Friday, August 01, 2008

The perils of being female in public

Now that it's finally hit me that I have two substantial projects and one tiny one due in the next four to six weeks--while classes at RU begin in three and a half--I've been hunkering down and trying to get some work done.

Since I seem incapable of doing anything other than reading or course prep at home, for the past week or so I've been writing in a nearby café. The place has good coffee, lots of tables, and huge windows that let in tons of light. The music is loud, but it's a big space with high ceilings, so somehow the music seems backgroundy even while it successfully covers up the conversations going on around me.

It's a nearly perfect workspace. I love the staff. And when I need a break the people-watching is awesome. The only problem is that, among the flotsam and jetsam of the place's patrons--couples on blind dates, political activists plotting their next rally--often enough there's some guy who decides that, of all the lone individuals bent over their work, I'm the one he needs to talk to.

These tend to be men rather older than I, odd-bally but not especially creepy, and, as far as I can tell, they're not hitting on me. They just think I want to hear whatever they have to say.

So there I am, revising a chapter draft in longhand. I have a printout I'm carefully interlineating, a legal pad for longer additions, and several stacks of notes spread out around me. I do not think that I look interruptable. But suddenly there's a 50-something dude hovering over me.

"Grading papers?" He asks.

I look up and smile briefly. "Nope. Not during the summer!"

"Oh. So you're a--you must be a student? At [Local R1]?"

"No, I'm a professor at [RU]."

I return to my work. He keeps hovering.

"So--do you know anything about early Christianity?"

This is startling enough that I look up again. "Um, I guess. Some."

This, of course, is just the in he's looking for. He starts nattering about this ancient manuscript that has overturned scholars' assumptions about the early church. I don't catch the name of the manuscript, and I don't totally understand what's revolutionary about it, but since this isn't the least interesting thing I've heard all day, and since I'm trying to be minimally polite, I ask one or two questions--it's a Gnostic text, is it?--No no no no no! he says impatiently. I'm thinking of the Dead Sea Scrolls! Those were discovered much later!

After five minutes I've had enough. "Well, that's interesting!" I say with finality. "Thanks for telling me about it!" He hovers for a few more moments, but when I don't look up again, he drifts away.

Of course, he doesn't actually leave, and comes back at least twice to ask me how I take notes--do I use index cards? he never figured out how to use those, himself--then to tell me that I should really go to XYZ Pub, on Wednesday nights--well, some Wednesdays, he doesn't know which ones--because some professors have a philosophy reading group there. He's seen them. And he's sure it would be right up my alley.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn't a big deal. Guys like this aren't actively offensive or inappropriate, and when I'm really not in the mood, I can shut anyone down. But somehow it's easier when they are obnoxious, or interrupting me and my friends at a bar, or whatever. When they're just harmless pests, I feel like a bitch when I don't at least paste a pro forma smile on my face and give them a tolerant few minutes. As Dr. Virago wrote a couple of years back, it's exactly this assumption--that because you're female and in public you're required to be nice--that permits behavior that is, at bottom, aggressive and inappropriate. (Would this guy have pestered another man, however young? I doubt it.)

After all, he's just being friendly! Geez, lady: what's your problem?


life_of_a_fool said...

Oh I am totally a magnet for this sort of thing. Part of me likes being approachable in this way, because I like talking to the weirdos. Only sometimes though -- when I don't want to talk, I usually *really* don't want to talk.

Sisyphus said...

Oh I hear you on this one ---- and the whole "you're not a good girl unless you're smiling awkwardly and politely to inappropriate treatment" is a big one I can't train myself out of either.

medieval woman said...

Huzzah for this! I wonder if it's because women's work has so traditionally been a) unseen and in the background, and b) unacknowledged as "work" even when it is seen? I wonder if any of the male readers of F&F could comment on this?

But also, it's annoying when you're a young woman of "a certain age" and you say you're a professor and not a student and they look at you like you just sprouted a second head.

I think you handled the situation with the perfect mixture of polite, minimally-sustained interest and a firm (if unspoken) assertion that you needed to get back to work. Not that he read those signals, mind you, if he kept coming back for more!

Fretful Porpentine said...

But also, it's annoying when you're a young woman of "a certain age" and you say you're a professor and not a student and they look at you like you just sprouted a second head.

Oh God, yes, I hate that. Surely some of these people should have figured out by now that it's not all that uncommon for people to look younger than they are?

Anonymous said...

i hate the whole you look young thing. it is usually a dig, and not a compliment.

Anonymous said...

