It’s a tale as old as the internet. A piece of male douchery surfaces, one that perfectly epitomizes the harassment and male entitlement that women must navigate in their daily lives. The women gather together to gaze upon douchery and nod and say, “Yes, indeed, this really does sum up the problem.”
Cue the trolls, cue the misogynists, cue the willfully obtuse assholes. But also, cue Nice Guy™, who is hurt and confused by these women and their hostility, for he is sweet and gentle and thinks you really need to know how beautifully your eyes match your scarf today.
This guy will leave a long blathering comment (what is it about sexism that makes dudes so long-winded?) that boils down to: “Let’s make this entire conversation about educating me on how best to approach women in public. I would like a foolproof formula that doesn’t involve me actually thinking about women’s experiences or expending any empathy. Please and thank you.”
And more and more frequently, women reply with a simple “Yeah, maybe just…don’t?”
“Just don’t approach women in public? Like, why do you feel the need to talk to strange women? Maybe just don’t do it.”
Cue the rage.
“Fine, so I’m just not allowed to TALK to ANY WOMEN EVER!? HUFF PUFF FOOT STOMP.”
Or, sometimes, the wounded self-pity.
“But but but if I can’t talk to women in public places, I will be FOREVER ALONE WOE IS ME.”
There’s a lot of stupid in this argument, but I’d like to talk about the main stupid, which is the idea that modern romance – and consequently the human race – will somehow grind to a halt if men are not “allowed” to talk to women in public. You see, by not “allowing” men to talk to them in public, women are thwarting casual encounters, which are the only way people ever end up going on dates ever. If women are not actively seeking a meet-cute, Nice Guy™ is doomed to a life of impotently lusting after potential soulmates on every train platform, in every elevator, across the dusty vinyl sleeves in every quirky secondhand record shop in every city in the world.
Ted: I just gotta bump into her somewhere. Now if only I knew her schedule, I could arrange a chance encounter.
This idea is, obviously, ridiculous and has no bearing on reality outside of romantic comedies. (You know, those things that women purportedly base their lives around.) However, not only does it have no bearing on the reality of dating, it also actively clashes with the reality of being a woman in public.
First off, this thing of women going out and about by themselves and participating in public life is actually pretty new. It would take a dissertation to do a comprehensive breakdown of all the restrictions placed on women’s movements throughout global history, so I’ll keep it brief. In various places and at various points in history (including the present day):
- Women could not go out in public without a husband or male relative. Or at the very least, an elderly female chaperone.
- Women could not go out in public, period.
- A lone woman speaking to a man on the street was assumed to be a prostitute.
- Large swathes of society – including universities, bars, sports venues, etc. – were off limits to women.
- Many other institutions of daily life – schools, workplaces, public transport, etc. – were strictly gender-segregated.
As you might imagine, with all these restrictions on where women could and couldn’t go, it was quite difficult to, you know, meet them. How did the human race possibly survive, you ask? Well, depending on the culture and the era, there were various rituals and structures in place to facilitate courtship between young men and women without compromising propriety. Arranged marriages, debutante balls, set dances, professional matchmakers… or, you know, just straight up selling your daughter to the highest bidder.
Nowadays, in many Western countries at least, women live in a very different society. We are, for the most part, considered full and autonomous human beings who can technically go wherever we want, when we want, by ourselves, as much as we like. This is great! We who enjoy this basic human right are pleased! Hooray for going out in public!
But of course, for women, going outside still comes with a price. Not all of us have to pay it, but we’re all aware that it could be levied against us at any moment. You know that feeling when you ride public transport without a ticket, and you’re constantly on the alert for inspectors? And you know how nowadays the sneaky bastards regularly come in plain clothes, so you don’t know they’re there until the tram is stopped and locked and one of them is standing right in front of you?
Yeah, being a woman out and about can feel a lot like that all the freaking time. This is because there are men who still feel residual (or in some cases outright) resentment of the fact that women are allowed exist in public spaces without male sanction. Much of the dynamic behind street harassment is driven by this hang-up – it is, after all, many hundreds of years old. Please see this excellent comic from Robot Hugs for a comprehensive explanation of the dynamics of street harassment, and specifically why it is largely about power and control, not desire or lust.
