As an independent, working woman in a civilised society, I expect to feel safe when I go out with a man. I don’t have to justify WHY I don’t want to have sex.
Imagine a working woman, who has moved to a new city. Anyone that’s moved for work knows how hard it is to meet new people that you connect with – in fact it is harder than dating. You can’t randomly ask someone who is sitting next to you in a coffee shop, or on the metro, whether they’d like to be your friend. It’s considered socially untoward, and perhaps not for bad reason. So, she, being the proactive person that she is, explore different opportunities of meeting these people.
She is excited, and nervous. She may have some expectations, of course. However, none of these include being pounced on, made to feel uncomfortable, or propositioned crudely, in an otherwise ‘seemingly’ safe space.
That person, that woman, was me.
I’ve thought really hard about sharing this. So, if you’re going to offer me advice on how I could have done things differently, or state that the reason the below is happening is because of what I did, I’d suggest you don’t read the piece at all, as you will miss the point.
Sometime late last year, I attended my first event of the local chapter of an expat group I’d joined. I’d hoped to make new friends, and though I wasn’t particularly interested in the expat community over local friends, I thought it was good to broaden my horizons. I met one of the coordinators at this event, a talkative quirky man. He gave me his card, and I thought it may be good to stay in touch, as I still didn’t know too many people in Mumbai.
He invited me over for dinner. Yes, I knew this meant he was interested and somehow could make a move on me, but I planned to tell him upfront that I did not feel this way for him and would like to keep it at friendship level.
When I got there, I felt a little relieved. There did not seem to be any vibe or chemistry, and he interacted with me in what appeared to be a completely platonic way. While yes, this is a completely subjective interpretation, usually you get some indication – a vibe or tension. After a long evening of well, listening to him talk, I told him I would leave, thanking him for a nice evening.
“Do you want to stay?” he asked.
I was a little taken aback. This seemed like a completely platonic evening, both in respect to our prior interaction and how the evening went. Also to go from zero to spending the night is a bit extreme.
“No,” I said, saying I had to go to yoga in the morning. Also, why would I want to?
And then, suddenly he pounced on me and kissed me rather forcefully. To be fair, I am positive he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. He did not realize I did not want to. As for me I tried to push him off, but I couldn’t, until, fortunately my taxi arrived.
Before you start judging me for going to a boy’s house, let me stop you and ask you this: why shouldn’t we be able to visit houses of our friends, new or old, without fear that they might pounce on us?
This happened right around the Aziz Ansari debacle. Tensions were high on both sides of the debate, and a friend recounted my experience on a Facebook discussion thread. Immediately the women on the thread started questioning me – why did I go to his house? Why didn’t I just say no? Really, I could have avoided this whole thing if I hadn’t done x,y, and z.
This is why I’ve never tried to talk about this in a public forum until now.
The ideological problem I have with this view, that I should not have gone to his house, is because it places the whole responsibility of my own safety and personal well-being on me. If something happened to me, it’s my fault for going there. I should know better.
This is as insulting to men as it is to women because it implies that they are physically, mentally, and emotionally incapable of restraint – a fact which I find hard to believe. Yes, they are socialized to believe they have to sow their wild oats and the like, and whether or not there are biological tendencies is a subject on which I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to comment, but they are more than hungry beasts – I mean surely, we can give them more credit than that?
The point is I shouldn’t immediately hesitate when someone of the opposite gender invites me over. We should live in a world where we can spend time in someone else’s space and feel confident that if anything happens to make us uncomfortable that we can express it and enforce our boundaries.
But we don’t have any appropriate means to communicate. Now we throw labels rather liberally, much to the detriment of the victim and the cause – because as soon as you use the “r” word or the term “sexual assault” everyone starts analysing the victim’s every decision, and many get on the defensive. The labels do not help matters, they compound the problem.
Let me explain something to you. When you’re in a situation that starts to go strange – like what happened with this person, it takes a while to register. You overanalyse and wonder: is this weird? Is this happening? Am I overreacting? What should I do? It’s easy to think about it with a rational mind, but when this starts to go down, it is very confusing and jumbles your thinking.
We have the same vocabulary for what happened in that horrible incident aboard a bus in Delhi in December 2013, the brutal kidnapping, violation and murder of an 8-year-old child, and something that happens because somebody gets a little too drunk at a party and crossed some inappropriate physical boundaries.
You don’t want to compare your plight with all those horrible crimes, and you shouldn’t because they are so far from the same thing. But at least in English, they all bear the same names: rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. So, one tends to think that this cannot be happening, that there must be a perfectly reasonable way that this is normal.
