Monday, October 26, 2009

How To Approach Women In Public Without Being a Threat

Found this amazing article via @hoochimama and it made me so excited! Women of necessity must navigate the world differently than guys and the best men are the ones who are sensitive to this. As someone who is often subject to street harassment and as a feminist who's generally trying to make the world a safer place for women, I was so happy to find this article outlining for guys the mental process women are going through when they are approached by a strange man. I know I talk about the negative side of this stuff, so I was really glad to find a proactive approach to share.

Below is the absolute best of the post, for the entire thing, visit Shapley Prose.

The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.

“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”

Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing.


So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?

Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I bet you don’t think you know any rapists, but consider the sheer number of rapes that must occur... Consider: if every rapist commits an average of ten rapes (a horrifying number, isn’t it?) then the concentration of rapists in the population is still a little over one in sixty. That means four in my graduating class in high school. One among my coworkers. One in the subway car at rush hour. Eleven who work out at my gym. How do I know that you, the nice guy who wants nothing more than companionship and True Love, are not this rapist?

I don’t.

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Fortunately, you’re a good guy. We’ve already established that. Now that you’re aware that there’s a problem, you are going to go out of your way to fix it, and to make the women with whom you interact feel as safe as possible.

To begin with, you must accept that I set my own risk tolerance. When you approach me, I will begin to evaluate the possibility you will do me harm. That possibility is never 0%. For some women, particularly women who have been victims of violent assaults, any level of risk is unacceptable. Those women do not want to be approached, no matter how nice you are or how much you’d like to date them. [That's me motherfuckers! -May] Okay? That’s their right. Don’t get pissy about it. Women are under no obligation to hear the sales pitch before deciding they are not in the market to buy.

The second important point: you must be aware of what signals you are sending by your appearance and the environment. We are going to be paying close attention to your appearance and behavior and matching those signs to our idea of a threat.


Pay attention to the environment. Look around. Are you in a dark alley? Then probably you ought not approach a woman and try to strike up a conversation. The same applies if you are alone with a woman in most public places. If the public place is a closed area (a subway car, an elevator, a bus), even a crowded one, you may not realize that the woman’s ability to flee in case of threat is limited. Ask yourself, “If I were dangerous, would this woman be safe in this space with me?” If the answer is no, then it isn’t appropriate to approach her.

On the other hand, if you are both at church accompanied by your mothers, who are lifelong best friends, the woman is as close as it comes to safe. That is to say, still not 100% safe. But the odds are pretty good.

The third point: Women are communicating all the time. Learn to understand and respect women’s communication to you.

You want to say Hi to the cute girl on the subway. How will she react? Fortunately, I can tell you with some certainty, because she’s already sending messages to you. Looking out the window, reading a book, working on a computer, arms folded across chest, body away from you = do not disturb. So, y’know, don’t disturb her. Really. Even to say that you like her hair, shoes, or book. A compliment is not always a reason for women to smile and say thank you. You are a threat, remember? You are Schrödinger’s Rapist. Don’t assume that whatever you have to say will win her over with charm or flattery. Believe what she’s signaling, and back off.

If you speak, and she responds in a monosyllabic way without looking at you, she’s saying, “I don’t want to be rude, but please leave me alone.” You don’t know why. It could be “Please leave me alone because I am trying to memorize Beowulf.” It could be “Please leave me alone because you are a scary, scary man with breath like a water buffalo.” It could be “Please leave me alone because I am planning my assassination of a major geopolitical figure and I will have to kill you if you are able to recognize me and blow my cover.”

On the other hand, if she is turned towards you, making eye contact, and she responds in a friendly and talkative manner when you speak to her, you are getting a green light. You can continue the conversation until you start getting signals to back off.

The fourth point: If you fail to respect what women say, you label yourself a problem.

There’s a man with whom I went out on a single date—afternoon coffee, for one hour by the clock—on July 25th. In the two days after the date, he sent me about fifteen e-mails, scolding me for non-responsiveness. I e-mailed him back, saying, “Look, this is a disproportionate response to a single date. You are making me uncomfortable. Do not contact me again.” It is now October 7th. Does he still e-mail?

