This post is actually a primer to another post I’ll get around to writing sometime, in which I make the argument that that there are racial and sexual implications in men (physically or otherwise) attacking women’s hair. In this particular post there are two themes: the importance of reading nonverbal cues (which is incidental) and the adamant denial by men that their less overtly sexual actions are tempered by any kind of sexual desire or rage. The reason I point this out is because I know there is going to be some jackass out there who accuses me of thinking so highly of myself that I would assume a man physically attacking my hair is sexualizing me without my consent. But that is exactly what he is doing, under the guise of non-sexualized violence.
You see, when it comes to anything related to male desire trumping your personhood, men do this thing, where they think they’re really subtle. A strange man will walk up to a woman, start a seemingly innocuous conversation, and even though the woman knows what he wants, she has to tolerate this until he has revealed his intentions. She can’t ask him to leave her alone immediately, because then he can dismissively assert that she is presumptuous of his actions and thinks too highly of herself. If she rejects his advances too quickly, before they are obvious, he will pretend he never made them and insist that she’s so stuck up that she’s delusional. So she has to put up with this entire mind-numbingly inane conversation, until he finally asks for her number or whether she’d go out with him, and that’s when she’s “allowed” to turn him down. She may not be straight with him and turn him down before, or else she’s conceited (because he was never going to ask, supposedly.) Even though she’s right. Every time.
Every woman reading this knows what I’m talking about. Every single one.
I didn’t know how to describe this before, but I know I’ve read scattered stories in different contexts on the web before I categorized these incidents as belonging to the same phenomenon–one woman recounts the time that a man asked her to dance, and, upon her turning down the offer, he proceeded to claim that she misheard him and he was really telling her she looked fat. In addition to these sorts of examples of men denying they’ve made an advance I can, unfortunately, provide an example myself. When I was around 15, I was friends with someone whom I’d like to believe was generally a good person. He had a bit of an impish, mischievous quality to him, however, which would have been fine if he’d had the sense to know when it was fine.
This friend of mine was between girlfriends. He’d had a number of failed relationships, and although I never told him–he never asked and I do not assert my opinions about why people fail at relationships when those opinions have not been invited–I’d detected it was because he had a fear of losing his independence. Subsequently, I knew the kind of woman with whom he was compatible; she would have to have enough to do in her own life to not care if he didn’t call for weeks.
Although we were friends, I was rather detached with him. I didn’t do this on purpose. When I actually interact with someone, I can be very intense–but I can also disappear for months. The disappearing act isn’t malicious, and it isn’t something I do to be enticing (and certainly wasn’t to entice him); I’m just that kind of person. You know the type. The introvert who needs her time in solitude. I am explaining that I didn’t do this to attract him because, although the complete disregard for my lack of consent to what he tried to do next renders whether I wanted to appear attractive to him or not irrelevant, the fact that I wasn’t trying to attract him speaks volumes about how he either (1) was so self-absorbed he thought otherwise or–even worse–(2) that he didn’t care. That in that moment, his desires trumped mine.
Let’s talk for a minute about that first theory. I happened to be someone who didn’t “threaten” his independence, so he wrongly believed that, because I was the Right Kind of Girl for him (according to his own assessment–I would have disagreed), I must have existed for him. He never considered that the reason I didn’t impose as an obstacle to his independence was because I had more important things to do, and that that meant I had my own life, and, you know, preferences. No, when a man notices you have certain qualities, he thinks you have them for him.
So there we were, one perfectly normal day, when he tells me to come closer. Being 15 (he was 16), I was familiar enough with childhood uses of this line to expect some kind of practical joke. To make things more suspicious, it was an odd request considering we were talking–which meant I was standing rather close to him already. But, to give him the benefit of the doubt (that maybe he was about to tell me a secret) I inched a centimeter closer. He asked me three more times for me to come closer still, and I laughed and refused. (“No, what is it?”)
And then he tried to kiss me.