There was never a magical fantasy time when women breezed up and down the street with smiles plastered on their faces, just waiting for a dashing yet nervous Hugh Grant type to pay them a winning compliment, followed by all the sex and blissful marriage. Once again, THIS HAS NEVER BEEN REALITY. As soon as women won the freedom to participate in the public sphere, we immediately had to start dealing with a daily clusterfuck of harassment, microaggressions, and threats – both implicit and direct – to our personal safety. This was the deeply unjust trade-off for our independence; we are allowed go out in the streets now, but the toll we pay is the constant threat of harassment.
Also worth noting: we live in a world where the dominant narrative is that women need to take personal responsibility for our own personal safety and if that safety is compromised in any way, it is our own personal fault for not taking greater precautions to protect ourselves. However, this burden of responsibility also comes with the confusing caveat of “but never ever hurt a man’s feelings ever,” which is why it’s actually pretty rare to see a woman respond to harassment by raising her voice or delivering a swift kick to the offender’s nether regions. We are expected to defend ourselves, but also smile, be pretty, be open, be polite, be welcoming of any advances (but not too welcoming, you slut!), and of course, be able to psychically ascertain whether the man looming over us at the bus stop is a predator or a potential soulmate.
So. For the fifty billionth time: there is no perfect combination of words or gestures you can use to make a woman feel safe around you, just like there is no magical warding sign women can use to fend off harassers. It’s shitty and it’s not fair, but that’s life.
So, coming back to our original question: how do you, the nicest of nice guys, meet the love of your life while public spaces are still fundamentally dodgy territory for women? Never fear, good sir! Remember those rituals and structures we talked about earlier, designed to make it easy for men and women to interact and potentially find romance with each other? Well, we still have a whole bunch of them! They are alive and well today in the 21st century. Here are just a few of your options for meeting real-life women who are also looking for love!
- Join one of approximately sixty-five thousand websites designed to help you find a date/wife/fuckbuddy who shares your interests/values/kinks.
- If you are not an internet person, go speed dating. Go to singles mixers. Let your friends know you are amenable and eager to being set up with their cute and single friends/cousins/co-workers. Go on blind dates.
- Go to bars. Go to parties. Go to games nights. Go to explicitly social activities where there will be women and you will be a man and the context encourages chatting to new people.
- If you have no friends or you’re not interested in actively dating, but still want to talk to new women on a regular basis, go to Meet Ups. Bonus: You may discover new interests that are not women!
I don’t have statistics on how many couples met and fell in love because a man asked a woman what she was so adorably writing in her well-worn journal, or gestured for her to take off her headphones so he could tell her that her hair looks like a golden waterfall of ice-cream. Despite what romantic comedies would have us believe, I’m going to go with not that many. Complimenting strangers in public is hard, for anyone, of any gender. That’s some advanced level socializing shit. Life is not a meet-cute waiting to happen, and dismissing the lived realities of actual women because you want dating to play out like a romantic comedy is a) insulting, b) deluded, and c) says a lot about your priorities and attitudes towards the women you so desperately want to charm.
In conclusion, women not wanting to talk to strange men in public is not depriving shy, awkward, nice guys of ever getting a date again. This is a ludicrous red herring and you need to stop using it to derail important conversations about street harassment. Not being able to talk to women in public outside of ritualized settings has been the norm for most of human history and romance has somehow managed to survive. Honestly. It’ll be fine. If she really was your soulmate, post a missed connection on Craigslist and love will find a way.
“But random blogger,” I hear you ask, “wouldn’t the world be a much better place if women could talk to men in public without fear or apprehension?”
I agree, random reader! I would love to be able to have a conversation with a man in a bar without the low-level anxiety of wondering whether he’s going to turn nasty if I try to leave before he wants me to. So here’s a pro-tip: if you want a world where women feel comfortable and happy talking to strange men in nearly any setting, the solution is not to go to feminist blogs where women are discussing this subject, and tell them their experiences are wrong and their legitimate concerns are mean or unfair. The solution is to talk to your fellow men about their treatment of women. The solution is to make your social groups uncomfortable places for men who talk about women as though they are objects, or conquests, or achievements to unlock. The solution is to call harassment out when you see it. The solution is to practice saying some variation of “dude, stop being a shithead” in front of your mirror and deploying it liberally when one of your friends starts making hilarious taco jokes at two women trying to leave the bar.
And once you get good at that shit, I promise we’ll do a lesson on the finer points of complimenting a stranger in public.