Yeah. He does. About every two weeks.

This man scores higher on the threat level scale... You see, Mr. E-mail has made it clear that he ignores what I say when he wants something from me. Now, I don’t know if he is an actual rapist, and I sincerely hope he’s not. But he is certainly Schrödinger’s Rapist, and this particular Schrödinger’s Rapist has a probability ratio greater than one in sixty. Because a man who ignores a woman’s NO in a non-sexual setting is more likely to ignore NO in a sexual setting, as well.

So if you speak to a woman who is otherwise occupied, you’re sending a subtle message. It is that your desire to interact trumps her right to be left alone. If you pursue a conversation when she’s tried to cut it off, you send a message. It is that your desire to speak trumps her right to be left alone. And each of those messages indicates that you believe your desires are a legitimate reason to override her rights.

For women, who are watching you very closely to determine how much of a threat you are, this is an important piece of data.


Related posts:
Skirting the Issue: Fashion and Fetish
Rape is NOT an Occupational Hazard
The Unapologetic Mexican

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Xavier Onassis said...

I'm more than a little appalled that there are men who need to be told this stuff.

It all seems so intuitive to me.

Ironically, the word verification for uploading this comment is "molyst".


May said...

OMG! Thank you! I posted this on Facebook and had guys responding so ridiculously I was baffled. Of course, they don't find this stuff intuitive like you do! Gotta love the guys who get it! ^_^

Dark Nemesis said...

Yeah, it is pretty intuitive...then again there's me who'd be too nervous to even start to approach a woman most of the time.

Hanna said...

My one issue with this is the lack of mention or clarification of non-violent assault and how most men who commit it don't even know they've done so.

Yes, it is important to spread awareness of violent assault and rape, but not all assault is violent or obvious I bet there's a lot of so called "good guys" out there who are clueless and blinded by their own libidos to anything but a blunt "no!" (and sometimes even then they don't get it) when it comes sex. And there's a lot of timid girls who don't know how to say "no" or stand up for themselves because they'd stupidly feel guilty about it (I know, I was one once).

All that said, this is a great article and I absolutally love the "Schrodinger's Rapist" bit. It's a really good way of explaining the situation!

May said...

Hanna, the problem with defining harassment more clearly is that it legally is "behavior which is found threatening or disturbing." That makes it very tricky to pin down because it means it depends on the point of view of the person being harassed. So when I talk about harassment I either keep it to what I know about personally or else try to be general. Maybe not the best way, but it's what I can nail down and work with.

Hanna said...

Very fair point! In reconsidering my statement, I think what bothers me more is how I wonder how much of that the "one in six" statistic takes into account. If it does, it makes a lot more sense. If it doesn't... I think I'll be off to the store now to buy a tazer.

Xavier Onassis said...

Even without an immediate physical threat, there are more subtle ways that a man can appear threatening.

Guys, if strike up a random conversation with a woman on the bus, even if she gives you tacit approval to keep talking, you will seem threatening to her if you start asking things like "So, where do you work? This bus goes to the Plaza. Do you live on the Plaza? Do you ride this bus often?"

She's going to start seeing more red flags than Moscow on Mayday.

You think you're just making small talk.

She thinks "This motherfucker is planning on stalking me, raping me and killing me. Or maybe the sick bastard will kill me first THEN rape me!"

Men are stupid.

Eric said...

Good post. I always made it a general rule not to accost people I don't know (male or female) in public, or private for that matter. Nevertheless, some good points-I don't want to get longwinded so I'll leave it at that.

May said...

XO - You crack me up little buddy.

Eric - You should totally get long winded.

Applecart T. said...

