By daring to enter traditionally male spaces, like bars, by themselves, women project that it is open season.
My friends and I were recently blindsided by the closing of our favorite bar. Over the years, the small Irish pub in our hometown had hosted our birthday celebrations, going away and welcome back parties, nights where we just wanted to shoot pool or sneak into the secret back room to play flip cup. On more than a few holidays it had been a refuge for those of us who, tired of our families, just wanted to catch up with visiting high school friends over a beer.
What does this have to do with women in public spaces? Since my college graduation, this pub had been what Cheers was for Sam, Diane, and Norm or MacLaren’s was for the How I Met Your Mother gang: a place to bond with old friends and make new ones, punctuating my 20s with some of the best times I remember and, to be sure, some of the best times I don’t. More importantly, it had always been a place where I could feel safe as a young woman. I’d always been comfortable entering alone and talking with the owner, a beloved figure in our town, until the rest of my group arrived. Any time I was bothered by a patron, the bouncers acted quickly and escorted me safely to my vehicle at the end of the night.
This sort of conscientious treatment is a revelation when, despairingly in 2016, women are still chastised and stigmatized for occupying certain places. Streets—particularly streets at night and/or in urban areas—are one of them. Bars, pubs, and taverns are another, and this is that story.
Last fall, I wrote a narrative on taking a solo weekend away to kill two birds with one stone: soak up the last remnants of warm weather while coming to terms with a benchmark decision I had made eight years earlier. That trip taught me a lot, as the deliberate time we take for ourselves often does. One of the lessons occurred after I finished my seafood meal by the bay and followed the strains of cover band music to a neighboring bar.
As soon as the torn ticket for “free rail wine” was in my hand, I caught a look at the assault of primary-colored wood paneling and wondered if I had made a mistake. The composition of the mostly male patronage was one half recently graduated fraternity bro, one half Jimmy Buffett doppelgänger. A few sporadic groups of women stood in protective clusters.
The Jimmy Buffett doppelgängers took an immediate liking to me. Leaning against a pole in my floor-length yellow sundress, sipping cheap cabernet, I heard a smooth voice. “You’re so beautiful.” A Hawaiian-shirted man old enough to be my father moved closer, gesturing to the band. “Do you know this song? I don’t, so maybe you could tell me about it.”
I thanked him for his compliment and slipped into the crowd, surfacing in an empty pocket where I was quickly greeted by more of the same. Every time I dodged a sly smile and set of ogling eyes, another would appear, like self-replicating baddies in the world’s worst video game. The most common question I was asked was, “What are you doing here all by yourself?”
By daring to enter traditionally male spaces, like bars, by themselves, women project that it is open season. If we are visibly not “spoken for,” it is assumed that we are there seeking companionship or sex, not to unwind after a work day, to enjoy a nice cocktail, or to listen to live music. By the time I found myself surrounded by three older IT professionals urging me to climb onto their boat, this was painfully apparent.
“What are you doing here all by yourself?”
Eager to forget the taste of bad wine, I took a swig of water and cleared my throat. “I came here to hike, spend time at the beach, listen to this band. Spend some time alone.”
The inevitable follow-up question: “So, are you single”?
Women are left with three basic answers when strangers ask about our relationship status, each of which may be true or untrue, and each presenting its own set of subsequent problems. The first, “Yes, I’m single,” would have essentially painted a target on my back. To these men, I would be signaling that the light is green, that I am readily available for propositioning. The second, “No, I have a boyfriend,” may or may not have gotten them to leave me alone. If it did work, it would be because I “belonged” to someone else, not because I simply wasn’t interested.
Thinking of my college roommate who lives not far from where I was vacationing and is also a queer woman, I went with the third option. “No, I have a girlfriend.”
This was new territory for me, having had futile experiences with the other two responses in the past. The Jimmy Buffetts invited me aboard their boat, which was docked a few yards away from the bar’s back patio. Far from sending the message that I wasn’t interested in their advances, my mention of a girlfriend only encouraged invasive questions and comments. Among them: “How do you know you like women?” “Is your girlfriend hot?” “Maybe you could invite her out here and we could all grab a hotel,” and my personal favorite, “You’re too pretty to be with a woman.”
Sure that the conversation wouldn’t extend beyond that topic and related inquiries into “how lesbian sex works” that I was not even slightly inclined to address, I said goodbye and went back to my hotel room—alone. It was an experiment that went awry, but what if I had actually been in a relationship with a woman at the time and was answering truthfully? My honesty was irrelevant in a bar where a woman’s sexuality is a locked door for strangers to burst through.
When girlfriends of mine share their stories of unwanted attention or outright harassment, they frequently conclude with comments like, “Do they think that badgering me or yelling things at me actually works? Like I’m going to drop everything, wrap my arms around them, and declare, ‘I’d love to go out with you! You’re exactly what I’ve been waiting for!’” And I think it’s important to understand that genuine interest is overwhelmingly not the motivator for pervasive, unwelcome behavior. Catcalls, sexual remarks, and inappropriate questioning are tactics to intimidate, to mark territory the way dogs piss on fire hydrants. To send a message that no matter how comfortable you may be with yourself, there’s a power that can be harnessed to make you feel like less.
The solution is not for women to stop frequenting public areas. It requires a shift in the antiquated belief that women in traditionally male places should expect to feel threatened, especially if certain conditions are present: she’s alone, she’s from out of town, she’s dressed “a certain way.” It asks men to reject an entitlement to the intimate lives of strangers. It invites men to call out invasive behavior when they see it among one another, which, writes Jamie Utt, “has the intended effect of removing the social approval that allows men to act in this way.”
The solution challenges women to stop apologizing for existing, in public or in private, because we don’t have to, not ever.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.