Writing men is an interesting part of my process–mostly because it’s so much easier to write the media stereotypes rather than men who come across like the people I see; ones just as multi-faceted and idiosyncratic as any woman character. It’s difficult, because I don’t think it’s general knowledge yet that there’s no one way to be a “real man.” A few seem to be trying it, but it’s a subtle rebranding of what feminists have been yelling for the past decade or so, a still-aggressive posturing that proclaims that this man knows he’s masculine and if you have anything to say about his knitting project, well, he has two mini-stiletto blades and a yarn garrote ready to go.
**CONTENT WARNING** discussion of rape culture follows.
This has initiated many conversations, not just about the inner life of men that I think is missing from testosterone-fueled action books on the market, but about the delicate balance between men and women in real life, too, and whether we believe violence to be an inescapable instinct or a base response that can and should be trained towards more socially acceptable behavior.
This then often leads to questions about how to be a better ally, how to befriend or pursue a woman without making that pursuit feel like a hunt for prey.
I don’t generally subscribe to the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” bullshit. I usually find it to be a trite way of excusing the bad behavior of some men and putting women on an inescapable pedestal with the other perfect beauties of Grace and Goodness known best for their rapes.
I ain’t here for that.
We live on Earth, together, and we have to deal with it. Which means that though I despise the idea that men* are vile, animistic rapists looking for weak prey, and believe that it’s unjust to men and an unwholesome expectation to give boys to assume this, I’m still on Earth. I don’t have any mental powers to inform me of your intentions, and I can’t take that chance with every person. I’ve been prey, thanks, and it’s not flattering, or romantic, or funny. It’s very scary, it’s humiliating, and it makes women feel worthless.
Look, we can’t avoid it. Whether it’s the nature of the beast or the tricks we taught the beast, here we are. Even in my towering rage, even after three years of weight lifting, I can’t do the same amount of harm with my bare hands to the average male that he can do to me. Even at my most paranoid, I can’t stop a determined person from crossing my boundaries. And the people most likely to boundary cross are men. Statistically, these are just plain truths.
So this is for the nice guys who really don’t want to be treated like predators, and to the women who keep ending up with their boundaries crossed.
I get it, guys, you’ve been told likely your whole life that women are mysterious creatures whose words often mean the opposite of what they sound like. Hell, you’ve been told to shut down your own emotions and self exploration to the point that I bet over half of you can’t tell when you’re mildly injured, or are about to faint from low blood sugar or the possibility that there’s a difference between wanting a hug and wanting a lay.
That fucking sucks. I’m sorry. So here are some suggestions in plain English to consider in common scenarios.
Scenario 1: It’s true, the only self-reflection I engage in is whether I’m seen as masculine.
Well, hey, recognizing that is something. That really blows–that’s a really toxic headspace, when smelling clean or knowing how to feed yourself make you question your social value. As a woman, let me tell you that taking care of yourself is very masculine. Please push back on the notion that there’s a specific way to be a man and that anger is part of that. Confidence and loving yourself are highly desirable traits, and much much healthier for you!
Worst response: Do nothing. Stay in the discomfort of self-doubt.
Better response: Take pride in what you love and do it regardless of whether it fits in a box. Share that love widely and build connections based on that love.
Best response: Go talk to a professional.
Seriously. If you’ve found yourself only using the L word during sex, or only talk about your feelings with a woman who seems nurturing, please go pay someone to help. You deserve to know you. And equally importantly, the person you trust or love deserves to have someone with emotional intelligence who does not require a mommy/daddy figure for their emotional well-being. Women in particular often put a lot of effort into being desirable, from the cosmetic to the personality conditioning. If we can pull the hairs out of our flesh and get over the guy who attacked us as a teenager to be with you, the least you can do is put in a couple sessions in the emotional gym.
Scenario 2: I am around an unknown woman in a public space without others present.
I’m not talking about walking down the street at rush hour. This is for walking down a deserted street, particularly at night, or down a narrow aisle with limited visibility, elevators, relatively empty train cars (or if there is only one or two women present in the midst of many more men) and other such scenarios that might read as threatening.
Worst response: Try to ease her with lots of talking and eye contact. When I moved to Philly, even people saying “good morning” with their hands in their pockets made me grab my pepper spray. If you’re a friendly sort, or in some place known to be friendly, like a neighborhood, keep it to a brief pleasantry and briefer eye contact before moving forward.
Better response: Try to make yourself physically less imposing and ignore her after enough eye contact to recognize she’s there. Hands in pockets. Walk as far away on the sidewalk as you can get. Angle yourself so she doesn’t have to touch you to get around you. Don’t turn back once you pass. Keep your eyes on her eyes or your path.
