We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
Recently, a young man walked into the bar where I was working, sat down, and told me that I was pretty. It just flew out of his mouth by accident; he’d obviously had a few. His vibe wasn’t slimy or aggressive. He just seemed excited to discover that a woman he found attractive would be opening his next beer. Convention suggests that the most normal and appropriate response from me would be a display of gratitude, but I wasn’t thankful. I just felt instantly beleaguered in a very familiar way.
I blankly responded that his thoughts on my appearance were not interesting to me and asked him what he’d like to drink. He stood there, drunk and caught off guard by his own boldness as well as my reaction. He tried to focus, knowing that the next move was his, his face reflecting the hazy fear that any dude who is at least trying to come correct feels when facing one of modern courtship’s classic gambles: I really do not want to be "that guy" versus this might just be crazy enough to work. He chose to hedge both ways and began slowly trying to dig himself out, struggling to enunciate and choose his words carefully but choosing the wrong ones. He bumbled between a handful of partially formed apologies before announcing that he felt awful, because I was clearly annoyed and he “would hate to offend such a pretty girl.”
I was so flattered that I instantly got super wet. Just joking! I was disgusted. It was 1 a.m. and I was tired. I wasn’t feeling combative enough to tell him to get lost immediately, especially knowing that he wouldn’t necessarily see the straight line between his actions and the punishment. But I also wasn’t in the mood to rah-rah a drunken stranger toward a potential enlightenment. Attempting diplomacy, I gave him a beer and put him in time out, instructing him to take 10 minutes to think about why even just his final statement was offensive. He wandered to the end of the bar and sat there in a fog.
After a little time had passed, I noticed his posture straighten and I turned to face him. His expression was solemn as I walked toward him, expecting at the very least an unconvincing performance of contrition. Instead, he stood up, took out his wallet, and tried to give me $10—not for drinks but because “sometimes you just have to pay for things.” Yes, this person had spent his time-out arriving at the conclusion that 10 whole dollars was enough to compensate me for feeling exposed, trapped, degraded and simultaneously invisible and on display at my own dumb job. I felt like a human sigh. “Just leave, please,” I said, and then he left.
As I step back and consider the way this story ended, my own generosity embarrasses me. I’m certainly not always that kind. But maybe I’m framing what I’m about to tell you with that particular anecdote to prove that I’m generally down to let a well-meaning dude off the hook if he acts right. When I was younger, I would sometimes even rescue these kinds of men from their own lingering discomfort by being sweet, because women are trained to reward men for all sorts of things by being sweet. I don’t do that anymore, because I’ve realized that smoothing it over with a stranger who has made me feel degraded usually feels more degrading than the actual offense and placating men in this way is a waste of my time. I should have known better than to even try with this dude, because I have already wasted so much of my time in parallel situations; every woman you know has wasted so much of her time.
I totally understand that it’s difficult to know when it is an appropriate time to give women sexual attention. The modern woman is baffling. We are on Tinder and we ball whoever we want and nobody is really allowed to judge anymore and we are feminists and we are easily angered by perceived degradation and we have a lot of feelings about words like "consent," which make your dick scared and we also might want you to pull our hair when we fuck. I imagine it feels impossible to know how and when to express your interest without offending women. It is a minefield, the stakes are high and nobody is safe.
Telling a woman that you think she is beautiful can seem very innocuous; sometimes it is. Sometimes, it will make her day. All this depends on context and I cannot explain when it is and is not OK, because that is like trying to explain intuition. Intuition about what will and won’t offend women is really just a set of odds, based on your lizard brain tabulating and comparing the outcomes of many similar previous interactions. But it’s important to recognize that these odds are skewed because women so often swallow their discomfort or indignation in order to keep the peace—especially if they are at work. Obviously all women have different boundaries and I’m not trying to slide into some essentialized decree about what women do and don’t want, but I think that a lot of mutual discomfort could be avoided if dudes would generally try to figure out whether a woman is interested before trying to figure out how to fuck her.
Although these situations are too nuanced and contextual to come down to do’s and don’ts, there are certain things to consider before giving sexual attention to a female bartender or server. Consider the power dynamic: Women will make more money if their patrons like them; often, their managers will scold them if they react negatively to what we have collectively deemed to be acceptable attention. Where does that leave the woman? She is expected to smile and say thank you, even if she feels mildly affronted, even if she finds you disgusting—although you would likely never detect this as she is forced to suspend these opinions at work.
