It’s a jungle out there. You never know whether you’re going to run into a friendly fellow pack-member or a creepy-as-fuck predator. As members of a species that reproduces sexually, sexual attention is a sometimes awesome, sometimes disturbing part of human life. But what happens when someone you’re not into decides to try their luck? How on earth do you navigate that always-awkward situation?
You likely already know it well. You’re chatting away, having a great time, when there’s suddenly a hand on your thigh, or a pair of lips coming towards you, simultaneously in slo-mo and at the speed of light. Even worse, there may be an arm encircling you, a hand in an inappropriate place and a hungry look that conveys much more than words ever could.
If you’re anything like me, you’re frozen by now. You’ve registered what’s going on, but you have no idea how to make it stop. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in that horrible twilight zone, wishing the floor would swallow me so I could disappear wordlessly. From the creepy, much-older manager of another artist who pulled me close, forced his lips on mine in a hotel bar and begged me to “come to bed”, to the long-time friend and mentor who decided to get familiar with my ass and thigh while we sat in a booth surrounded by colleagues.
In both of those situations, the only thing I could do was remove myself. In the first, I scarpered, nearly running for the lift and bolting my hotel room door closed. In the second, I was rescued by a friend who noticed how uncomfortable I looked and surmised what was going on. Both occasions brought a wave of guilt. Was it my fault? Had I led them on? Where did I go wrong?
No, no, and nowhere are the answers to those questions. The first occasion occurred when I was 20 years old, the second happened just last year. Numerous other incidents happened before and between them, many eliciting the same response from me: run. Run as fast as you can. Why didn’t I stand up for myself? With the guilt always came the disappointment and shame that I’d failed to tell them just how disgusted I was by their actions. Why, especially as someone otherwise so opinionated and outspoken, had I been reduced to silence?
The short answer? Power. When a powerful man takes advantage of a young woman, especially in a situation where colleagues are present, it’s endlessly difficult for a young woman to speak up. People who hold power, whether they’re male or female, are often believed over their victims. They may be able to affect a victim’s career or destroy their reputation. Even when victims do speak up, they can be accused of being ‘no fun’, ‘overly sensitive’, making a scene or misreading their own lived experience.
I have much better luck when there are no power dynamics at play, although it has still taken me years to build up the courage to fight back. A friend who’d persistently and aggressively pursued me over many years kissed me out of the blue at a birthday party. My reaction was swift and automatic. “Ew, gross!” I said, pulling away. “Stop it!” Not particularly tactful, but immensely effective. It may have taken nearly seven years of silently escaping from his advances, but I’d finally had enough. He’s never tried it on with me again.
As human beings we all have the right to live a life free from harassment. While the lines may sometimes be blurred, it is not okay for someone to make you feel uncomfortable. It is certainly not okay for someone to touch you when you don’t want to be touched. I’ve been learning these lessons for the last ten years, and I’m still learning.
In those situations where it’s not as simple as reporting someone’s behaviour to HR, it’s hard to know how to deal with unwanted sexual attention. A quick google search will yield results like this doozy from Forbes magazine, which, no joke, tells women to “dress for success, not the nightclub”, to say you have a partner when you don’t and even to own a fake engagement ring to wear in meetings with “creepy men”. As always, the onus is on the woman to not be harassed, as if harassment is the fault of anyone other than the douchebag doing the harassing.
Which is bullshit. It basically boils down to consent. To be blatant, blunt and completely unsubtle: if someone is going to touch my ass, or try to shove their tongue down my throat, they had better be damn sure that I want that to happen. Nobody is entitled to touch my body. Friendliness is not an invitation to touch me. Alcohol is not an excuse for violating someone’s boundaries. For the avoidance of doubt, a simple sentence like “I really want to kiss you” can clear things up quick smart. I’m either going to respond favourably or I’m going to look hella awkward, but any lingering questions should then be answered. Touching, kissing or groping someone to see if they like it is, frankly, a dick move. Especially when the person doing the touching/kissing/creeping is much older and occupies a position of relative power.
But what can you do when someone starts giving you unwanted attention? Here are a few no-filter ideas:
1. Ask them to stop.
It’s so simple, but sometimes so hard to do, especially in situations where there are power dynamics at play. It can be very effective, however, if my “ew, gross, stop it!” is anything to go by. Which brings me to a powerful but sometimes dangerous tool: humiliation. It’s powerful because being publically humiliated for sexually harassing someone will generally put a stop to the harassment. It’s dangerous because some truly messed-up creepazoids may seek vengeance to appease their mortified egos.
2. Call them on their behaviour humorously.
If asking them to stop is too hard, you can try something like this: “Oh, did your hand get lost? It appears to be on my thigh!” Said loudly enough for others to hear, the brief public shaming may just do the trick. This method isn’t my favourite, because it makes light of what can become a pretty horrible situation, but if it makes the behaviour stop it’s worth a go.
3. Tell them in no uncertain terms to “fuck off”.
Some guys just don’t get it. Some get it, but don’t want to get it, so they pretend they don’t get it. These guys deserve to be told to “fuck off”. As women, we’re often conditioned to be nice, polite, well-mannered etc. This can make it really hard to say something so blatantly hostile, but you really can’t be much clearer than telling someone to “fuck off”. They should hear that one loud and clear.
My favoured method, though not the most empowered or the best idea in the long-term, is to remove myself from the situation. My natural fight or flight response kicks in and I try to put as much distance as possible between me and the source of creepiness. If you ever feel like you’re in danger, get the hell out of there.
4. Discuss contingency plans with friends.
It’s fucked-up that I’m even suggesting this, but sometimes talking to your friends about how to rescue each other from unwanted attention can be a good idea. Friends can enter a conversation when things are getting weird, whisk you off to the bathroom, or ‘need to speak to you privately’. Friends can keep an eye on situations that look like they may get out of hand.
5. Report the behaviour to a figure of authority.
If someone won’t leave you alone, don’t hesitate to report them. Your safety is paramount. In a workplace environment go to HR or lodge a complaint with the human rights commission, at school or university you can go to a teacher, dean, student advocate or campus security, in a bar go to a bouncer/security officer or ask to speak to the manager, on a plane you can go to a flight attendant. That’s not to say that people in positions of authority will always know what to do, and, sadly, some may in fact be the ones giving out the unwanted attention, but especially in professional situations they are often required by law to follow processes to ensure your safety. If you ever feel that you may be in serious immediate danger, call the police. It may seem extreme, but it is better to be safe than to be sorry.
On a planet where there are some 8 billion of us, the odd encounter with a creep is probably (sadly) unavoidable, but it can be helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve to deal with any Neanderthalls you meet. Feel free to add any tried-and-true methods in the comments. It takes a village. The more weapons in the anti-creep arsenal, the better.Support Villainesse