×

Column: Rejecting a Sexual Advance Is More Difficult Than You Think

  • FILE - In this Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 file photo, former Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, center, dressed in all pink, leads the Women's March in Austin, Texas. Davis, who now runs the Austin-based women’s advocacy group Deeds Not Words, recalls being touched “very inappropriately” by a newly elected House member at a 2009 social gathering for lawmakers. She never filed a complaint and wasn’t even aware there was a process for doing so. Often the fear of coming forward and what the consequence of that will look like suppresses anyone from saying anything,” she says. (Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP)



For The Washington Post
Sunday, April 15, 2018

I’d always known that if I ever found myself on the receiving end of a man’s unwanted sexual advances, I’d give him a piece of my mind and leave. When pundits mocked the young woman who said Aziz Ansari assaulted her (for assuming Ansari could read her mind, and for not running away), I thought: I’m the girl in the bar who tells presumptuous guys to get lost. It would never happen to me.

Until I was that person. It was so much harder to remove myself than I had expected.

I’m a 26-year-old analyst at a media company. A few months ago, a friend introduced me online to his buddy, a businessman who he thought might have a job opening I’d want to apply for. After the “nice to e-meet you” banter and a few scheduling emails, we set up a time to chat on the phone. Our conversation lasted maybe 12 minutes. The businessman, the chief operating officer of a startup, asked some general questions, then immediately decided that this was “better suited for an in-person conversation” because I “sounded like the perfect fit.”

Having drinks with him seemed like a weird next step, but I hesitantly accepted his invitation. Face-to-face meetings are part of being an adult, right? He chose an upscale, members-only restaurant. I arrived by Uber and immediately felt underdressed in my T.J. Maxx sandals.

The businessman, who looked to be in his late 30s, greeted me nicely. He wore dark jeans and a blazer. Over a glass of wine, he asked about my interests and where I grew up, and made other small talk. This seemed normal. Our conversation continued into a second glass of wine, and I began to wonder when he would inquire about my job or tell me about his company. So I asked him some questions about his professional background.

“Describe your current role in two sentences or less,” he said. I use deep audience research to provide social and digital campaign strategies for my company’s top clients. “Yep, thought so,” he replied. “You’re not going to like this role.” What, then, was I doing there?

He ordered more wine. I did not feel unsafe. He was not creepy or touchy. Our conversation flowed fine. Eventually, he suggested that we relocate to a couch. I made sure to sit at the edge, turn my body and keep my distance. I was trying to remind him that this was a business meeting. Even if it wouldn’t turn into a job right away, he could still be a useful contact.

I started thinking about ways to leave without being rude. Should I say I had a boyfriend to meet? Maybe I could blame it on work. I was raised to be courteous. I didn’t want to offend a stranger.

Why was I so focused on leaving politely? Why couldn’t I just go?

For one thing, he wasn’t aggressive, so an abrupt exit didn’t seem justified, even though I had a gnawing feeling that he did not view our evening as the networking opportunity I’d agreed to. And although I should have acted on those instincts, society has taught women not to be pushy. We consider awkwardness and rudeness taboos, and I worried that walking out on this man — even leaving without a sufficiently convincing excuse — would somehow be unfair.

In the end, I put more trust and faith in the person who was making me uncomfortable than in myself.

The businessman offered another round about 8:30, and I demurred. I finally said I should head home. He paid, and we walked downstairs. When I opened my Uber app, he insisted on driving me home. I paused. I had no idea what to do. How would I politely decline?

Because I hadn’t shown signs in the previous hour that I was uncomfortable, and because he hadn’t outwardly done anything to make me feel unsafe, I thought it would be offensive to refuse his offer. And of course, he was a friend of a friend. I convinced myself that I was overreacting.

The valet brought his black Range Rover, and we got in. As soon as I put on my seat belt, before we started driving, he grabbed my face and shoved his tongue down my throat.

I pulled away immediately; at least now he would know I wasn’t interested. But I tried not to express alarm. I faced forward to explain what streets he should take. Now that I was in his car and under his control, I didn’t want to make him angry. I didn’t know his temper, and I didn’t want to make the situation worse. In retrospect, by not clearly expressing my desire to leave, that’s exactly what I did.

At a red light, he leaned over and kissed me again.

Putting someone in a nonthreatening but uncomfortable situation is not punishable in a court of law. It might have been assault if he knew I wasn’t interested. Unfortunately, pulling away or ending a kiss apparently is not a strong enough signal that a woman isn’t interested. The law treats the line for consent as fuzzy, which is terrifying.

At the next red light, I said I was home, even though I was still five blocks away. I walked.

A networking meeting had turned into a one-sided date, and I blamed myself: Why did I let it go on for so long? I’m still mad about my indecision, but in talking to other women, it’s clear that this happens all the time. No wonder women across the internet reacted so enthusiastically to “Cat Person,” a viral New Yorker short story last year about a woman who goes along with an uncomfortable sexual encounter because it seems easier than saying no and leaving.

Women can be reluctant to leave. I didn’t feel as though I should tell a man I was trying to impress for a job (either now or later) to stop being a jerk. I didn’t think I could run off without giving offense, and I didn’t want to give offense. Especially when he didn’t do anything outwardly inappropriate (until he did).

Of course, the truth is that you never need an excuse. I’m a free person and could have left whenever I wanted. When I don’t like my meal, I don’t eat it. When I don’t want to see the next show on TV, I turn it off. Sometimes it’s OK to be rude, and sometimes it’s counterproductive to be polite.

Men need to do better. There is work to be done. But the thing we can change is to say no — clearly, forcefully and without qualification. And to let politeness be damned. That is on us.

Kendyl Klein, a senior analyst at Fullscreen, a digital marketing firm, has researched the effect of social media on women’s perceptions of their bodies.