Friendly Flirtations

For a couple of years now I’ve been conscientiously experimenting with different responses to lines from men on the street or in public places.  Ignoring them, getting pissed, smiling and walking on, smiling and saying thanks.  Lots of female-bodied friends of mine experience unsolicited hollering from men, and we all have our own way of dealing with it to best preserve our personal mental health.  (Though this also gets wrapped up, at times, with a sense of social responsibility to make public spaces safer and more comfortable for all women…)

If you ask me, building sex-positive cultures doesn’t mean suppressing the urge to play, but challenging and reformulating our own basic notions of sex as a contest, power struggle, necessary outlet, or primary source of self-worth.  From that perspective, the American Apparel posters in my neighborhood, and the extent to which I allow them to impact my sense of self, might prove more dehumanizing than the dude on the corner who tells me I’m beautiful.

In my case, I rely a lot on my gut instincts rather than a strict rule, but tend to lean toward friendliness since (a) smiling feels better to me than scowling, and (b) ultimately what I want are real relationships with all kinds of people.  Finding a way to push past the sexualized overtones, especially with some of the men I see around my block on the regular, opens up more spaciousness, an opportunity for better connection.

Anyway, I love hearing, from folks of all sorts of genders, the different forms and levels of stranger flirtation that can actually feel fun and sweet. Here, two music videos (classix!) that show what respectful play might sound like.  (Hint: asking questions seems to be a key theme.)  Hat tips to Ryan and Jamal for the YouTubeage, and Noa for recent great conversations on this complex topic.

[Ps: lead-in track, “Ladies Love Cool JB (Innerlube Two),” from homo-hop pioneers D/DC: self-described “bourgeois, boho, post-post-modern, African-American, homie-sexual, counter-hegemonic, anti-imperialist, Renaissance Negroes stalling your cipher.”]

7 thoughts on “Friendly Flirtations

  1. bohemiankitsch March 24, 2010 / 10:23 pm

    oh snap! you brought it all the way back to Tevin Cambell! Nice! :)

    i’m hearing you in this post. and this might not be as relevant as i feel it, but i’m gonna share it anyway. ;)

    recently i had a run-in with a carload of white guys who threw a ton of racial slurs at me, then pulled over to the curb and opened their doors, threatening to climb out and assault me. long story, but the relevant part, aside from my feelings of shame and degradation, was realizing how secure i felt. i was pretty certain that i could handle just about any altercation short of a gun fight, and that’s a sense of security that i ALWAYS have with me. it made me think immediately about my female friends who face uninvited encounters with men all the time, but who don’t share my sense of personal security as a basic given. it made me want to call some of my female friends and apologize or something. ridiculous, maybe. but that’s how i felt.

    what do you think? if you were built with my size and strength, do you think it would change the way that you receive the unsolicited hollers from men? with a greater sense of personal security, would the problem of those advancements be scaled down to the level of petty annoyances, or not so much? :)

    not that i should have to clarify this, but this is in no way intended to place the burden on women to change how they relate to these things; it’s just an exploratory question for the sake of discussion. plus, my incident just went down the other day.

  2. kloncke March 25, 2010 / 10:17 am

    Well first of all I’m sorry about those dudes. That’s no fun. I’m glad it didn’t escalate and you felt pretty physically secure.

    And I think it’s a good question: if I were bigger and stronger, or, like, crazy-skilled in self-defense, would it change my relationship to all the hollering? Honestly, I don’t think it would; not very much. My main problem with catcalls is feeling sleazed-out, not unsafe. Not sure why that is. Maybe it’s related to the fact that I’m one of the lucky women who’s never been seriously assaulted.

    Once I got over the mental habit of reacting with severe aversion to sexualized attention, the problem did reduce to a petty annoyance — or even better: a simple recognition of another person’s misguided attempt to gratify himself through harmful speech, which is in turn sanctioned by harmful patriarchal social structures. Which doesn’t mean I condone those behaviors or structures, or won’t get up in somebody’s face if I have to, but does mean I spare myself unnecessary mental negativity of seething or shutting my heart down in reaction. Then I have more room to respond as the situation requires.

    What were your feelings toward the white guys in that moment? Have you noticed changes in how you respond to that kind of patriarchal racist aggression over time?