I had a comforting vision the other day of a world in which people are not allowed to bother people when they don't want to be bothered, can easily read social signals indicating such, and most of all, are not allowed to comment on any aspect of another person's appearance or mannerisms. Imagine this, a world free of comments from either men or women about other people's bodies or clothing choices. Realistically, such a prohibition would have a down side too, I suppose. But what freedom to imagine at least for a moment a world where no one talks about weight or diets or bootys or backsides or breasts, or penis length or clothing bargains or age or personal habits. Free to be you and me, indeed.

Fretful Porpentine said...

JustMe -- Yeah, exactly. And I am SO sick of being told that I'm somehow "lucky" to have a physical trait that has made it harder to find a job and harder to earn respect from both colleagues and students. (Questions that I have actually been asked in interviews: "How old are you? You look about twelve." "You're female; you're not very big; do you think you'll be able to handle a football player who has a grade dispute?") AAARRGHHH.

Renaissance Girl said...

A 50-ish dude nattering on about early Christianity? Now THAT'S the kind of blind date I'm looking for!

Doctor Cleveland said...

Flavia- He was almost certainly hitting on you, however ineptly. He did not choose among "all of the lone people bent over their work" at random. And if you were free for Wednesday nights at Pub XYZ, he was *surely* available to accompany you.

If it didn't feel the way it does when a creep hits on you in a pub, it's because he wasn't looking for a hookup per se, and so his would-be seductive technique (and the goals of his would-be seduction) are somewhat different.

He wanted to wow you with his erudition, which he firmly believes will eventually attract beautiful younger women to him, and he wanted you to admire him and validate his self-image *at least* as much as he wanted your romantic attentions. One of the reasons his approach was so inept is that he was counting on you to fulfill his fantasy script, be suitably amazed by his great-man genius, and flock to him as a disciple. If he ever does manage to pick someone up in a cafe, the poor woman won't get off with anything as easy as a one-night stand, alas.

Medieval Woman- There are equal-opportunity nutters who will talk to anyone they find handy, and I've been monologued at by some. Also, some people, men and women alike, hear "Shakespeare" and start trying to establish their own personal Shakespeare credentials out of competition or insecurity or both.

But mostly, no, this is something men do to women. If you reverse the genders in the coffee-house scenario, you reverse the scenario. Then the standard cultural script is for the woman to purport great interest in what the man is writing or reading. That's been my experience.

I don't think it's that the pest categorized Flavia's activities as women's work; I think it's that he solipsized Flavia completely from jump. He had a script in which he would be the authority and F. would be his dewy-eyed admirer and that script didn't deviate when he found that she was a professor rather than a student. He learns she's a university professor and begins to lecture her! It's can't more awfully and hilariously plain than that!

Flavia said...

Dr. C., you've reminded me of this awesome essay (that HuffPo link contains just its fabulous opening anecdote, but the rest of the essay can be accessed from there). It discusses exactly the gender dynamic you're talking about.

And alas, it's true that on the few occasions I have tried to pull intellectual rank to scare someone off, it's never worked. The bozo who's cluelessly self-important enough to try to chat one up in some inappropriate setting is not likely to find one's job, subject of specialization, etc., intimidating. Well do I remember the time that (in response to the obvious question) I announced that the last book I'd read was War and Peace. It was totally if bizarrely true, but I felt no little satisfaction in the belief that the dude would surely leave me alone after that.

But no. He got all excited because hey! I liked to read? He liked to read! Like, Dean Koontz! I musta read some Dean Koontz, right? (Aww, why not??)

Flavia said...

RG: well, if things don't work out with your boy Carew, come on out here and I'll hook you up.

G-Fav said...

Try wearing headphones or earbuds, even if they're not plugged in.


Doctor Cleveland said...

You know, Flavia, I was thinking of that essay too, and went googling for it right after I was done posting. It is fabulous. Thanks for the link.

The Koontz story is also priceless. A perfect example.

Anonymous said...


I know RU and its strange little city, and it's far superior to many other RUs and their cities.

At least your graybeard offers something to accompany his hoariness and odour.

Isn't it sad when this is all the action a girl can get?

G-Fav said...

I'm still thinking about this.

I was about to say, "Why is this a gender issue? Isn't everyone 'expected' to be polite?". But rereading your post I see you didn't explicitly say that. I realized that your and your commenters' saying that women are expected to be polite doesn't imply that guys aren't, too...

Anyhow, I'll raise my hand and offer that guys are bugged by coffee shop weirdos of both genders now and then, too. Fortunately, less frequently, but it's non-zero.

Ducking from the tomatoes,

Flavia said...

Hi G, and thanks for your input. I'd like to hear more from more of my male readers, since this is obviously anecdotal and impressionistic--but it strikes me that men are interrupted or approached much less often than women when there's no reasonable excuse for it.

