There are a litany of excuses women use when trying to ward off unwanted attention, but the most relied upon would have to be the one which goes, “Sorry, I have a boyfriend.”
So frequently used is it that we offer it without thinking, sometimes even preemptively. We might tell a taxi driver that we’re heading to our fictional paramour’s house; we might apologetically reject the advances of a chap at a bar by mentioning that we’re ‘taken’; we might even put a ring on it and invent a husband, someone waiting at home for us with a mug of warm tea and a jealous streak. It’s an easy, non-threatening and ultimately harmless way to get out of an uncomfortable situation without causing too many hurt feelings. Right?
Well, not quite.
Late last year, XOJane republished a piece by Alecia Lynn Eberhardt titled, “Stop Saying ‘I Have A Boyfriend’ To Deflect Unwanted Attention’. In it, Eberhardt bemoaned the amount of times she’s had to explain to ex-boyfriends and friends the idea that women shouldn’t need an excuse (that comes in the form of another man) to reject male attention. She argued that women need to stop falling back on the convenience of a made up (or sometimes even real) male partner because that repetitive practice reinforced a damaging and often unconscious idea regarding female autonomy - namely, that it belongs to someone else. She referenced a popular quote which is often shared on the blogging platform Tumblr:
“Male privilege is ‘I have a boyfriend’ being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.”
As Eberhardt summarised, “The idea that a woman should only be left alone if she is ‘taken’ or ‘spoken for’ (terms that make my brain twitch) completely removes the level of respect that should be expected toward that woman.” Instead, she advised that women resist the urge to make excuses or apologies for the fact of our own disinterest.
Eberhardt is right. It’s one thing to take care to offer rejection with a degree of kindness. It’s quite another to feel unconsciously obliged to not only apologise, but allude to the fact that things would be different were you not already promised to another landowner. Men who really respect women listen when those women tell them how they feel - they don’t needle and prod and try to manipulate those feelings into what they want to hear and then, when all that fails, finally pay attention because the sudden presence of a male competitor has made Shit Get Real.
I’m not sure how this stuff is negotiated in queer interactions, but it’s all too common in heterosexual ones. I’ve worn a ring on my finger when travelling in certain parts of the world, and I’ve referenced a fictitious husband. I’ve told strange, perfectly pleasant men in bars that I have a boyfriend when the truth is that I’m just not interested. It’s never made me feel safer, only more exposed. I don’t like confronting the realisation that my right to be treated as an autonomous being who can make her own decisions carries less weight than whether or not I have a band of gold around my finger. Even now, I hate mentioning the man I live with to strangers because a) it’s none of their business and b) it feels like an awkward warning being dropped into the middle of a conversation. No one should have the power to lay claim to you, so what does it matter if there’s a constant person keeping your bed warm at night?
I recently had a conversation with four senior school students, two boys and two girls but all friends. One of the girls asked if I could settle an argument. She didn’t like when the boys made a point of opening doors for her, because it made her feel singled out and as if it seemed like she needed help. She accepted that the boys were trying to be nice, but she’d asked them to stop and still they persisted. The boys countered by saying they were being respectful and chivalrous, the way they’d been taught to be. As an outspoken feminist who’d just spoken about sexuality and respect at their school for an hour, all four of them wanted to know what I thought.
I told them that these kinds of things really come down to a matter of respect. That in the tedious and ongoing argument over whether or not feminism most wicked accomplishment has been the devastation of chivalry in young men, the ultimate answer is that whoever reaches the door first should hold it open for those who are approaching from behind. The problem as I saw it was that although the boys believed they were behaving with the best of intentions, they were still prioritising their right to feel heroic over their friend’s right to have her wishes respected. They had heard what she’d said, but decided that their right to do what made them feel better was more important.
It seemed to be a lightbulb moment for them, and it’s also a good reminder that criticising the consequence of actions isn’t always the same as criticising the person performing them. In the messy, complicated world of sexual interactions and attraction, it stands to reason that people are going to try their best to win over a potential mate. No one critical of the ‘I have a boyfriend’ response is suggesting that heterosexual men don’t have the right to pursue partners or to talk to women.
But it IS a problem if those pursuits are still so often played out in the same way - with a woman’s wishes being ignored because the person doing the pursuing has decided that their right to try to get what they want at any cost is more important than a woman’s right to say no, and that the only thing that can stop them is knowing that another man has already claimed her.
Women, stop apologising for not being interested. You don’t have to justify your reasons to anyone other than yourself. And men, stop persisting when women have made their feelings clear. If you respect women as you claim to, she shouldn’t have to tell you that she has a boyfriend to get you to leave her alone. Because that point? That’s the point where you turn into a creep.