The Guys You Don’t Want to Talk About
Thank you for your concern about whether your behavior makes women¹ in the secular movement uncomfortable. Here is my solicited advice: don’t be one of the bad guys. You know, the ones you don’t want to talk about.
In order to determine if you are one of the bad guys, ask yourself this question:
Do you use manipulation, deception, social pressure, intimidation, isolation, intoxication, high through-put² solicitation, lewdness, or persistence as strategies to gain intimacy with women?
Yes→You are one of the bad guys. You are The Problem. Stay home. We do not want you in our movement, not on the local, regional, national, or international level. Do not darken our podiums, seats, or elevators until you improve yourself as a human being.
Only when I drink→Do not drink at our events.
Only on this one girl I like→That is still a yes. That is horrible. If this is how you treat people you like, how do you treat people you aren’t fond of? Stay home.
No→Congratulations. You are not one of the bad guys. You are not likely at all to gain the reputation of a skeeze. Not being The Problem is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of being part of the solution. You may still unintentionally contribute to the problem. You may occasionally make women uncomfortable or reinforce cultural assumptions and norms that allow the bad guys to operate without deterrence.
I appreciate your eagerness to overcome your possible unintentional contributions to the problem and become part of the solution. In order to advance this discussion to concrete steps you guys can take in order to do that, we first have to address an issue in how this discussion is framed.
The bad guys, remember, are the reason we have a problem in the first place. Baby girls are not born with a natural instinct to fear or distrust men. We learn from experience that society expects different things from girls and women than from boys and men. We then learn that some men will take advantage of that difference in order to abuse women. If this were not the case, then a woman at any time and in any place could confidently and graciously decline the attention of a man without fear. Flirting and sex at conferences wouldn’t be an issue. As it stands, however, certain guys who look exactly like every other guy repeatedly use flirting and sex as weapons against us. If you care about women, this should concern you, whether you intend to flirt within this community or not.
Who are these men? Likely someone you think is a good person who would never do such a thing. Almost certainly someone you know. The numbers guarantee that these skeezes attend our conferences and meetings. It would be nice if they all would follow my advice and stay home, but next to none of them will, even if they ever do stumble across this obscure blog. Unfortunately and unfairly, it is up to the rest of us to clean up the mess they make of our community.
In determining what you, a guy with good flirtatious intentions, should do to help clean up this mess, it is not acceptable to say, “those people are terrible- so let’s just ignore them.” Taking the bad guys off the discussion table is a very, VERY bad idea for two equally important, intertwined reasons:
1. The bad guys get away with their tactics by exploiting the benefit of the doubt that nearly everyone agrees that truly awkward good guys deserve.
2. It is absolutely necessary to understand how the bad guys operate in order to be an effective ally.
Item 1: How Beating This Dead Horse Fuels the Problem
Whenever the issue of inappropriate sexual advances gets brought up, the first reaction is always, “are these these just well meaning awkward guys who just need some help communicating with women?”
No. That’s not the problem. Stop bringing that up.
How a man should treat a woman in the context of flirting is an important topic that has already been covered. Whenever a self-proclaimed awkward guy raises his hand and asks a general, “but what about meeeeee?” he should be directed to one or all of those links, and the conversation should move on. If you have a specific question about how to talk to women, go ahead and ask it, thank whomever answers it, then move on.
In the first place, the consequences of unintentional missteps by men who want to respect women’s boundaries are usually not all that dire³. In the best case scenario, effective communication, apologies and learned lessons result in a better relationship between the two parties after the transgression (guys, you can help this happen by not getting defensive when your missteps get pointed out to you). It may even be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. What usually happens is that the woman changes the situation to reestablish her comfort: adjusting her physical position to you, changing the topic of conversation, changing her company, or finding an excuse to leave. If she does this without giving you an etiquette lesson, that’s her prerogative. She may not have the time, inclination, or skills to give such a lesson, or she may not want to risk retaliation from you.
