Monday, July 21, 2008

Cloak of Invisibility: On the Fritz

I had an exceedingly odd week last week. Normally, my special combination of obliviousness and invisibility, along with the fact that I'm no longer 22, allows me to carry on about my day-to-day business without too much hassle. Last week, however, dudes were coming out of the woodwork, staring at, honking at, and hitting on me. Unfortunately, as a result of this unbalanced flow in the universe, an overzealous person I chatted with briefly on the train has taken it upon himself--in spite of my not giving him my name and declining to give him my e-mail--to track me down as though (1) he were casually continuing a conversation, as requested, and (2) there were no question at all that the e-mail he dug up was indeed for the same person. He hasn't called me, to my knowledge (or e-mailed me again), and I believe he's from out of town, so I'm sure it's just one of those things to make you shrug at other peoples' cluelessness and move on.

Nonetheless, it's unsettling in the extreme to find yourself unwittingly exposed and to realize the extent to which your life, habits, and movements are readily available to anyone interested. This guy, for instance, knows where I work, where I live (or he can look it up), where I board the train, what stop I get off, which train I take in the morning, and all manner of information readily available via google.

Apart from that, though, conversations with colleagues and friends on all of this brought up some other interesting angles and perspectives. And the views split often along gender lines, because, generally speaking, this situation is more particular to women than to men. Nearly all the women had a story of an overzealous suitor to tell.

For everyone, particularly the security experts, the immediate takeaway message was that women should not make small talk with anyone to whom they don't want to give a wrong impression of interest. Maddening as it is to have to conduct one's interactions with all men in the universe on the binary of "I either want to sleep with them or I don't," that's fair enough advice, as far as it goes, I guess. We live in the world we live in. But, especially among women, certain social conditioning makes it really difficult to cut off people who are trying to talk to us. We don't want to be rude. We don't want to cause a scene. In short, we want to be nice, and once subtle cues are disregarded, we're left with saying something mean. And of course this mean response is met, often, by anger ("who do you think you are?" "why are you such a bitch?" "I was just being friendly!"). I'm someone less inclined than most to be "nice" to complete strangers demanding my attention, and even I get into this tangle. The ones who ignore the subtle cues are the ones who tend to get offended.

Beyond this, I tended to find that the women generally either put themselves in my place and reached worst-case stalker scenarios and declared I should call the police. (Whether or not someone is a physical danger to us, we all understand the dynamics of harassment and the feeling of helplessness it triggers.) Alternatively, the women tended to be very level-headed and matter-of-fact about the realities of navigating overenthusiastic men. It happens sometimes, and you learn to deal with it. What's the fuss?

The men, interestingly, tended to interpret the situation in terms of whether the person constituted an actual physical threat. Thus, the solution to the problem would be to round up the posse and pay the dude a visit. Apart from the hilarious vigilante picture conjured by this proposal (especially as carried out by librarians), the concept that stalking is so simply averted by a firm talking-to and a threat of violence seems a bit simplistic. People who stalk, after all, are not actually operating in the world of logical reason, consequence, and abstract things like what other people want.

So what's the upshot to all of this? I guess there really isn't one. I by no means want to imply that I think all men are like this (in fact, I'd say most aren't). The trick, for women, is knowing which is which. For all the decent dudes, the trick is understanding that navigating about your life as a woman can sometimes make you feel really vulnerable, and this makes us more defensive that perhaps seems necessary (and I'm personally sorry about that if it causes offense). Everybody, though, can develop reasonable shells and try to form better instantaneous judgments of other people. If we happen to make misjudgments, we can also try to avoid blaming ourselves for our own stupidity.

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