Originally published on The Good Men Project.
In the age of #metoo, how do men handle random interactions and flirtatious encounters?
I’m walking down the street on my way to work. It’s a path I’ve trodden hundreds of times. Whenever I pass by the local bar, my body tenses. Even though it’s closed at this hour, men still seem to gather out front. I’ll likely be fine, but this is how it is to walk past a bar in the morning going to work. A man calls out, “You’re sexy.” I respond, “Thank you.” I keep walking, but he leans in, starts to walk with me. “Can I get your number?” “No,” I say and keep walking. He doesn’t follow me. At the pace I go, I’m not surprised. I mean business. I’m late for work, and it’s 8 a.m.
This is a scenario that’s familiar to many women. It comes out of the blue and calls for more attention than we want to give or have time for.
Imagine, instead, this other scenario. I’m walking down the street on my way to work. Same scene. Man calls out that I’m sexy. I thank him. He smiles. I smile. That’s it. Exchange complete. This one works for me. This one leaves me feeling safe. This one tells me the man is listening and not just pushing for an agenda.
The first scenario is one of the reasons women don’t want to be told they’re sexy.
1. “Sexy” isn’t freely given. There are strings attached. Even responding to the words with a simple thank you can be read as an invitation for more. If a man is offering a compliment, let it be just that: a compliment. A woman responding is not an invitation for more--unless it’s clear it’s an invitation for more. If she’s dressed for work, seems to be moving quickly, has headphones on, or doesn’t respond, it’s because she doesn’t want more.
2. Sometimes a woman doesn’t feel sexy, so telling her she’s sexy doesn’t land. In this case, it’s not about you. You may think her clothes cut a phenomenal figure. How could she not know it? Truth is, sometimes we don’t. I might be bloated, tired, distracted, overwhelmed, none of which is about you. This means my sexiness doesn’t depend on external factors. It’s how I feel on the inside. You’re not going to convince me. I need to find my own true north.
3. A woman’s sexiness doesn’t depend on you! What an onerous task that would be, to be responsible for a woman’s sexiness. There might come a day when the man might be absent or not feeling the woman’s sexiness, and then what? If a woman depended on you for her sexiness, she might just fall apart. Okay, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but when people are externally referenced around something, they have a hard time internally sourcing it. If a woman feels sexy, you want that to grow from the inside out, watered by her own self-esteem, not by the words of others.
4. It can be manipulative. A man tells me I’m sexy, and now I owe him something. Somehow, we’ve had a transaction, and that transaction means I have agreed to be part of a system which obligates me to do something. I now owe the man a smile, a phone number, more of my time and energy. Men have been known to guilt-trip me because I haven’t responded or haven’t responded positively. The guilt trip doesn’t work these days, but when I was in my teens and twenties, I felt as though I had done something wrong. I would go along with the interaction, getting manipulated by the man, thinking that I somehow owed him something. I didn't.
5. Sometimes a woman doesn’t want any more attention on her body. Now, a sexy comment can definitely be about more than physical appearance, but I’d put money on the idea that the comment probably IS about physical appearance, especially if it’s done publicly from a stranger. Honestly, we get so many comments about how we look, should look, don’t look, don’t look good enough, do look good enough, that sometimes we’re sick of it. Therefore, if we don’t respond/respond well, know that this might be a cause.
6. It’s an invasion of private space when we’re in the public. Some women simply want to be free and undisturbed when they’re in public. They don’t want to have to be on guard when someone calls out to them. They don’t want to be called out to at all. It doesn’t matter how hot you are, sometimes we just want to be left alone!
7. Sloppy sexual energy. This is when a man is oozing so much sexual energy, he might as well have become a life-sized walking penis. He is a man who is not in control of his sexual energy, and a woman can feel it. It’s one thing for a man to be connected to his sex and his sexual energy, which is potent and non-threatening. It’s another to hear the words, “You look sexy,” coupled with a massive dose of uncontrolled testosterone. The latter is huge turn-off and unsafe.
What if a woman does want to be called sexy?Certainly, I’ve been there, and I know other women have been there, too. In my experience (and when chatting with other female friends), three things really matter: connection, calibration, completion.
Connection means a man is actually connected to the woman. For some, it could be minor--though this is always a bit dangerous. Eye contact and a smile might not be enough to establish rapport. A friendship or romantic relationship might be enough that she would appreciate hearing those words. When it’s a random man at a random time, it can feel invasive and disconnected. Furthermore, saying those words doesn’t create a connection; the connection must exist before the words are spoken.
Calibration means the man has felt into the woman, assessed whether or not she might be open for a comment, and is confident she is. When in doubt: ask. (“If you were into it, I would love to give you a compliment.”) He sees what her pacing is, what she might be up for, and then moves from there. If he starts to speak and finds there’s little to no response, he changes tactic and perhaps chooses not to move forward with what he had intended to say. He matches her beat for beat.
The last piece is completion. Telling a woman she’s sexy doesn’t mean there needs to be any acknowledgment, any thanks, or any reciprocity. Consider the interaction complete. She doesn’t owe you anything, not even a thank you. Now, I was certainly raised to say thanks and try to do so, but if a woman feels like you’re invading her space, she might not be up for any sort of response. In that case, you considering the interaction complete would be a welcome gift.
◊♦◊In the age of #metoo, people are grappling with how to handle random interactions, flirtatious encounters, sexy texts, first kisses, and more. With some presence and awareness, slowing down the pace, and ultimately caring for the person you’re interacting with, you have a much higher degree of chance that you’ll leave the person you’re interacting with not only better than you found them but better off for having met you.
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