|Facial hair=competent, right?|
You know how sometimes you bump into someone and apologize and back up and knock something over and apologize and lean over to pick it up and hip check someone and pretty soon you're in this sort semi-comic nightmare vortex of apology? I think that might happen in a second. Bear with me.
Some people will read this and think I'm an insult to feminism and its hard-won gains. Some people will think I'm being simultaneously a boring scold and a whiny, selfish baby and, on the whole, too sensitive feministy altogether. Some people will probably just think I'm a frivolous nincompoop who spends an awful lot of time pontificating on things that really don't deserve it. Oh, and let's not forget that I'll be using broad strokes and will undoubtedly be accused of stereotyping. As far as what I actually am, well, probably most of it's at least partially true. Except for the stereotype thing, where I hope you'll accept that I'm not speaking for all women, about all men in all circumstances. Call me out if I really hit a nerve, but I can almost guarantee it'll be something I'm shorthanding for the purpose of the discussion. So then: sorry for not being a credit to my gender, sorry for being so tetchy, sorry I'm a nitwit, sorry for extrapolating generalized scenarios from shallow experience pools. Sorry for apologizing in advance. I hate when people do that. Welcome to the nightmare vortex.
|Still as proud of bruises as I was at 10.|
|For the record, this driver was NOT a girl.|
I tend to be a lazy feminist in these situations. I nodded politely when someone demonstrated a power tool I already knew how to use. For every off-color comment that came my way in a kitchen, I could give back tenfold. It wasn't hard: I come across fairly wholesome and naive so pretty much anything slightly ribald has the extra shock value of the unexpected. (Of course coming across wholesome and naive also ups the ante in terms of attempts to rattle you with off-color comments in the first place). These days I use my patented death stare for people who tell me, "I'm gonna need a guy to drive the forklift," or, "Are you sure, baby? It's awful heavy." Then I pick their pallet or lift their furniture or whatever silly thing it is that I've already done a million times that day and send them on their way. I have a deep and abiding hatred for passive-aggression, but it's become my go-to method for answering the implication that I'm in some way incapable of doing my job. On the occasion that I'm in a foul mood and raring for a fight, I occasionally recommend that they come back tomorrow if they want a man to help them, which I admit is an incredibly immature and ineffective way to address the issue.''
As is my habit, I've just given you the longest possible exposition before getting to the subject at hand (I know, it totally seemed like I was there, didn't it?).
I'll spare you the details, but the other day I had lunch with two friends (one female, one male) and the subject turned to a casual conversation my female friend had with an employee at a deli that morning. Long story short, they were talking about an imaginary scenario in which your boss hires a professional football player to give out high fives at the end of the day to boost morale. She answered, "Well, if it's a professional football player, he should slap me on the ass like they do." Our male friend shook his head. To his way of thinking, that comment opened her up to "being thought of more sexually."
I said, "I hate that! I want to be able to make jokes like that..."
He cut me off, "...And not pay the price?"
We let the conversation drop there, but it started me thinking: Am I an unintentional flirt? Do I, contrary to what I've always thought, project myself in a sexual way as opposed to the wholesome/naive way I perceive? As noted above, I'm more offended by assaults on my competence than I am by general innuendo, but I consider the latter something I'm lax about protesting as opposed to something I invite.
In my current situation there are a number of men, most of them in their 60s and 70s all of whom I've known for a decade or better who enjoy the old, "Boy, if I was younger..." schtick. Knowing them well (and having seen them rise to my defense in a platonic, fatherly way when someone treats me poorly), I don't have an objection. It's a performance. It's playing at flirtation with the mutual understanding that no one anticipates that it will come to anything or even wants it to.
The situation is slightly more awkward when you take the above situation and change the age to 40 or 50, in part because these are people closer to my peer group and I consider them actual friends. Still and all, because they're friends, the terms of engagement have been discussed. I'm thinking of one guy in particular who I ran into at the grocery store early in my divorce. He started with the usual opening salvo of the routine, asking if I'd "dumped that bum yet," but when I told him what was going on, he became very serious, offered his support and told me that he had no doubt I'd land on my feet, that I deserved to be happy and that I'd be alright because I'm a good person. He told me about trouble in his own relationship. We talked in the aisle for about half an hour. At a time when I was discovering that there are a whole lot of slimeballs who consider divorced or divorcing women fair game and an easy target, this exchange confirmed for me that despite the sometimes near-obscene exchanges and vulgar one-upsmanship that characterized many of our conversations, my judgment that it was at heart not really sexual was right. Which is why my lunch friend's assertion that making off-color remarks in mixed company changes the tenor of an interaction bothered me: From inside my insular little world, I consider this type of thing a strange kind of tomboyish-ness, just locker room talk among friends.
But the fact is, for a lot of people, my gender is a game-changer. You can be frank and inappropriate with friends of your non-preferred gender, but there's a sort of automatic weirdness to encounters between people who could, theoretically, be attracted to each other. Maybe because I'm in a long-term, monogamous relationship and, when single, never really actively seeking a partner, this literally never occurs to me. My friend's comment rattled me because I felt chastised for something I didn't consider a sin.
It's insanely hard to get perspective on behaviors you aren't aware of, so I asked two trusted co-workers, one male and one female, whether they thought I invited the kind of flirtations above or if it was just something that happened. Both, to my relief, found me not guilty. My female co-worker suggested that some men have a hard time accepting straight up friendly behavior as something other than flirtation. My male co-worker assured me that to expect women to maintain a prohibition on "the football player should slap my ass"-type banter in order to avoid unwanted sexual attention was lopsided and unfair.
That said, I acknowledge that it's risky behavior to normalize that dynamic once it's been introduced, and I take responsibility for any weirdness I bring on myself as result. To date, there hasn't really been any because, as I noted, I make a point of being upfront about the nature of the exchange.
That's about as sophisticated as I get when it comes to matters of sexual politics. Obviously I'm a little savvier than I was in, say, middle school, but a lot of times it doesn't feel like it. This has been a fairly long and rambling post, but at the same time I feel like it didn't really have a coherent thesis, and certainly no real conclusion.
I guess what it comes down to is that I realize I really ought to be more realistic about what my behavior signifies to people outside of the hermetic world I've created for myself and act accordingly. At the same time, suggesting that comments made innocently and in jest "invites" sex into a relationship feels a short hop from victim-blaming.
As witnessed by the nightmare vortex at the beginning, I'm bracing for disagreement and strife, but let me add this: I'm genuinely at sea on this. I'm not looking for a fight, but I'd love insight from any comers, even if it makes me feel like an asshole.