What doesn’t happen: she doesn’t point at you and announce to the room, “hey, everybody! This creep is trying to hit on me!” Nor does she whisper to her friends, “do you know what that creep so-and-so did to me? The nerve!” You know why? Because she very likely doesn’t think that you are a creep. She has gotten the memo that some men are just awkward. She is also aware that all men, awkward or not, are human. She has simply judged that the risk of you being a creep that might hurt her outweighs whatever benefit she might get from following that thread.
Are you still worried that you might miss those adjustments and blunder right past her boundaries again? Again, go read the manual. Men and women are not separate species. Learning how to communicate with the opposite sex is not tantamount to learning a foreign language, and chances are that you are better at it than society has led you to believe. In real world interactions with women, men understand no, even when the word “no” isn’t used, and it is the bad guys who pretend that they don’t understand.
By continuing to frame this discussion as a problem of miscommunication about boundaries, you make bad guy behavior look normal. You perpetuate the excuse that everyone will offer up for the bad guy when he hurts someone you care about.
Item 2: Know Your Enemy
When Rebeccapocalypse happened, many people were genuinely perplexed about why it’s not okay to proposition a woman on an elevator. They were perplexed because they didn’t know that a bad guy will use isolation to imply to his potential victim that he could physically hurt her and get away with it.The actual guy in that lift in Dublin may have been one of those bad guys, or he may have just been daft. We may never know.
You don’t want to be that daft guy in the elevator. That means that when women talk about their run-ins with the bad guys, that’s not the time to accuse them of derailment, or take it as an indictment on your character, or protest that not all guys are like that. That means it is time to listen.
In these stories, you will hear the tactics the bad guys use to break through women’s defenses. They are often subtle and implicit, because that’s what the bad guy knows he can get away with. However, these tactics are unmistakable to those who are familiar with them, and they work when they are ignored. Learning these tactics will help you avoid unintentionally mimicking them. The women in our movement will then have fewer red flags to keep track of, making them more comfortable. It will also make these bad guy tactics more out of place, making the bad guys more likely to get caught. Finally, it will help you be a good bystander by helping you recognize behavior that may require intervention.
You will also hear about the excuses people make for the bad guy and the ways the system fails and even punishes the victim in the wake of the incident. This is the result of rape culture, the set of wide spread assumptions, values, and interests that let the bad guy know that he won’t be punished if he gets caught. The stories that put women in the role of prizes for men to earn is one example. The assumption that women and men communicate in fundamentally different ways is another. Reinforcing rape culture is the bit part we each play in aiding and abetting violence against women. These bits add together into a climate that serves and an incubator and smoke screen for predators. Thoughtfully challenging rape culture is how to make amends.
The bottom line is that women live in a world that men usually are not even aware of, but it isn’t because of some esoteric gender fog or misogyny biofilm that you can wipe away with a laundry list of do’s and do not’s. We don’t need another ten-page comment thread on the nuances of whether or not crossed arms mean you have an ice cube’s chance on Venus of making a new friend. We instead need men to know the very real, very explainable threats to our safety and comfort we face for being women. Only then will you nice guys have a ice cube’s chance on Venus of assessing whether that conversation you want to have with that cute, geeky stranger will be a pleasant diversion or the last straw that convinces her she was better off staying home.
¹Yeah, yeah. Heterocentric. I’m ~2 on the Kinsey scale with no significant personal experience with same-gender sexual relationships. I’m not qualified to talk about how this dynamic affects gay or bi or gender-queer members of our community. Maybe you should go write that blog post.
²Chemists, biochemists, and geneticists will get this allusion. For everyone else, high-throughput screening is a laboratory technique that simultaneously tests dozens to thousands of conditions to find one or two that give a positive result. By high-throughput solicitation, I mean flirting with women just because they wander into your vicinity, just in case one or two of them might be receptive to it.
³One exception would be if you trigger someone’s PTSD just by saying hello. This is probably one good reason why we should make the lecture halls proper flirtation-free zones, as Jen McCreight has suggested. Keep in mind that if you choose to flirt, no matter what precautions you take, you can’t eliminate the risk that you may hurt someone, and you have to take responsibility for that. Flirting is like driving a car that way.