My cousin, Kelly Sanders, penned this thought-provoking post about her recent experience as a single woman and the challenge of managing politeness with self-preservation.
July 29, 2019
Many would argue in 2019, especially after the #metoo movement, that women should feel at least a little safer, respected, or just less bothered by unwanted attention. But, recently I was reminded of how far we have to go.
Case in point: I own a house on a remote creek with a gay friend of mine (this is relevant later in the story). We have friends to the house and many days I go on my own to just read, write, swim and relax: self-prescribed, self-care. There’s hardly ever anyone out on the creek. This makes it the perfect spot for meditation and reflection . . . and apparently now waterside-harassment.
A fish(y) story
One day, I decided to cast a fishing line off my dock, but with no luck after a few hours, I reeled it back in and set the pole on the rail. I was sitting on the dock, writing in my journal, when I saw a shirtless fisherman farther down the creek in a motorized boat coming my way. I could tell he was older, perhaps in his 50s, smoking a cigar, and drinking beer while fishing. He drunkenly shouted to a neighbor mowing the lawn to ask the time. The neighbor politely shouted back “1:30pm!” He switched off the boat motor, cast a line, then let his boat float south with his back to me.
I hadn’t been seen yet. Whew!
My first instinct was to hide. I had been trained well. Namely, don’t make conversation with drunk shirtless guys, especially if you are alone and feel unsafe. He seemed spry for his age and even if I yelled for help I doubted anyone would hear, not even that other neighbor by this point.
I refused to let his unwelcome appearance spoil my peace. I was enjoying writing in my journal, so I immediately reached for my sunglasses, went up a few steps to the deck, and adjusted the umbrella so I was even harder to see. It worked! He passed me by and because of the glare of the sun; he didn’t even see me sitting a mere 30 feet from him. I was relieved.
About an hour later I decided to go up to the house to get some lunch. When I returned, out of the corner of my eye, I saw his boat coming back the other direction. This time he saw me walking down the hill to the deck.
“Hello!” he shouted.
“Hello!” I said, trying to be friendly and not paranoid.
“Lots of carp but not the five-pound bass I wanted. How about you? I see your pole there,” he said.
“Nope, nothing yet.” I said.
“Do you go out by yourself?’ he asked.
The question struck me wrong. Why does he want to know if I go out alone? Maybe it was innocent curiosity. Maybe he was lonely and hitting on me. Or maybe he had other intentions. I decided to hedge. “No,” I said, “WE go with friends sometimes, but today, I’m just trying off the deck.“ I hoped he would hear the “we” emphasized and assume I wasn’t alone.
At that point he was coming really close to the dock, so I immediately started searching for my cell phone with my eyes.
“You know what the best time is?” he baited.
“What?” I bit, with my phone now in hand and ready to dial 911.
“7:30pm, that’s when they’re out, perfect fishin’ time “ he said.
“Thanks for the tip and best of luck to you!” I said, glancing back down to my journal and trying to end the conversation as he floated past.
“Well best of luck to you and maybe we’ll go fishin’ together sometime?!?” he blurted.
Speechless, I cast my gaze back down to my writing. About a minute later with me still in ear shot, he shouted, “Got one! Do you see?” he asked.
“Great!” I affirmed, still trying to be nice.
“Nice dock” he says. “Thanks,” I said. “Mind if I rest my legs there sometime?” he asked.
Most women reading this will recognize that this is the pivotal moment where all we solo women make a decision. Do we say “no worries, anytime” like a nice neighbor and hope they just move along without incident? Or do we say what we really want to say, which is “no,” and risk pissing off a drunken guy who may come back angry later to exact revenge so the obituary reads “Died from Being Too Nice”?
At this point, I would guess most men reading this would say he was just a harmless guy and that I was being “too sensitive” and watch too many scary movies. (And I admit, a psychotic shirtless Billy Zane rowing desperately to Nicole Kidman’s boat in the beginning of the film “Dead Calm” did come to mind.)
But this is the crux of the problem.
My path is usually the ‘be nice’ option, but unfortunately then I risk encouraging these people to ACTUALLY come back because I said it was okay. I hate it with every fiber of my being but “being nice” is usually the path of least resistance. “Just be nice and hope they go away,” we women often think.
Now, I have no idea who this guy is. He may be a completely harmless chatty neighbor that I will just run into in the ‘hood on occasion. But he also might be a psychotic drifter with a penchant for killing chubby girls and using their stretchy skin to sew his own flesh suit.
But I digress. . .
“Sure!” I said, giving in.
“Thanks, DOLL!” he cooed as he motored off.
Fear as a gift
The point of writing was not to share what some may consider a benign interaction, but rather my disdain of my automatic physiological and psychological responses; responses that warn me doom is coming; responses that have been ingrained in me since being whistled at by gardeners at the community pool when I was 11 all the way to narrowly escaping a rape in my 30s.
The amygdala is there for a reason and fear is a gift – author Gavin de Becker was right. We learn from experience that some threats are real and some are just perceived but regardless, as a woman, you assume the worst because assuming the best could mean your life.
This “polite at your own expense” behavior was never spelled out or expressly passed on to me by mother or grandmother or women elders but children learn by watching. I realized in that exact moment if I had a daughter sitting there, I would have passed this baton to yet another generation.
I hate that I probably share these responses with most women reading. I hate that I will be sleeping with my windows closed now. I hate that now when I am alone up at the house and meet a single seemingly creepy man, I will use my gay friend as a “beard” and refer to him as my HUSBAND. As in my “My HUSBAND loves to fish but he spends so much time at the ARMY base GYM working out that he rarely gets a chance. Maybe you can go fishing with HIM sometime, ASSHOLE!?” I hate that my male friend is my “weapon” and will be used as my first line of defense.
Men: Male privilege is completely taken for granted. I don’t care whatever minority or oppressed group you belong to or think you belong to, just add “woman” to it and you just became 10x more vulnerable.
Can you do more to help?
I know there are good men out there, I have met many. The change in how WOMEN are treated will come from you good guys becoming allies to us. You must keep your friends in check; demonstrate what is acceptable behavior and acceptable language and what is not – things like not asking a woman if she is alone. Come on man?! What a way to creep her out in 10 seconds flat!
Simple things like not using the word “bitch” to describe a take-charge woman who is just doing her job and doing it well, would be great! Or what about anticipating that walking behind a woman at night is going to scare the crap out of her and choosing to either cross the street or keep your distance. . . and at the very least stay the heck away from my dock if you’re going to drunkenly hit on me. That’s what bars are for – another battle ground I avoid on my own.
Yes, we collectively have a long way to go to equality, equal pay, equal everything. Being a woman anywhere in the world is exhausting. Our minds are constantly assessing threat wherever we are and it is way worse for 99% of my sisters and sisters of color around the world. I’m well aware of my white woman privilege and forever grateful that at least I won the geographic lotto.
In the end
He did come back. Twice. Two days in a row. Care to guess what time? 7:30pm, the perfect “fishin” time. I was up in the house when I saw him looking up from his boat as he passed by. I’m sure he saw me. I quickly ducked both times, turned the lights off and turned the security camera on just in case he decided to stretch his legs.
It’s 90 degrees but the windows are shut and will stay that way tonight. This “doll” is cuttin’bait.
Your turn: How would you react in this situation? If you’re a woman, have you experienced what Kelly describes? Men, what are your thoughts?