No means no, it doesn’t matter how women say it

Written for Huck Magazine

This week I learned that merely sitting in my favourite London writing spot and reading a book was a contentious move for a woman.

Books, like earphones, are usually a great indicator that someone doesn’t want to be disturbed. That has always been my understanding at least.  But not everyone gets that message, which can lead to uncomfortable situations.

Women are conditioned by society from a young age to be polite and accommodating, especially to men. And so, more often than not, when faced with a man demanding our unsolicited attention, we will look for the least aggressive way to let them down as not to make a scene. This is exactly what I did on Saturday, when a man insisted on buying me a drink.

I was captivated by my copy of Station Eleven, so the interruption was not at all welcome. As the man tried to take the book out of my hands to get my direct attention after I pretended to not hear him, I snapped it shut and reluctantly placed it to the side.

This is not an uncommon interaction for many women, where a man feels so entitled to your time that he forces you to stop what you’re doing. I expected him to ask me about the book but instead he insisted on buying me a drink, swivelling his head around in an effort to catch the eye of a passing waiter.

I politely declined several times but he remained steadfast in his mission to waste my time. Immensely irritated, I insisted that he leave me to finish my book, explaining that I was waiting for my boyfriend – at which point he mockingly asked if my boyfriend “didn’t let me have friends”. As if friendship was what this guy was looking for because sure, all the best friendships are born out of a random man being petulant and rude to a woman he interrupted in a hotel lounge.

I grew up in Glasgow, so my limit for bullshit is fairly low. I was exhausted and quite ready to make that scene that I had been carefully trying to avoid in the first place. I had politely but firmly declined his advances, asked him to leave and ensured that I was clear in my lack of interest –  yet my resistance was met with insolence and laughter as if it were a game. Sound familiar?

Just as I was picking up my book to further indicate that I was done with his conversation, and as the man continued to aggressively ask why he couldn’t be my friend, a tawny-skinned woman with big eyes exclaimed, “Clara? Hi!”. She hugged me from the side so she could whisper in my ear to ask me if I was OK. I instantly caught on and felt my anxiety dissipate as I greeted this kind stranger like an old friend. The man stood awkwardly for a few seconds before finally leaving, clearly not wanting anyone to witness his behaviour. Instead he scarpered at the first sign of interference – confirming that his actions were predatory, and that he knew it.

My shining knight in stilettos invited me to sit with her friends, but I didn’t want to impose, so after thanking her profusely I decided to cancel my dinner plans and head home. In the past I’ve been the one to step in just as she did, but this was the first time in a long while where it had happened to me and I was greatly touched. Walking to the bus stop I felt warm thinking of the kindness of strangers and decided to tweet a synopsis of my experience.

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What I didn’t expect was how much it would strike a chord. The tweet went viral as women from all over the world commentated on their similar experiences. Men and women discussed the times they themselves intervened on the behalf of a stranger in peril. Some thoughtful men even asked for advice as to how they could do this for someone in the future without risking the situation to escalate or worrying a woman further. The range of tactics women find to help each other out is pretty impressive. It was a lovely sight to behold.

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This is Twitter, however, and so you probably already know that wasn’t the whole story. Way too many men were quick to blame me for a myriad of things. Why was I reading in a public place? Why didn’t I just tell him to fuck off? Why wasn’t I nicer? Why didn’t I flatter his ego? Why didn’t I just say no?

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Women were quick to explain that the threat of violence is always on our radar, and infuriatingly some men hear “no” and think it means “try harder”. That means we are constantly making calculations of escape in our head, because someone who ignores our words is likely to ignore our wishes. The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have pushed up the conversation around consent and while this may seem a world away from that, the root of it is the same: a feeling among some men that they are entitled to a woman’s time, body and existence (etc). And, a conviction that women’s wishes about how we dispose with those things are not relevant.

It speaks volumes about the world we live in that thousands of women could instantly relate to that incident in the lounge – that they had been in the same situation, either helping or being helped. I’m proud that women have developed this form of solidarity – a modest kind of feminist direct action – but it’s absurd that we should have to devise such tactics just to feel safe.

And even for those who can’t see that, the crux of the matter is no means no, and we can read books wherever the fuck we like.

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