Imagine you have a boss who repulses you, and one day, in front of a group of your peers, he presents you with a gift. It isn’t your birthday, but you have been singled out. “Open it,” he implores, beaming. “It’s just for you. You are going to love it.” You open it slowly, as everyone watches. You know that you are going to hate it, because you hate your boss, and you can feel yourself shrinking as you prepare to degrade yourself by pantomiming gratitude. You remove the final layer of tissue, and underneath it is a porkpie hat. A porkpie hat, made of leather. “Yay,” you say. “I totally love this.” You go home and drink a lot. You know you don’t deserve it, but you kind of hate yourself.
Across professional and personal contexts, women are beginning to articulate why we often feel dehumanized by the kind of sexual attention that might have seemed benign 10 years ago; we’re getting better at creating boundaries that work for us. But as we’ve become increasingly vocal about how things actually make us feel, the whole scene has become rightfully terrifying for the people trying to bag us. Dudes who are trying to respect and maybe fuck us are now in a double bind in which these two agendas seem very difficult but necessary to merge. The inverse of this, as I’ve experienced it, at least, is equally paradoxical: How am I supposed to reconcile wanting men to be attracted to me with not wanting to be objectified?
When I was younger, I couldn’t understand how to make this equation work. In my early 20s, I pretty much wanted all guys who weren’t my relatives or Nazis to want to fuck me, because that was the same as wanting them to like me. Playing into that dynamic generally felt like garbage, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I just knew I couldn’t figure out how to get what I wanted and feel respected.
Consider the way that this whole setup warps young women: Many women learn that they are most useful as bodies and that their bodies are most useful for sex before they even hit puberty. Most women I know learned that their sex parts were different than the rest of their bodies because boys or men put their hands or eyes or words all over those parts of us before fuck meant anything but a bad word.
I’ve always been tough, but it has taken me a long time to realize how much of that toughness grew on me as a coping mechanism; how much of that toughness is damage. Men have fucked with my dignity since I was a child, but the things that have happened to me have happened to all of us. When the bad things that happen are normal, you become tough. It’s devastating how tough I am.
So, as a 30-year-old woman who has been through a range of horribly exploitative sexual and emotional experiences—you know, just like pretty much every woman you know—I really don’t want to know anymore if a stranger finds me attractive. Not right out of the gate. Hell no. There are so many more interesting things about me than my body. Do you even care about them? This is why I cherish my friendships with straight dudes who would never try to fuck me even if we are trashed, and is probably part of why I hang out with a lot of queer people.
This is why I’ve gone home in tears after someone I respect says they think I’m smart and funny and interesting and they’d like to have a drink and rap about the world, and then just tries to fuck me after I patiently dodge their advances all night. Were they not even paying attention? Did they even want to rap about the world with me? I am still, as a grown woman, trying not to mentally respond to that situation by thinking: “Well, that person just wanted to fuck you. Maybe you are not really that smart or interesting.” That precise feeling is one that I don’t really think straight dudes can fully relate to: You are invisible, but they still want to fuck you. They do not see you or hear you. They still might rape you. This is why somebody putting their eyes all over me or immediately telling me they like the way I look is no longer flattering. Because it makes me feel fucking invisible.
I know this is confusing. Assholes have wrecked the whole concept of spitting game, and there is no longer a blueprint for how to hit on women. As far as expressing your interest in a woman while she’s working, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do this respectfully, but consider the stakes before you impose your desire on another human being. Receiving sexual attention from a stranger just affirms that everyone is clocking us every moment and deciding how much we matter based on whether or not they like what they see. If you’re going to holler at somebody while they’re working, try to gauge her interest in your interest before you put it on her. If you’re working really hard to make her see how great you are, she is probably working even harder to escape the conversation without hurting your feelings. If she seems to be down, try building rapport in the same way that you would with anyone you don’t care about seeing naked. Talk about things you like to talk about and ask her what she thinks. Perhaps mention a thing you are doing in the coming days and leave room for her to invite herself. My favorite male bar patron stealth game is someone saying “I’m thinking about leaving soon,” and then trailing off with casual implication.
As a baseline, in any context, treat women like people you are not engaging with primarily because you might get to put your dick inside of them. When you are out in the world--at a bar, at a show, making time with a lady--and you realize you’d like to get down with her, put your game on pause and feel out her vibe. It is very likely that this woman can detect your interest. Try laying back. The process of you getting laid should not feel like you are angling for victory in a war of attrition. You getting laid should not require lengthy negotiations, disingenuous angles, or both of you getting blotto enough to just cave already. If you’re feeling her, look at her like an individual with a mind and a voice, and then, guess what? You might see parts of her you never would have seen otherwise, and she will be happy that you took the time to see her, and then maybe you guys will be so happy to see each other that you fuck each other's brains out.