The only effective way to reject men

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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. 

87 comments

  • Re the problem with opening doors, I personally think it should be the person who gets there first. I've held open doors for both men and women and had them held open for me by both sexes. I usually smile and say thank you. However, a few years ago I worked with a very lovely older man who insisted he open the door. I tried to explain to him that he didn't need to do that. He said, quite simply, "yes I do - this is who I am". It did made me think.There is no one correct answer on this.

    By the way, I too have invented a husband/boyfriend to get away from unwanted attention. I can see the point of why I shouldn't need to, but it really is easier.

    Commenter
    Meg
    Date and time
    June 06, 2014, 8:40AM
    • Hang on...this is a two way street!

      Commenter
      Hell hath no fury
      Location
      Spurned woman
      Date and time
      June 06, 2014, 1:04PM
  • "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".

    Not necessarily. If a woman immediately resorts to 'I have a boyfriend' after a man's advance, that doesn't automatically make the guy a creep. He might've accepted her 'no, not interested' if she had just said no in the first place.

    Commenter
    Kate
    Date and time
    June 06, 2014, 8:51AM
    • Which is why she says she shouldn't HAVE to tell you she has a boyfriend to get you to leave her alone. She SHOULD be able to say, sorry, but no.

      Commenter
      bornagirl
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 06, 2014, 12:42PM
    • I think that's covered by "she shouldn’t have to" - the use of 'have to' suggests a final resort, i.e. after she's tried what you suggested.

      Commenter
      Lulu
      Date and time
      June 06, 2014, 12:44PM
  • Don't waste your talents and time writing articles about social interactions that are trivial and meaningless. Doing so produces fodder for your detractors to use when you write one of your brilliant articles about the genuine inequity between men and women.

    Commenter
    A Fan
    Date and time
    June 06, 2014, 8:54AM
    • It's so interesting how peoples' take on a subject differ so much. I thought this was a really thoughtful and sensitive article, showing respect to both male and female. I, too, always love Clementine's articles and she does tackle some really difficult issues, but that doesn't mean that day to day living is out of bounds for her wisdom. Some people find the day to day stuff much more difficult to contend with.

      Commenter
      shucks
      Date and time
      June 06, 2014, 12:21PM
    • Really? I thought this was a fabulous article. The clarity with which she pointed out that there comes a point where the male has allowed his desire to feel better about himself trump the female's right to have her wishes respected provided just the kind of lesson we all need - male and female.

      I'm raising a son and a daughter and it is these kinds of simple clear insights that I think they need to be given.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      June 06, 2014, 12:22PM
    • Really Nick? I am not sure I agree with you...

      When Clem says...they were using their desire to feel better about themselves trump her right to have her wishes respected.....isn't that another way of saying, she got what she wanted, they did not. because of course the other way to see what the boys were doing is to say that they have the right to want to do what they were doing...but their wishes were not respected....

      Its really such a fine line but sometimes I worry that teaching people that its all about you and your rights is merely a way of encouraging people to assume that only what they want matters.......... sometimes I also worry that really important stuff goes by because we are all way too busy investing meaning into the opening of doors

      Commenter
      the jonesgirl
      Date and time
      June 06, 2014, 12:42PM
    • Nick, as Clementine states, "I have a boyfriend" is the default response for the majority of women, which does not actually provide the man a chance to allow anything. In all likelihood most men would be just fine with a "sorry I'm not really interested", but are not provided an opportunity to do so.

      Instead we are left with this unfounded assumption that the majority of men will accept nothing less than a woman's lack of engagement coming down to being 'owned' by another man.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      June 06, 2014, 12:55PM

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