And then once you realize it isn’t normal, you freeze. Then you’re really incapable of doing anything to arrest the course of events.
We all talk about consent like everybody sits down and has a cup of tea before moving forward, but it rarely happens like that. Nobody wants to have a discussion before they make a move, because it ruins the dynamic. And yet we need a way to communicate once things get into uncomfortable spaces, and we are left without one.
The individual in question continued to message me, and it finally took me saying “I spent most of my last meeting [with you] trying to push you off me,” for him to back off. I then left the group, because the experience left me feeling very uncomfortable and I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid him. But a friend of mine was keen to attend the events, and I thought I should give it another try. So, I went to another two events with her.
The coordinator, had become friendly with my friend, and acted like nothing had happened with me. That was fine, until some evenings ago, at what was my third event. He got uncomfortably close to her during the course of the event, in what seemed like an attempt to flirt with her. He had seen her speaking with another man earlier in the evening, and so he said, “You either give your night to me or to him.”
“I don’t have to give my night to anyone,” she replied. He then burst out laughing and said he was joking. This is not appropriate for the organizer of an event of an international expat organization to say, even as a joke.
The fact is that in both of our cases, he used his position to get us into compromising positions, knowing that we are friends, and I would have likely told her about what happened in December. If he has done this so shamelessly with us, how many others has he done it to? Without labels please.
I think the most distressing thing about this whole series of incidents is that it’s actually a person in a position of responsibility who is conducting himself in this way, and if he does it, why wouldn’t the other guys follow suit? And if this is the way he operates, what does that say about the rest of the organization?
I then realized, that a great majority of the male population at these events (cannot speak for the female population as much so I’m not ignoring the possibility that this is true of them too) was there not to connect over shared experiences in a foreign country, or interesting things about life in Mumbai, but because they felt it to be a very fertile multi-cultural dating and pimping service.
Case and point: in the meantime, I had made the royal blunder of agreeing to go for coffee with a French man who, at first glance seemed normal, if perhaps a little quirky. I had said we could go as friends, because I really wasn’t at a point where I was interested in anything more.
Within half an hour of my agreement, he invited me to France for the following month, then he said he wanted me to be his girlfriend, and at some point, he said something about us getting married. At this point we’d known each other about 1.5 hours.
He kept following me, and then asked me to go home with him approximately 10-15 times. He said I could do yoga at his house in the morning (shudder) and skip the class I really wanted to attend. He then pretended to leave several times, always returning to find out if I had changed my mind about going to the afterparty.
It ended on the roadside, right before getting into an autorickshaw, with me saying “I’m saying good night to you now, I don’t think this is going to work out,” in an extremely blunt and mean way. I’m not sure if he was only looking to sleep with me and thought all the other nonsense would help his chances, but there is a small chance he suffers from some sort of delusions. He eventually sent a message to my friend to apologize to me, citing that he might have perhaps, drank a little too much.
I don’t like being mean. I don’t like rejecting someone over and over again. I don’t like having to come up with a reason or justification for saying no. I don’t like being pushed or pressured. I don’t like having to resort to writing a blog post because I don’t know how else to talk about this. I don’t like avoiding people because they are sleazy or creeps. Alcohol is not an excuse for poor behaviour.
But some people force your hand. It’s perfectly okay to ask a girl out, or to initiate something if you feel that there is mutual interest and chemistry. I mean, that is natural, and it is how things happen (of course it does not have to be the guy that initiates it). However, when someone says no, take it gracefully, do not push them. If you believe a girl is playing hard to get she probably lacks the maturity to be with you anyway. Take no for an answer, please, I beg of you.
Because otherwise, it gets exhausting. I shouldn’t have to change my behaviour when someone invites me over for dinner – I shouldn’t have to assume his intentions are wrong, because not every man is that guy. And furthermore, I shouldn’t be worried that if he does make a move, I won’t be able to fight him off.
It sets a precedent and creates an environment where women have to choices, either a) give in to pressure or b) argue for anywhere from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours about something you’re absolutely sure you do not want to do, but the other person doesn’t let it go.
Can we find better ways to communicate boundaries? This of course, must be a joint responsibility between women and men. We, as women, have to feel comfortable to be bold in stating what we are okay with, and what makes us uncomfortable. And we must do it more, and work on ourselves to be more assertive. But we can do that better once we are given the time and space to express ourselves. It’s a team effort, but I believe it is possible. The results would be better, for everyone.
Image source: shutterstock
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Mira Saraf was born in Canada, grew up in New Delhi, and went to a
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