Why Just Telling Men "No" Doesn't Necessarily Work For Everybody -- And Can Even Be Dangerous

For some men, any woman is fair game. And depending on who they are, what they look like, and where they fall on the socioeconomic spectrum, standing their ground could prove deadly.
Publish date:
September 11, 2013
sexism, race, street harassment, m-rated

It was an unseasonably chilly summer night back in the mid-aughts, and I was walking off another marathon argument with my boyfriend, who still wasn’t home from work. Nocturnal strolls had been a habit of mine since my teens; three nights a week, I'd sneak out the backdoor of the third-floor walkup I shared with my mother, headphones blasting, feet headed east. Most nights I was able to walk about without incident, but other nights—like this one—I wasn't so lucky.

I was taking a break on a bench right around the corner from our North side Chicago apartment when a cab stopped in front of me.

“Come get in,” the driver orders, a bald man with a Nigerian accent.

“Nah, I'm good. I live around here. But thanks,” I say.

“How far do you live? I can take you.”

“No, really. I'm fine. Thanks.”

He gets out of the car, engine still running. “You're too pretty to be out here by yourself.”

I'm not sure how he could tell, what with the hoodie of my Notre Dame sweatshirt covering my head. I thank him for the compliment in a tone conveying complete disinterest.

“You wanna take a ride with me?”

I don't answer, and when he starts to approach the bench, I hop off and start running like Karl Malone from a paternity test. Thankfully, he doesn't follow me and a few minutes later I'm back home, clutching my boyfriend in tears.

I'm not some cute, spunky little white girl in a romantic comedy; telling a dude “no” can have life-threatening consequences. Like being punched in the face and shot in the abdomen. Or getting shot in the backseat of a friend's car. Hell, traveling with a male companion isn't even a foolproof plan anymore. So while Luna Luna's Alecia Lynn Eberhardt believes her advice is empowering, I find it irresponsible and pretty fucking dangerous, especially for women of color.

A lot of us have been dealing with street harassment since our preteens. We learn how to negotiate and bargain with cats who should know better before we even grow out of our training bras. One of my favorite childhood memories involves my mother yelling at a car full of grown men who were shouting a number of inappropriate things about my body as they drove past. I was 16.

In the years since, I've been followed around a grocery store after rebuffing a man's advances. Propositioned while pushing a stroller. Shamelessly approached while holding hands with another man. I'm sure if I'd been wearing a habit and carrying a large cross, one of them would've suggested that fucking him silly was part of God's plan.

Because for some men, any woman is fair game. And depending on who they are, what they look like, and where they fall on the socioeconomic spectrum, standing their ground could, again, prove deadly.

This post from Trudy at Gradient Lair illustrates how street harassment can be a vastly different experience for women of color. An excerpt:

The thing about discussing what Black women experience is that many White women come to silence us with “all women” rebuttals. However, street harassment is not experienced at the same frequency and intensity across the board. Race and class are factors. (Sexual orientation and being trans* are factors too.) While this is ignored by many middle class White women who want to dominate the discourse on…well anything in relation to women, other White women have shared with me that they have never experienced street harassment. I cannot imagine what “never” means. I’ve been harassed since I was 12. I am 33 now. Other White women have mentioned to me that they do experience harassment but quite rarely. They can’t fathom weeks with as many as 75 incidents.

Headphones and books become part of our armor. We map out our daily commutes to avoid aggressive catcallers, plan our Girls Nights around bars and restaurants with High Creep Quotients. (Unfortunately, Chicago has a dwindling number of these.) We train our daughters to look straight ahead and make minimal eye contact with any male-identified person.

The fact that we have to do these things should be of greater concern, not whether I hurt Johnny's feelings for inventing an imaginary beau or if I was being a good feminist while doing it.

Ms. Eberhardt is spot on when she writes about the idiocy of leaving an uninterested woman alone only after she says she's taken; it does remove the level of respect that should be given to her, and it totally erases her agency.

But when Ms. Eberhardt admonishes women for making excuses to would-be suitors, she's unwittingly placing the responsibility squarely on the victim, as if the guys with the entitlement issues aren't the real problem. It's this type of naivete and myopia that make conversations about racialized misogyny so, so crucial.

What Ms. Eberhardt fails to understand is that for most of us, lying about our relationship statuses or permanent moves to third-world countries isn't about “disrespecting ourselves,” but about survival. We aren't doing anything to ourselves but ensuring that ourselves make it home with little incident and in one piece.

I'm certain it wasn't Ms. Eberhardt's intention to cause such a stir, and I do believe her heart was in the right place. Ideally, we should all be able to tell a man “no” and resume minding our business without having said man kick off some bizarre Socratic interrogation. But it just isn't safe or practical, and as we—as women, and writers—have a responsibility to the people who read our stuff.

I admire Ms. Eberhardt's zeal to show dudes the error of their ways, and if she wants to be the Hillary Swank to their Freedom Writers, that's great. My time, body, and sanity are all much too precious to be some DudeBro's teachable moment. The onus isn't on me to make him understand, it's on him to leave me the fuck alone when I ask. See? So simple a caveman could do it.