By now you may have heard about Rebecca Watson, a speaker at an atheist conference in Dublin, and how she departed from a hotel bar at 4 a.m., headed back to her room, was propositioned in an elevator:
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”
The man in the elevator didn’t physically touch her, didn’t attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn’t even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.
So who is right? Well, as far as I know, Rebecca is a rational, reasonable, and sane individual. I don’t have any reason to believe she spoke about this for kicks and giggles or to get attention. Furthermore, as a woman she is going to experience the world differently than I do. That means that certain situations that may not be troublesome to me may be rather upsetting to her. So if Rebecca goes to the trouble of telling us that the elevator incident was upsetting to her – assuming she is rational, reasonable, and sane – then we can make two reasonable inferences: First, that the elevator incident really was upsetting to her, and second, that other rational, reasonable, and sane women have also become highly uncomfortable in similar situations.
So Rebecca has the winning argument here. Yet I don’t think it’s sufficient to simply admonish men and call it a day.
Consider a different “pick up” situation, this time not in an elevator, but in another “enclosed space” – a subway exit. Imagine that I am walking down a flight of stairs to catch a train. It’s quarter after eleven at night, and I accost a woman – call her “Samantha” – as she is walking up the stairs:
Samantha: (Turns around, surprised.)
Miguel: I’m Miguel.
Samantha: (Confused.) Okay… Miguel.
Miguel: Today’s my birthday.
Samantha: (Smiles incredulously.)
Miguel: No, it really is my birthday. At midnight.
Samantha: (Sarcastic.) Really?
Miguel: And believe it or not I don’t have any plans… Some people took me out after work.
Samantha: Hmmm. And that would be at – let me guess – Bank of America or AT&T?
Miguel: The Great American Insurance Company.
Miguel: I’m part of that corporate establishment that – let me guess – you think is responsible for all the evil in the world from Afghanistan to diaper rash.
Samantha: You have to add “bad breath.”
Miguel: (Looks surprised. Covers mouth.)
Samantha: (Laughs.) Just kidding.
Miguel: You’re not going to let me spend my birthday all by myself, are you?
Samantha: (Sighs.) Listen Miguel, you’re pretty cute but I don’t date guys who are forty.
Miguel: Well then this is my lucky night.
Samantha: Why is that?
Miguel: I’m still thirty-nine. It’s only eleven-fifteen.
Miguel: (Leans in and kisses Samantha.) Come on.
Samantha: (Follows Miguel down the stairway.)
Miguel: What’s your name?
Samantha: I’m Samantha. Nice to meet you, Mr. Miguel Insurance Man.
Okay, so in the above exchange, I have (miraculously) managed to pick up a woman in the subway. But look how I did it. Within a minute of meeting her, I try to manipulate her feelings of guilt – “You’re not going to let me spend my birthday all by myself, are you?” – and I plow-through and ignore her when she tells me she’s not interested – “I don’t date guys who are forty.” You could even say, it’s not that I didn’t understand, I just didn’t like the answer. I doubt most feminists would be impressed with this kind of pick-up.
Now, some of my readers may recognize the dialogue above from one of the opening scenes in the movie “Milk” – worth watching, btw – because I re-wrote the dialogue and substituted “Miguel” for “Harvey Milk” and “Samantha” for his lover, “Scott Smith” (whom he apparently met in the subway). And I doubt that most feminists who saw “Milk” walked away angry at the way Harvey hit on Scott in the subway.
What’s my point? Well, my point is not that Rebecca Watson had nothing to complain about and shouldn’t have said anything. In fact, I’m all in favor of open communication and think that she had every right to speak up if she felt ill at ease. Yet at the same time, we shouldn’t cling to the annoying pretense that heterosexual men don’t face different challenges than women or gay men when it comes to meeting and attracting a sexual partner. They do. I wonder how many people who went to see “Milk”, and who felt a sense of giddiness at all the joys between Harvey and Scott – the heroic kiss in front of Castro Camera, etc. – stopped to consider that Harvey’s pick-up of Scott could have come in for quite a bit of criticism, if he hadn’t successfully pulled it off.
Also, a word about perceptions here: One thing Rebecca said in her video was, “… I was a single woman in a foreign country at 4 a.m. in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and I… don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner…”
The “you, just you” line is interesting here, because paradoxically, the less macho and aggressive a man’s self-image is, the more difficult it is for him to imagine himself as a potential threat. As I’ve written before, a man who thinks of himself as having tamed the beast within would have intuitively grasped Rebecca’s discomfort, whereas a man with a more gentle self-image would tend to think, “it’s me, just me.”
If men are behaving in such a way as to make women feel “cornered,” as Amanda Marcotte has blogged about here and here, then that’s not cool and men shouldn’t do that. And I’m sure there are men out there who feign cluelessness as cover for predatory behavior. But I also know that there have been times when I have made women uncomfortable by being overly forward or behaving inappropriately, and yet I’ve never deliberately set out to make a woman feel “cornered” or afraid. I’d have a tough time living with myself if I did. And while lack of evil intent doesn’t excuse poor behavior, reading evil intent into that which is merely boorish is neither justified nor helpful nor practical. If you see predators everywhere, you won’t see them anywhere.