I don’t flirt. Ever. Not because I don’t know how, but because I just don’t like to. Being funny had always been my technique as a server and it was more profitable and less exhausting to maintain than keeping up a faux-attraction. Even though I no longer work in a place where alcohol is a factor and I don’t look twenty-five anymore, I work in a situation with repeat customers which creates an environment where crushes can and often do happen. I’m friendly and passionate about film and I guess sometimes that can be misconstrued as interest even though I have always had a rule when dealing with male customers: I pretend that my husband Nick is standing behind me and I would never say anything to them that I wouldn’t say in front of him. I don’t ever want anyone to think I’m leading them on. But despite this diligence, certain men will take the most innocuous conversation as an opening for a clumsy pick-up attempt. I don’t wear a wedding ring (for several reasons) and this made one guy very upset. He said, “I wouldn’t have wasted my time if I knew you were married. You should wear a ring so you don’t give a guy the wrong idea.” What I learned from that exchange was that smiling and talking about movies (ie; doing my job) was really me giving him an invitation to hit on me. Well that and that he is a colossal dick.
Maybe it’s difficult to believe in the concept of ‘unwanted attention’, especially since we live in a society that rewards bad behavior with magazine covers, million dollar paychecks and three-picture deals. The old adage that ‘bad press is still press’ has become gospel in our culture and to our detriment. Personally I don’t define my self-worth by how many men find me desirable. My personal experience has shown me that it’s the basest form of flattery. Some of you might think, “Oh, poor old lady who doesn’t like getting hit on, some people would love to have your problems”, but it’s not about me, really. It’s about the assumption that because I’m standing behind a counter I’m somehow fair game. It’s about a false sense of entitlement that allows certain men to feel they have rights they absolutely don’t have. Something happened to me recently that I’m still trying to process and in the days since I’ve been going over it and vacillating between knowing that what happened to me was wrong and wondering if it was my fault somehow. And that pisses me off more than words can express.
Working with the public as long as I have has made me hyper-aware of how quickly we make judgements about people based on their appearance, and as much as I wish this wasn’t the case I’ve had to learn to operate within this framework. I make an effort to treat everyone equally regardless of the way they look specifically because I’ve been at the receiving end of appearance-based prejudice. For about four years or so a customer we’ll call ‘Lou’ has had a pretty obvious fixation on me. He’s a little rough around the edges, head-bangerish type so his advances weren’t the most subtle. I just assumed Lou was awkward around me because he wasn’t used to being treated nicely by women in general because of how he looks. If you’ve noticed an inconsistency in my logic you’re not wrong. I want to treat everyone equally but here I was giving Lou the benefit of the doubt based on my own condescending and ill-conceived notions of who he is. I figured he’d get over his attraction with time – most crushes fizzle out eventually – but it got worse.
Lou’s comments started out as compliments – about my hair or my outfit – but soon became invasive. Instead of, “that’s a really nice colour on you”, it became “why are you wearing that colour? It’s really bright don’t you think?” When I changed my hair from dark brown to lighter brown Lou said, “You’re hair is lighter. What did you do that for? I don’t know about that.” I felt like he wasn’t complimenting me so much as subtly trying to express his displeasure with these physical changes I’d made without his permission. He was starting to cross the line in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with but because he wasn’t outright harassing me in the textbook sense I just sucked it up for the five or ten minutes I had to deal with him and let his behavior slide. It was, however, a cumulative thing. When I get new glasses and people notice, it’s different than offering an unsolicited opinion almost every time you see me. Beyond mild annoyance, it wasn’t even something I thought much about until I was out one morning doing errands in the neighbourhood when he drunkenly made a pass at me. It was more sad than gross and I honestly felt sorry for him. Especially pathetic was the “your husband is a lucky guy” line he threw in at the end. I decided just to blow it off because it was so sloppy and he was probably embarrassed if he remembered it happening at all. Did I mention it was in the morning and he was drunk? I vainly hoped then that Lou might just give up.
