In romantic comedies, and other movies where romance (ehm, “romance”) plays a central part, the man (usually, not always, but for the purpose of this post, I’m focusing on this angle) who persists despite the odds convinces* the woman (again, usually, and for the purpose of this post) to fall in love with him. SPOILER ALERTS. SKIP THE NEXT SECTION IF YOU WILL BE SAD ABOUT SPOILERS FOR MOVIES THAT HAVE BEEN OUT FOR YEARS.
Mel Gibson‘s character in What Women Want develops the ability to read women’s thoughts. He manipulates them in both work, and love. Peter Parker, The Amazing Spiderman variety, stalks Gwen Stacy around Manhattan, using his Spidey senses — because she had the nerve to want to live her own life. Edward Cullen creeps on Bella while she’s sleeping in the first Twilight movie, and admits he’s been sneaking into her room to watch her sleep for months. In Aladdin, Aladdin constructs a false identity to seduce Jasmine. Ricky Fitts, in American Beauty, obsessively films not only Jane, but other members of her family, and when he’s finally confronted about it, he spells her name out in fire. In Eternal Sunshine, this takes the form of a lab tech who is erasing Joel’s memory reproducing aspects of Joel’s relationship to Clementine to better seduce her. In Say Anything… it’s a man holding a boombox playing the song that played when he and the objectified woman first slept together.
The problem with all of this is that we’re reinforcing the idea that women are being coy, “playing hard to get.” We reinforce the idea that women shouldn’t have autonomy over their bodies and their lives. We reinforce the idea of the Nice Guy (TM) who just can’t win — because women be B’s, because women like “bad” guys, because, because because. We don’t interrogate the idea that this Nice Guy (TM) is actually not so nice after all.
Which is what brings me to write this particular post.
A while back I met a guy, Mark, at the place I work out. Since all of the classes are group classes, I asked him after one of his first classes how he’d liked it. I do this with most new students, because I’ve been working out there for years, and because I’m pretty naturally friendly, and also naturally interested in people. Mark took this as an invitation and tried to keep me in the conversation, asking me the types of intimate questions you might ask someone you were hoping to spend the night with — including, what’s do you like to do for fun (normal enough, I suppose, but also the sort of fishing for information question that makes me deeply uncomfortable) and what’s your favorite breakfast food (a lot less normal).
I eventually exited the conversation, not so gracefully.
But because we train together, I couldn’t avoid seeing him again. Future conversations were less intense, and I tried to convince myself that Mark was just bad at social cues. He certainly wouldn’t be the only person who has that problem.
We eventually hung out, outside of the gym. He talked at me for three hours straight, and after that I avoided him for more than a month. I was exhausted, and eventually told him as much, via Facebook, after he’d messaged me repeatedly without me responding. “You’re so easy to talk to,” he said. If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that from a man. It sometimes seems that this is every man’s excuse for taking up too much space in a conversation. He said he’d do better, and for some reason I believed him. He also said, “I was someone you could actually talk to,” which obviously wasn’t the case, but it worked to guilt me into at least talking to him on Facebook and exchanging texts with him again.
We hung out twice more outside the gym. Once, the conversation was more balanced and I held out the hope that maybe he really didn’t realize how much space and energy he’d taken up and my pointing it out had caused him to reform that habit. The second time he brought me flowers and I explicitly said, “I’m not looking for a relationship with you.” He said he was fine with that, but when he left, he asked, “Do you want me to text you to let you know I got home safe?” I said sure, even though I wasn’t sure why he thought I’d want this and I didn’t care if he texted or not. He was driving; the roads were clear, chances were great he’d get home fine (and he did).
The next day, he texted me: “Good morning, beautiful.” I ignored the text, because it was inappropriate given what I’d said about our relationship and because when we’d hung out he’d leeched my energy again. I ignored more than a month of near daily texts and Facebook messages that ranged from nicknames he’d imposed on me to simple good mornings. I ignored his pleas that I just respond with anything.
