Gender equality: Dealing with unwanted advances
This week I went on a perfectly routine riverside walk, and was twice approached, separately by two men. The first one fairly innocently asked for a date and was gracious enough not to hurl abuse at me when I delivered the obligatory politer version of ‘thanks but no thanks’ that any woman who has found herself in this position is familiar with, and walked off in haste. The second stranger encounter was sinister. I happened to pause on the side of the river path moments after passing him to check something on my phone, when he came back around the corner. My immediate assumption in that moment was that I must have dropped something and this person was kindly returning it. To my disappointment, instead he started to come up with some nonsense flattery. I admit at this point I may have rolled my eyes in incredulity, that this had happened twice within the space of an hour.
The man’s stare became hostile, he started huffing and puffing, his body was tensing. I stopped speaking and instinctively moved backwards. To my horror I realised there was nowhere for me to go, he was positioned in front of me and the only way for me to turn was left where he had his arm outstretched, and there were no people around. For a brief moment I felt dread, and anger at myself for putting myself in such a vulnerable position. I felt it was safer to wait for him to break the silence and I tentatively smiled a smile that I hoped said ‘don’t attack me’, at which he changed character once again. Complimenting me on my standard coat and shawl, saying that I looked like a business manager, intimidating me into apparent submission. I knew I had to buy time so I began issuing a series of obligatory thank you’s.
Fortunately for me I soon heard voices; a female one stood out as other people came around the corner, and I took the opportunity to round off my feigned gratitude with an “I’m just here for a walk”. I made my escape and called my mother immediately to describe this person, in case he decided to follow me. Unpacking this all too common and uncomfortable experience with friends and family made me think about the conditions that led this man to think that he was entitled to a response, favourable or otherwise, from an absolute stranger. And why I felt I needed to acknowledge him. I have a better grasp of the answer to the second question, because rejecting someone with a fragile ego carries the very real risk that they could possibly inflict violence against you, and survival instinct kicks in to mitigate that.
I will not forget this in a hurry or be complacent about my personal safety. But I will also not live in fear. I will still go about my business, though I am not a business manager. I share this story, not to discourage men from approaching women, but to remind those that may consider approaching strangers that the person you are seeking contact with is a human, who is worthy of respect and dignity, even if you do not get the response you want.