“Hi, I’m Steve. Sorry to interrupt, I was just heading to the bar and noticed your glass is empty – can I buy you a drink?”
I was nervous and new to the world of dating. I didn’t know how to make small talk with a stranger or how to use a few brief seconds to assess someone’s looks/clothes/manner/ voice to decide if they were someone worth talking to. I’d also just signed a lease, so my disposable income had plummeted, and the cocktails in this swish CBD bar ran at $19 each.
I said no. Not “no”, but some excuse about being out on a “girls’ night” delivered with a smile.
When he left the table, my friends and I commented on his politeness, applauding him for not being pushy or sleazy. Five minutes later the bartender came to our table with something we hadn’t ordered and explained it had been sent over by the man we’d just been congratulating.
I can’t deny that there was something enjoyable about this exchange. I was flanked by two gorgeous friends and was flattered that he’d approached me. As a recently single girl, I was reminded I still ‘had it’, and there was something superficial yet satisfying about stumbling into a classic movie trope where a mysterious gentleman in the corner covered my bar tab. But this trope, this archetype of dating norms, came with a caveat. At this stage the drink was made, paid for, and presented to me in plain view of the person paying for it – saying no again would only make me seem like a bit of a dickhead.
Maybe he thought he was doing the right thing. Maybe he thought I really was into him and just needed to be a good gal pal because Sarah’s freaking out about the job interview she had today and we need to reassure her that the navy skirt with the white button down was a great choice and that her interviewer definitely wasn’t chuckling when she mispronounced “prima facie”. Or maybe I shouldn’t be making excuses. Maybe men just need to be better at hearing no.
On the surface, this situation is about nothing more than free booze, but beneath that lies a more covert political statement. Dating is a complex social interaction for anyone to navigate, but there are certain social graces expected of women, especially where money is spent or flattery is involved. This guy had heard my polite rejection as “yes, under different circumstances”, and by persisting when I had hesitated, he coerced me into saying yes when I had already said no. Rather than sending the drink back and offending him, I accepted it. Rather than exercising my autonomy, I privileged and protected his ego.
This is something we do almost intuitively when we reject men. We are taught that to reject is impolite and so we give false excuses that don’t sound like rejections. Instead of “I’m not interested”, we say “I’m really busy the next few weeks”. Instead of “I find your advances kind of creepy”, we say “I think it would be unprofessional to date someone I work with”. Instead of “you were really attractive on Tinder, but IRL I can infer from those boat shoes and pastel shorts that your sense of self-importance is too inflated for me to expect much reciprocation from you in the bedroom”, we say “I’m not ready to date anyone right now”. It’s not that these aren’t valid reasons – it’s that a lot of the time they’re lies.
This predisposition to protect the male ego goes beyond the issue of politeness; we are careful in our rejection of men because we could be offending a potential predator. You can shake your head and say “#notallmen”, but the truth is there is no way to tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys. People who commit sexual assault are not hermits with seedy moustaches who wear trench coats and hide in alleyways; they are a classmate, a relative, a colleague, a friend, a guy offering to buy you a cocktail. In a society that asks what survivors did to invite the advances of their attacker (‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Had you had much to drink?’), it is implied that it is our responsibility to take precautions to prevent sexual assault. My first thought when the bartender presented me with the drink was if he could have put something in it.
Now that I’ve had more dating experience I’ve adopted a policy of absolute honesty; I’m not the kind of person who won’t reply to your messages and hope you get the hint, and I won’t tell you I’m too busy with study if the truth is I’m just not that into you. Being honest isn’t always easy – saying I was out on a girls’ night was certainly simpler than saying “I’m not really sure how dating works yet so unless you look like a cross between Channing Tatum and Justin Trudeau I’m probably going to default to ‘no thanks’”.
You aren’t obliged to provide an explanation if you don’t have one or don’t want to. It is possible to be both direct and polite; there is nothing offensive about saying “thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested”. But if you are going to give an excuse make it an honest one. Using a line like “I’ve got a boyfriend” when you don’t might make someone leave you alone, but probably because they respect the boundaries of a fellow dude rather than because they respect yours.
While being honest is important, it’s not more important than respecting someone’s boundaries. Ultimately the onus doesn’t and shouldn’t fall on women to be direct in their rejection of men – the onus falls on men to understand that hesitation or an excuse still counts as no.
In high school sex ed we are given the mantra that “no means no” when really we ought to be teaching that only yes means yes.
This piece originally appeared on ‘Boobs, Bumps and Blood’, a feminist sex ed blog. Check it out here.