Best response: Get out of her space.
Cross the street. Stop in a store and wait for her to be gone. Take the next elevator. Move down a few seats. If, worst of all, you find yourself behind her for more than a block with no one else around, stop and fake a phone call until there’s room between you. You have to understand, it’s almost guaranteed she’s been followed or groped in passing. It’s not enough not to do that. If you want to put her at ease, you need to actively remove the source of her potential fear, which is, in this case, you. I’m sorry. I’m sure you’d never do anything to hurt her, but she can’t know that. She thought the last guy who hurt her wouldn’t either. So be a good guy and remove that whole source of tension.
This can be seen as a bit of an extreme response to something as mundane as walking down a street, and sometimes isn’t viable. That’s okay, if it feels unnatural, the “better” response is still helpful. However, if you have the option, and it is your intent to make people feel entirely un-threatened, this response will achieve that most handily. And yes, many women can handle themselves or don’t want to be treated as victims. We still can’t know that without some sort of conversation. As this is not the time for that, doing your best to seem non-threatening is still the safest option for everyone.
Scenario 3. I am around a woman in a confined or intimate space.
Unfortunately, it matters very little if you’re friends or strangers in this scenario; the same rules apply. Trust to exist within someone’s personal space can only be earned, never assumed, and should only be sought if you know you can maintain that trust without fail.
Worst response: Pay no attention to your body or its position, filling the space. This is a form of social dominance and it is obvious to those around you. It is physically intimidating.
Better response: Actively ensure you’re not blocking exits with your body (as much as possible) and that you’re not taking up more than the space available to you. Ex. half a bench if you’re the only two on it, or shoulder width if there’s more than the two of you.
Best response: Mitigate the difference in your situations.
Sit. Sit down so you’re closer to equal height-wise. Keep yourself out of the path of the exit. Put a social amount of distance (18 to 36 inches) between you if possible, or at least take up no more room than you can avoid using. This is a time when body language is really important, too. It’s okay to notice people around you. If a woman is squashed in a corner, or is leaning away from you noticeably, take the hint and do your best to reposition.
Scenario 4: I am attracted to women and want to express interest in a particular woman.
Worst case: Touch her without permission, make sexually explicit jokes, badger her for her number (including not leaving her until she’s added it to your phone) and generally pushing the issue until she has to verbally reject you and/or leave the establishment entirely to be rid of you.
Better response: Ask her about herself and leave off the propositions until the end of the conversation.
Best response: Give her as many outs as possible.
Again, watch to ensure you’re not trapping her physically. Ask one question (other than “is this seat taken”). If she doesn’t respond with a question of her own, you can assume the conversation is over and you’ve just been gently rejected. Watch body language. If she’s not focusing on you, or is leaning away, fidgeting with her phone or purse, or trying to do things like go back to reading her book or scrolling Facebook, you’ve been benched. Don’t make her say it.
And for the love of God, don’t talk about her, let her talk for herself. Only jump in where it makes sense, like when you can add to what she said or give an anecdote that shows how similar you are. Dating is a conversation, not a monologue. Listening is damn sexy. This is true in person and in online dating. Talk about a thing she’s already expressed interest in. Show how you add value, rather than trying to diminish the value of things she cares about.
Bonus advice. You need to have a current photo of yourself on your dating profile. Go outside, take a nice picture of yourself fully clothed and smiling, and post it. Not only does it make you seem less homicidal than the person with a fish, tiger, or scratched out ex as a profile pic, but if you’re asking her to go some place to be with you, she needs to be able to tell her friends what you look like in case she doesn’t come home. Again, not because you would do anything, but it’s polite to show that you’re not trying to be sneaky about your intentions. Yes, this is honestly what she’s thinking. We routinely show each other profile pics and share our location with a group of close friends in case we don’t make it home. This is worth a selfie, my guy.
Scenario 5: I’d like to pay a compliment to someone who is not my partner.
Worst response: Make it about her physical qualities, like her figure, especially when it revolves around other cultural indicators, such as skin tone, hair curl, or religious markers.
Better response: Tell her you like her choices, such as a hairstyle or piece of jewelry.
Best response: Imagine she’s expecting a pick up line to follow and avoid the punchline.
Let me ‘splain. “I like your dress,” is not a threatening compliment. That’s fine. But what she’s afraid you’re thinking (or about to say) is “…but I bet it’d look better on my floor.”