I want to make it clear that I never once felt physically threatened by Lou, nor did I ever feel like his actions might escalate in a way that would put me in danger. This was part of my conundrum. How would I call him out on this? I didn’t like how creepily familiar and objectified his comments made me feel. Every time Lou looked me up and down or said, “what’s up with that dress? You look like a 1950’s housewife” he wasn’t seeing me as a person but as a sexual object, and every time my looks didn’t comply with the fantasy of me he’d constructed in his imagination his contempt was palpable. When Lou voiced his displeasure recently when I dyed my hair red I almost felt like saying , “Oh I’m sorry my new hairstyle means you won’t be able to easily masturbate to my image later,” because that’s really what all this was about. But I didn’t say anything because it was busy and he was with his almost-teenaged daughter. Yes, that’s right, he has a daughter.
I could have probably put up with Lou’s comments forever because quite honestly I felt sorry for him and figured that I only have to deal with him for a few minutes at a time but he has to be him, which makes me the obvious victor in this scenario. I also knew that trying to engage him in a mature and respectful conversation about his behavior was probably more trouble than it was worth and would never give me the result I hoped for – his understanding that what he was doing was inappropriate. But as I mentioned before, this wasn’t necessarily about me. Sure I didn’t appreciate the negative attention but more importantly I have a responsibility as a woman to do what I can to provide a worthy example for other women, in this case specifically, Lou’s daughter. What is she learning when she sees her dad objectifying a woman he barely knows? What is she learning about her own value as a person? I resolved that the next time he made a comment I was going to tell him to stop.
Lou came into the store alone while I was cleaning. My hair had half fallen out of the clip holding it back and when I said hello he looked at me disapprovingly and said, “What’s up with your hair? Some kind of fashion statement? It’s all over the place.” I scanned around to make sure we were the only two in the store, because as much as I wanted to verbally eviscerate Lou I was still at work and didn’t want to embarrass him or anyone who might overhear. I very calmly looked at Lou and said, “Look, I want you to know I’m not upset, but I’m telling you right now, you don’t get to make unsolicited comments about my physical appearance anymore. Or about any woman’s appearance for that matter. It’s inappropriate and disrespectful.” Lou smirked as if he was half expecting Ashton Kutcher to jump out and tell him he was being Punk’d. I continued, “It’s actually pretty sexist to assume you should have any say in how I look, or that I should even want to hear what you think. It ends today, okay?” Lou looked at me in disbelief and kind of chuckled, “Oh, but you’re not upset? You’re seem upset to me.” I walked towards him, staying composed, “I’m not upset, Lou, just offended. I could make comments about the way you look, believe me, but I don’t because it’s none of my business, so what makes you think it’s okay for you to do it to me? I’m seriously interested to know.” At this point Lou, sounding like a spoiled child, spat out “you never liked me!” and before speeding out the door he yelled, “don’t worry I’m never coming back!” That was it.
I’ve written before that there’s a fine line between flirting and harassment, but this was more insidious and passive aggressive and was in some ways worse because it was so hard to define. Some might think I’m just a stuck-up feminazi bitch for what I said to Lou, because what he was doing wasn’t hurting me. That does not mean it wasn’t harmful. What I regret most about it is that I didn’t say anything for so long that my silence may have been misconstrued as compliance. The moral of this story isn’t that ‘actions have consequences’. I’m not even sure what the moral is beyond just waking up in the morning and being a respectful fucking adult, but apparently for some people that’s harder to figure out than the ending of The Sopranos. I’m not sorry I said anything to Lou but I worry that he may still not really understand why the way he was treating me was so wrong. Ultimately I have absolutely no control over how he receives what I told him. I have no idea what he’s going to tell his daughter about why they don’t come to the store anymore and I don’t know that it even matters. All I can control are my own actions and in all of this I was just an object to him, devoid of feelings or thoughts and being de-humanized by this man – as inept and bumbling as he was – needed to end. The best way for me to do that was to stop acting like the inanimate object Lou thought I was and respond like the woman I am.