2 things strike me on 1st reading:

a, you are not the lady whom SR's approaches at the bar anymore; you are nearly married, and i claim from experience that that state of being puts a whole other veil of "don't come over here" automatically into your body chemistry/language (not to mention that women tend to stop putting themselves in as many "avail." situations, like being alone at bars).

b, some of us (yes, we're eval. our own dysfunctionality) start with the terse "don't talk to me" responses and then warm up and listen anyway … either a, because we know we do have an OUT coming soon and we don't sense any looming predation, or b, we have issues and are taking a calculated risk in engagement before that CERTAIN "out" comes up.

ps, that somalian fellow (kid) i gave a phone # to in ER 2 months ago has never used it. sure, i've gotten an obscene late night "unknown" call before, but that could also be random or b/c i'm a semi-public figure with a sem-public #.

and, to be fair, i find people's social skills to be lacking across the board, even when it is just a "non threatening" stranger male or even a woman trying to be a non-sexual friend.

whatever works for each of us, i guess / people NEVER hardly : ) know what they are doing wrong in social interactions. most are awkward at some level and it's eternally fascinating to me.

i tell people on the bus whatever they ask, within my own limits. i'm stupid, perhaps, but in my own "we all are equal" way, i have been fine so far.

maybe different people have different instincts or intuitions about people?

and i have forgotten the ones who were freak-creep-predators. have had plenty. some in "safe" places, like my being their teacher. one woman, one man in that case. more examples abound, but i guess i'm always fascinated, as xav. says, by people who "don't know they are being creepy" and my interest in seeing what else they will say tends to prevail.

found that "i'm married," with a lot of genuine and straightforward smiling, works WONDERS (esp. in the respect/strength department).*

*but then again, those would be non-rapist inquiries for the most part.

May said...

"a, you are not the lady whom SR's approaches at the bar anymore; you are nearly married..."

I've been married for FIVE YEARS. I'm still married to my ex and that never did a damn thing to stop men from hitting on me.

"b, some of us (yes, we're eval. our own dysfunctionality) start with the terse "don't talk to me" responses and then warm up and listen anyway … either a, because we know we do have an OUT coming soon and we don't sense any looming predation, or b, we have issues and are taking a calculated risk in engagement before that CERTAIN "out" comes up."

Okay, that's fine, but that's you. When I put up with stuff it's ONLY because I feel IMMENSE social pressure to "be the good, polite girl." But, honey, that's the same reason I let a man rape me without even realizing it until much, much later. I have had to work for many years to get men to leave me alone when I don't want to be bothered and it is still a struggle. So while it may not be an issue for you, it is still an issue for me and for many women and it is lovely that someone is helping us get that message across.

Alek said...


This article says: Assume every woman is uninterested in being approached, unless she shows clear enthusiasm and signs she wants you to approach her.

The other night I was out with a friend. A guy spent the entire night talking with her, and the entire time she had her arms crossed, gave mono-syllabic answers... and was generaly closed off.

So he leaves, and she immediatelly asks "Why didn't he ask me out? I liked him, why didn't he ask me for my number?" --> You might say she's a rarity, but she's not. Women today are extremely bad at communicating interest/disinterest.

Google "Why don't men approach me", and you will find thousands of articles by women griping why won't random men approach them. Most of my female friends do this as well (and most of them walk around with the language of "talk to me, and I will kill you").

It's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

My question: Where is the discussion on why don't women approach men more?

I have a simple solution. I teach men, do not ever under any circumstance approach any women, and refuse to meet women under any circumstance unless introduced by a friend.

Wouldn't it make sense since women are the ones who choose, that they be the ones who do the approaching? Men don't actually mind being approached the wrong way, whereas women do. So why do all these articles still have a 15th century assumption built-in, where the man is the approacher? Why is there never any discussion of women approaching?

May said...

Alek, to me, all this article assumes is that a woman has been approached by men in the past and is likely to be approached in the future. That may not be true for all, but it's a generalization and of necessity they are never specific.

It's not my concern if women can't pick up men because of their body language. It IS my concern if someone is being harassed.

Interpersonal relationships are never easy, especially with strangers. This is simply to make men aware that when they are approaching a woman, they may be doing things that are causing her distress, when to them, they are simply being nice, manly, flattering, whatever you want to call it.

I have always been the dominant lead in a relationship with men, so of course I think it's natural for women to approach men. But that isn't the topic of this discussion and therefore is a moot point, IMO.