  3. Jaime McLeod March 25, 2010 / 10:36 am

    Mmm. This is tough. Being a woman of size, and a butch on top of it, I don’t tend to get hit on a lot by men, but it has happened on occasion. Generally, my response really depends on the delivery of the “come on.” If it’s framed as a pure compliment – even if it could be construed as overbearing and potentially menacing – I tend to just say thank you. If the “compliment” comes with a solicitation for a “date,” or a “hook up,” or whatever, I politely refuse, and tell them I’m in a relationship. Sometimes, if I feel safe and just a little bit confrontational (I know that’s not cool, but there you have it), I say I’m gay. That’s not strictly true, but as I’m in a monogamous relationship with a woman, it’s close enough. However, if the come on seems excessively menacing – beyond just the “I’m a strange man getting in your space” vibe – I may ignore it, make eye contact in a way that makes it clear that the attention is not appreciated or, if I feel it’s warranted, tell the guy to f**k off. I don’t usually find that to be necessary, though, as I don’t generally find the idea of being appreciated in an erotic way threatening or degrading. The most recent example I can think of that required an unfriendly response was a dude who got right up in my partner’s face and started staring her down while licking his lips. I took her hand and gave him a threatening look (dude was big! but we were on a crowded street, so I wasn’t too worried). He sneered at me, shook his head, said “What a lousy waste of p*ssy!” and walked away. That was gross, but it was a pretty extreme case. For most guys who engage in mild sexist behavior and bravado, i think it just masks a degree of personal insecurity. If you can breach that by being nonchalant, or even kind, it goes a long way.

  4. Ryan March 25, 2010 / 11:43 am

    This is something I’ve thought about a lot, since it activates my latent chivalry impulses. Which I don’t like. I’ve almost gotten knocked out a couple of times when I’ve talked shit to men who were disrespecting my girlfriend while I was with her….which sort of as Katie describes didn’t make me feel better. In fact, in made me full of adrenaline etc.

    My comrade Francis recently had an encounter with a hardcore patriarch who, when she disagreed with him on a political point, went into “shut the f*** up b****” mode and was all in her face. It was at a party, and no one male or female backed her up right then. In response she got heated and shouted him back down, in the process fearing for her safety. But when he left, both of them shouting at each other, a group of women from the party had formed around her who let out some cheers when he left because Francis had stood up to him and prevented him from dominating the space with his patriarchal BS.

    For me it’s a question of the range of responses that Katie and others lay out above. For both men and women, what level of hostility is useful when responding to an aggressive come-on or put-down? On the one hand Francis’s response actually empowered other women AND changed the character of the space….on the other it did nothing to change the dude’s mind and probably hardened it.

    Personally, (not trying to dictate policy to women), I imagine this response to sexualized aggression really curtailing a lot of it:

    Plus that song is tight.

    Notice though: Latifah is a “woman of size”, and it was the “little one” that she punched dead in his eye. For obvious reasons, this is a key difference to the common circumstance. Nonetheless, I think that for patriarchal, violent men to enter a zone where their mind can be changed by healthy engagement, the power relations have to change.

  5. Roger Nehring March 25, 2010 / 12:10 pm

    Great post! Excellent resonses! I used to be a community educator mostly in high schools for the YWCA and I WISH I had had Latifah’s video to show! What a great message, and an excellent song. The modeling in the Musiq vid would have been great for guys but I would hesitate to show kids in HS or college a music vid with the woman climbing onto a bed to watch a movie with a dude even if he has been respectful. Especially on a first get together. Sends a bad message all the way around. But the song is really good.
    As a man I can say that there are times when I would like to compliment a woman on her smile, hair, whatever, but I rarely do. A. I don’t want to be thought of as some creep hittin’ on her B. I am always aware of how insecure any such exchange can make a woman feel, especially if she is in a service work capacity, cashier, waitress, etc.

  6. kloncke March 30, 2010 / 2:27 am

    Wow, so many amazing insights! Thanks so much for sharing, y’all. I noticed that my reactions to attention from men actually changed and improved thanks to reading about different people’s experiences. I’m able to (prudently) confront men who get aggressive (like the dude who slapped my ass last Friday as he passed me on Hyde Street, like a block from my house), while also remaining open toward those who just want to have a conversation (like the elderly man with a genuine smile who said hello to me just minutes after the ass-slapping incident). So thank you for your wisdom on all counts!

    And Roger, I totally hear you on the extra-sensitive nature of a paid workplace environment, where not only are women often expected to provide the bonus service of physical decoration, but also Can’t Leave. This happened to me a few times when I worked in a bookstore, and guys would ask for my number etc. Part of my job was to be nice to them, and to not walk away (especially if I was working the register), so I just felt like it put me in a false position. On the other hand, I loved having friendly conversations with customers, so it was often hard to know where to draw a line with certain regulars.

    Natanya, thanks for the link! Hope you’re doing well these days.

    And there’ve been some cool contributions on my Facebook wall, too, for anyone interested.

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