It seems pointless to estimate the number of times I’ve wondered if I was speaking up enough. It isn’t enough, apparently, to struggle with speaking up for yourself and establishing and enforcing boundaries. Being a woman in a world where men routinely set the rules of engagement means constantly second-guessing my own impulses. “He was just being nice” and “Oh, he probably didn’t mean it that way” are valuable lines of defense when a man with some power over you hits on you. To give men the benefit of the doubt feels like a lifeboat, a surefire way to steady me against a sea of unknown intentions.
In the last year, there has been a lot of conversation about the contours of MeToo. Should it concern itself with bad sex? Bad dates? Adolescent fumbling? Manipulative boyfriends? Office romances? How about emotional abuse? Many reject the expanse of MeToo into these grey areas, arguing they are retrograde, at once reductive and overreaching. After babe.net published an account of an anonymous woman’s date with Aziz Ansari, which ended with her feeling repeatedly pressured into having sex, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss dismissed the idea that the woman’s experience was worth a national conversation about consent. “There is a useful term for what this woman experienced on her night with Mr. Ansari. It’s called ‘bad sex.’ It sucks,” Weiss wrote.
Trying to hold Ansari accountable for the (perhaps unintended) consequences of his actions wasn’t feminist, she argues. (Here I go, making room for the possibility that he didn’t mean it that way.) “The insidious attempt by some women to criminalize awkward, gross and entitled sex takes women back to the days of smelling salts and fainting couches,” she adds. “That’s somewhere I, for one, don’t want to go.”
I hang on to the word “entitled” in Weiss’s column because the very notion of men’s entitlement to sex and women’s attention is exactly what we should be concerned with dismantling.
The argument that “bad sex” isn’t part of MeToo’s reforming spirit preserves the notion of “nice guys.” But that trope places stunningly little value on women’s consent. It shows no regard for how women feel—whether awkward or uncomfortable, whether they want to stay or go home or whether they’re entirely unsure.
Rom-coms rely on the trope of the nice guy; the kind of guy who is persistent because he likes you. I am familiar with this dynamic just like every woman I know is familiar with this dynamic. Every time I have been asked out on a date and I did not explicitly say, “I am not interested in you right now,” I have been asked out on a second date by that same person. When this happens, a part of me wonders: How long could this go on? How many “Sorry, I’m busy that night,” or “I can’t, sorry” can I muster? How many times must I apologize? I always apologize. How many of those handily polite responses translate into rejection? Am I speaking up enough? I’m not sure how to tell.
When I was younger, I fed myself bits of self-talk I now recognize as quietly harmful. I told myself not to read into things. I told myself not to be so presumptuous. In doing so, I was outlining a set of rules that I did not even realize I was following, a set of rules that implied I had no right to assume that anyone was interested in me unless they spelled it out. There was no room for error or embarrassment, and so I was bearish.
Of course, this affected my own approach to making the first move. When it comes to crushes, I tend to follow a “You don’t have to tell me twice” policy. There have been times when the prospect of dating has felt like a video game, where the goal is just to make it to the end relatively unscathed, to dodge one potential embarrassment after another. But the embarrassment that comes with being a woman can feel wholly inevitable: Being too forward; talking too much; not talking enough; seeming too shy; texting too soon; coming across like a bitch or coming across as too easy. For every overstep there’s the possibility I’ll lose ground just standing still. The fear is that I’m asking for too much, whether it’s space or attention or careful listening. The threat of this is ever-present especially when I’m not sure how much space I’m allotted.
I have to resist the urge to crawl into a small, quiet place and stay there. But where is this level of heightened (fine, even unnecessary and unproductive) self-awareness in straight men? When it comes to getting sex or attention or a date, men have no threshold for embarrassment. Men flirt with unearned confidence that I rarely see in women. I have begun to believe that men see persistence as harmless, perfectly socially acceptable, even admirable. Persistence sometimes seems like the default modality of men. Where women tend to internalize the reasons for rejection and assume that we only need to make ourselves happier or busier or prettier or skinnier in order to be more likable and one day find love, men externalize. But maybe that’s because women do that work for them—when we labor for believable excuses like “I’m swamped at work” or “I have something else going on that night.”
I am not sure it would be any easier to give up these excuses and be honest, to give less of a shit about not hurting men’s feelings. In the last year—and much longer, if you’ve been paying attention—we’ve seen instances of young, self-righteous, and angry men who take rejection so poorly that they spew hatred and take aim at women simply for existing. Not all men are violent, it goes without saying (but I will say that now for the people thinking of emailing me to remind me), but that doesn’t change the fact that women learn early not to risk it. That the impulse is to place the blame, in the end, squarely on ourselves.
Am I speaking up enough now? How much further can I go before I get hurt?