Instead, try taking yourself out of the sentence. “That’s a pretty dress.” “You look very nice.” “Great earrings.” I don’t care if you actually mean “ass” when you say “dress” or “smoking hot” when you said “very nice.” She probably knows, too. But it’s nice that you’re making an effort. Also remember that complimenting people is done for the intent of making them feel good. They do not owe you anything in return. If she would like to initiate a conversation afterwards, she will do so. Otherwise, be pleased that you said something kind and leave it be.
Do not comment on weight unless you are extremely close and/or it’s been made clear that she’s actively trying to lose weight. And then focus on the things other than her measurements. “It looks like you’ve been working really hard!” or “Wow, you’re looking stronger!” Remember, too, that there are very unhealthy ways to lose weight, so if you’re not seeing muscle tone and shiny hair, or if there was no mention of wanting to lose weight, maybe stick to questions if you’re close enough to address it at all. “Are you feeling stronger?” “Are you being healthy?” If you want to ask out of concern, avoid making judgments, and be ready for an uncomfortable conversation.
Scenario 6: I want to talk about something without sounding patronizing/like I’m “mansplaining.”
I’m not going to explain this again, I’m going to defer to a woman with much better flowcharting skills than I have.
I will add, however, that this one gets easier if you practice a few handy phrases. “Correct me if I’m wrong…” “I’m just talking out loud here, jump in if you know this.” Also note that folks know that not everyone is going to be socially aware all the time, so again practice noticing body language. Is she pissed? Mouth tight, flat expression, arms crossed, body either leaning away or clenched tight? Yeah, that all means she’s pissed. You should stop talking. Not pissed? Maybe ask if you should keep talking.
Bonus points: Highlight what she has said. Repeat smart responses and credit them to the women who say them in meetings. (I mean, do this to all people, but really pay attention if it’s a woman, as there’s a lot of bull about how often we’re taken seriously.)
Scenario 7: I believe I see a woman in distress.
This is actually useful for all tense social situations. The distress I’m talking about is a woman who looks uncomfortable, is being actively threatened by someone or seems scared.
Worst response: Ride in like the white knight.
You have no idea what you’re interrupting or what will happen after you leave. You are putting her in danger if you escalate the situation.
Better response: Stick around. Just hang out, ready to call the cops, flag a manager or other person who can help create a diversion or escape route, or intercede if it turns violent and you’re comfortable wading into violence. It’s okay not to do that, though. Drawing attention at all is better than nothing.
Best response: Talk to her neutrally.
“Miss, are you okay? Would you like assistance?” Assuming she’s distressed, not having a physical emergency, she can use her words. “Is this man bothering you?”
This does two things. It allows her to choose her response without worrying about the motives of a seemingly bigger threat (yeah, even helpful strangers yelling and puffing up is scary) and keeps the situation from escalating because the other person is feeling defensive. They are effectively removed from the conversation, and the focus is back where it rightly belongs–on the person potentially being harmed.
I have a blog post already up about what to do when you do intercede, that you should check out! In the meantime, remember that being willing to help is awesome, but sometimes they’re not in a position to accept your help. You tried. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.
Bonus points: When someone is sharing things they’ve experienced, do everything you can not to put your own feelings in there. If a woman friend is telling you about the assault she experienced, keep your apologies and anger to a minimum, because it’s hard sharing things, and while it feels good to be validated, it’s a lot of effort to soothe someone else about the hurt you endured. The model we strive for is “support in, vent out.” Listen, ask how you can help, research on your own how you can help, treat it seriously but not like it changes anything for you, because why should it? If you would act differently with the knowledge that your close friends have been hurt, make those corrections right now. They have been hurt. And, if you’re struggling with feelings you can’t keep to yourself, don’t turn to the person who just confided in you, go to someone else. Talk to a trusted friend, mutual or otherwise, or a professional counselor about what it is going through your head and how to handle it.
I hope this is helpful. If every man I’ve encountered who didn’t want to cause me harm had done this, I think the world would be a much friendlier place, and certainly a safer one. I hope also this has caused some to think about how we interact and what social outcomes we’re striving to achieve. I’d like to add that I know some of this might cause some negative reactions, perhaps defensiveness or outrage. First, let me say that I know it’s not only men who can be predators, and we need to address that. My hope is to make guidelines that allow people to more readily see predators of all genders, and to start a conversation about how we can all improve our physical awareness and emotional intelligence. Secondly, if you’re feeling defensive, I’d urge you to try some of these techniques right now! Talk to a friend you trust and work through how you can approach these situations. Engage, don’t dismiss! I know we can do better. If these situations don’t help you personally, what are some other questions or advice you have for people who want to have more successful interactions?
*I am largely addressing cis-men in this post, though I think it can be applicable to anyone who presents masculine.