo scandals, I've seen many comments, mostly from men, asking, "Why didn't she come out about these allegations sooner?" There are many reasons, but the one named here is why some of us don't call the cops. We are naive enough to think we have agency over our bodies and our lives. When someone comes along and rapes or harasses us, our brains don't know how to make sense of the situation. "Me? A victim? What? No. I'm a strong woman." We just shut down the negative message about ourselves. It causes psychological harm, worming its way into our psyches, our relationships, our entire lives. It can take years to come around and acknowledge what really happened and work through it.
Tiffy Squid | May 2018 | Central Ore.
In most bars when you see a single woman sitting alone you think she is either waiting for someone or is a friend of the bartender and just hanging out. When there are two woman together that usually implies they are looking over the dating opportunists.Same thing with two guys together at a bar. It gives them someone to talk to while checking out the action. If a single person/alcoholic wanted to get drunk he or she could do it a lot cheaper at home.If a woman thinks she can be so called "bought with a beer" then thats a pretty low esteem going there and she is pricing herself for the discount bin.
Jeff B | May 2018 | Shohola,PA
David, Your informal research proves what Kira's point is -- that based on their experiences, a few examples of which Kira shared, women have been conditioned from trauma to assume danger in scenarios where strangers approach them. As a "woman like Kira," I am wary any time a man approaches me. Your intent cannot be known to a woman who doesn't know you -- the "act of kindness" is not implicit in your approach. I am curious to know why you've chosen to highlight "white women" in your examples. I see that you mentioned "homeless people" and "black men" as sub groups. I wonder how women of color will respond to this post.
Leah | May 2018 | PDX
David, I urge you to reflect on your comment further, taking into account Kira's story. As an anthropologist, you must know that people behave certain ways for a reason. Perhaps you are approaching women with kindness and sincerity, but if nine other men had already approached those same women with ulterior motives previously, wouldn't these women be expected to react suspiciously to your greeting? Women aren't born "cold" - we are born as any other human, open and excited about the world. Our experiences temper our responses to similar stimuli, so even though you might approach a woman with only the purest of intentions, our experiences as women sadly more often than not lead us to believe that you may have something more sinister planned for us. TLDR: Try putting yourself into our shoes, and stop making it about you.
Leanne | May 2018 |
David, I think you missed the point. It's not about "women like" Kira. The extraordinarily unfortunate fact is that many (most?) women have been conditioned by life experience. We may understand in our hearts that not every man we meet has an ulterior motive for saying hello—but we also know, in our heads, that every male stranger (and, frankly, men we know, too—look at the date rape stats) is a potential threat to our safety. Think about what it would be like to have to go through life like that—the way we do—and then maybe be less judgmental.
Eve | May 2018 | Hillsboro
Hi Kira, I am an anthropologist. When I started working in the big city of Portland I decided to conduct my own social experiment. I would smile and say hello and wait for the person's reaction. I can say a lot more about that 3 year experiment (homeless people are the nicest group as a whole, nearly every black man returned my salutation) but here is what I found in relation to women like you: When I would smile and say hello to a white woman 99.9% of the time I got the same reaction I would expect if I actually propositioned her: horror, disgust, dirty looks or being totally ignored. And it was so consistent that I started to laugh when I would get such a response to a smile and salutation. I stopped the experiment with white women very quickly after I started. The white women of Portland had already determined I was a lech. What I thought was an act of kindness on my part was interpreted as a proposition by the white women of Portland. Where I was raised we were taught to be kind to strangers and to be polite when people say hello. That is not true in the big city. It was a hard lesson for me to face this new reality, but I learned to never 'bother' a white woman in Portland by simply saying hello.
David | May 2018 |