I knew seconds before he dove from the look in his eyes that it was going to happen. I turned my head. His lips landed on my cheek instead. At this, he looked surprised, and he tilted his head back and laughed awkwardly, and then walked off to class.
I stared after him, fuming and confused.
When he approached me the next day, I addressed the issue directly. “Did you try to kiss me?” I demanded. My tone might have not been the friendliest.
“It wasn’t a kiss,” he grinned. “I was going for a head bump.”
I shook my head slightly, without breaking the deadliest lock in eye contact I’d ever delivered. “And now you’re insulting my intelligence,” I concluded coolly. “You’d best be careful.”
“Come on, Nahida. Trust me, if I tried to kiss you, I would not have missed.”
You tried to kiss me. And you missed.
Years later, at the age of 18, I agreed to meet him at a cafe. As we walked down the street after coffee, he glanced at me and said, “Can I confess something to you?”
Since I’d already forgiven him for the incident the moment after it happened (not for the denial of it) I calmly walked on alongside him.
“Remember that time you thought I tried to kiss you and I said it was a head bump?” He paused. “I… tried to kiss you.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Nahida?” he asked.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were so pretty,” he answered nonsensically, “and mysterious. I was really attracted to you. I still am.”
That explained nothing. I looked away from him. “I wouldn’t have been mad.” It was true. I was horrified that he tried to kiss me, but I was more angry that he tried to deny it.
The denial was an explicit demonstration that he cared more about keeping his ego pieced together than coming to terms with the fact that he’d done something wrong and apologizing.
The attempted kiss itself wasn’t the worst thing a man had ever done. If he’d ever discussed anything of the sort with me, he would have known that unless I explicitly expressed interest in someone it was NOT okay to try and kiss me. But he was 16. And he did not persist when I made an obvious indication that it was undesired. Let me make it clear these are not excuses; pointing this out is only an exercise of human sympathy, which even a ball-busting feminist like yours truly is capable of feeling. It was understandable, but it still a Whole System of Wrong.
I shouldn’t have had to say ‘no’ by dodging him;–I should have had the opportunity to say ‘no’ preemptive to the attempt. And I did. The reluctance to come closer, the eyes looking past him, the clenched mouth–they were all signals.
Of course, he couldn’t read them. Didn’t want to.
But I had been willing to forgive all of that. Because he was 16. Because he did not persist after I made it obvious. Because he’d been conditioned to ignore body language unless it was obvious. But what I couldn’t settle easy was the fact that he denied making the unwanted advance. He had not only saved his ego–he had done so by essentially calling a potential victim of assault a liar.
And that, I knew, was deadly. It was the deadliest. It was worse than the attempted kiss.
Men need to learn nonverbal cues; they also need to learn to own up to their mistakes. The fact that he denied making an advance, just as it does in the woman who must patiently tolerate an entire conversation when she knows already where it is headed, grated on my nerves more than the fact that a friend of mine tried to kiss me. Had he read the nonverbal cues, or cared about them, the mistake wouldn’t have been made, and had men not such enormous egos that they believed a woman’s rejection is the worst thing that can happen to them, plenty of women wouldn’t have to recover from not only the discomfort of a dodged assault but from essentially being invalidated of the truth of that experience.
Being able to read nonverbal cues is an indication of high intelligence, but because it is a rather feminine indication of high intelligence, it is misconstrued as exactly the opposite: the woman who preemptively rejects a man’s advances is made out to be so conceited she’s in fact stupid–because of course he wasn’t hitting on you, you airhead.
When, actually, she’s much, much smarter than you—not only in predicting that you’re about to make an advance, but calling out your bullshit when you deny it.
Coming into play with this is also the cultural expectation that women are supposed to be oblivious to a man’s advances. We are conditioned to believe that this “innocence” (and, in most cases, feigned unintelligence) is an attractive quality, and a woman who lets on that she’s smart enough to know what a man is thinking is unacceptably boorish. And has figured out the patriarchy. Which makes her of course, extremely dangerous.