I’m a sexual assault and domestic violence advocate. I knew he was crossing lines, and unable to respect my boundaries (something I’d actually told him was a concern I had about him early on). I knew that if I responded in any way, he’d take that as a positive response. He kept texting. I blocked him from Facebook shortly after he sent me a message saying that he was always intrigued when I was going to an event near him (you know, that creepy FB feature that tells you when anyone in your friend list is attending or interested in a public “event near you”). I didn’t go to that event, because I was worried he might attend. I reached out to people I trusted in my community to tell them why I wasn’t attending their event anymore. I reached out to my Facebook network at large to explain why I would no longer be responding to public Facebook events (because even if you block someone on FB, they can still see if you respond to a public event or someone else’s public post).
He continued to text. He’d stopped going to the gym right around the same time I’d been hit by a car while biking and took two months off to recover, though he’d spoken frequently about wanting to go back. I talked to the gym’s manager about him, and said, more or less, “This is what is going on, I’m worried he’ll show back up here now that I’ve blocked him from Facebook.” The gym manager assured me that Mark’s membership was nearly expired and that he wouldn’t send Mark a renewal notice. “It would be a stupid idea for him to show up here,” the gym manager said.
I felt better.
Except the texts kept coming. One text read, “If it were my choice i would tall [sic] to you every day but i am respecting your personal pace [sic] and choice. But i really do think about you daily.” This came when I hadn’t responded to anything in a week, and showed a clear lack of respecting my personal space. The next day, he sent a text that read, “I am not going to give up unless you ask me to. I understand that we cannot have a relationship but i still want you in my life. And if its [sic] just as a friend, then let me be a friend.”
The thing is, we were never friends.
After Mark called me, a few days after I blocked him on Facebook, a friend suggested I block his number, which is one of the options I’d lay out for anyone who came to me in crisis. That friend asked if I’d consider a protection order or other form of police involvement. I felt reluctant because it was just my mental space Mark was occupying. I didn’t feel physically threatened. His behaviors seemed innocuous enough.
Innocuous enough. There’s a part of me that’s convinced I feel that way because pop culture has so normalized these types of behaviors. The persistent “romantic” guy who won’t let up until the object of his attention is worn down. But I recognize also that this is one form of minimizing. Of me trying not to escalate a situation. Of me not taking this seriously, even though it is harassment and it is serious. Even though it is wearing me down and taking up too much of my mental space.
In some ways, it is me working to protect the person who is harassing me.
There’s a part of me that has spent a fair amount of time blaming myself for Mark’s behavior. I knew, from that first conversation, that he didn’t have good boundaries. I knew when he started trying to give me nicknames within days of meeting that he didn’t have good boundaries. I knew when he complained that he couldn’t say no to his friends that he had low self-esteem and poor boundaries. There was one time where I said explicitly, “I can’t trust you to respect my boundaries if you can’t maintain your own.” And yet, I hung out with him outside of our normal training time together. And yet, I gave him access to my Facebook and phone number. And yet.
I talked to a friend who has done a lot of crisis work, and they reassured me that it wasn’t my fault. That Mark made the decision to cross boundaries. That he was continuing to cross boundaries. All things I know. All things that are helpful to hear from someone else, because that somehow makes it a little easier for me to believe.
The thing about all of this is I’m a little afraid to even speak up — despite the wonderful, supportive responses from my community, from those I’ve reached out to personally. The internet is full of trolls. We see what happens when women speak about their experiences with sexual assault or domestic violence or street harassment. We see them get hundreds of terrible comments and we see them get doxed and we see them get threatened. We see them get told they should be grateful for the “attention.” It’s fucked up and bullshit.
We see that the world is not safe for women.
And I believe one of the only ways to make it safer is to speak about these things, not just with girlfriends and others I think will “get it,” but to also call out bad behavior, because of course, that’s what Mark’s behavior is. To say, I won’t do this in silence.
*Convinces, replace also: coerces, manipulates, Nice Guy (TM), wears down.