That is, total nutjobs bug people of both genders. And I've certainly seen men approach other men (or women approach men) with a specific, resonable motive--to comment on the awesomeness of the book the other guy is reading, or exclaim over his iPhone, or whatever. But the random striking up of conversation with someone who shows no sign of being available for or interested in conversation seems to be a male-to-female phenomenon. I'm guessing that even semi-inappropriate dudes have more trepidation about encroaching on other dudes' privacy than they do on women's.

But again: that's just my impression. Anyone else want to weigh in?

Addy said...

I'm sure I've told you some of my stories from years of living in NYC, Flavia. I even catch this type of crap when I go out swing dancing, which seems like such an innocuous, wholesome activity that doesn't even involve that much conversation... but I'm sure ballroom dancing, where men typically lead, attracts even more of this type of guy.
And, this kind of thing ALWAYS happens when I am alone, less often when I am with another woman, and never when I am with a man. Sometimes, I have to resort to feigning complete feral insanity to get someone off my back... and I actually kind of relish the chance to depart from being the "good girl" to someone who might bite the heads off bats.
Of the many times I have shared these stories with guy friends, boyfriends, etc., I can't recall one instance where a man shared a similar tale.

Flavia said...

Heya Sheepish! You know, I was thinking of you as I wrote this post, as I do remember at least a few of your stories. And though I suspect you may radiate niceness (not to mention great beauty) more than some of us, and so attract more than your share of socially aggressive weirdos convinced of their own, necessary charms--well, it's nothing any of us is doing other than being female. 'Sfar as I can tell.

Unknown said...

I don't think headphones are that great of a deterrent. I normally study with mine on to drown out background noise and am still interrupted by these sorts of men - who will continue to talk even once I have put my headphones back on!

If I try to ignore the ones who are 'regulars' at certain places I'm labeled as rude or a bitch so I've had to change my whole life around sometimes to avoid these sorts of people, going to a different coffee shop, avoiding certain parts of the library even changing my church!

Doctor Cleveland said...

Well, I'm a male reader, and I'll admit that other men have just begun rattling at me. But it's happened twice in my adult life, as a real oddity both times, and there was nothing like the condescension that the pest showed Flavia.

On the other hand, I used to know a graduate student whose standard approach to meeting women was almost exactly like what Flavia has described. He would just approach attractive women and start lecturing them about his pet theory. This always seemed like ineffectual courtship behavior, and some of the women didn't even read it as courtship behavior. Except that he never, ever did it to men.

Even if Flavia's pest has some kind of autism-spectrum disorder, which would explain his inability to read social signals or follow appropriate norms, it's still a likely bet that he expresses his cognitive quirks differently to women than he does to men. Because even he can read *those* unwritten rules.

On the other hand, dysfunctional women intent on violating some man's boundaries, even when they're very dysfunctional indeed, almost do it indirectly. Throw in the misogynist stereotype of your choice (passive-aggressive, guileful, manipulative) but they add up to the same thing: even women behaving extremely inappropriately have look for ways to *subvert* men's boundaries rather than simply ignore them. Even the crazies are forced to give that much deference to male social privilege, and that deference itself constitutes privilege in daily life. It is far, far easier for straight men to fend off even fairly determined nutters than it is for women to get shut of garden-variety boors. I've certainly never had to change my coffee shop, let alone my congregation, even when dealing with people who desperately needed medication.

i said...

I want to offer my own variation on this pattern, which is, I humbly suggest, almost nastier. It's the "Young lady, I'm going to pretend to take you and your expertise seriously, because that way I will have one more person I can coerce into reading my incoherent manuscript."

The worst case of this took place when I worked in a rare books library, and a creepy old man who -- I am not making this up -- actually had saliva dripping from his moustache, upon confirming that yes, I did like Shakespeare (Oh! Will! What has not been done in your name!), suggested that he would show me his MS of a series of free verse poems he had written dealing with all of Shakespeare's works. I sort of politely smiled and nodded, not really believing that he would come back another day and bring me the MS (which, it needs to be said, he was also paranoid about me showing to other people or, god forbid, publishing in my own name). He would subsequently come into the library regularly to check up on me and whether I had written any comments for him on his MS, forcing me to hide in the stacks while the grad students who worked their lied and said I wasn't at work that day.

Somehow, around that period in my life (closer to 20 than to 30), this happened a lot. The owner of my favourite bookstore, with whom I was casually friendly, asked me to read his memoir-in-progress. There were other incidents. I think the combination of being twenty, female and an English major was an irresistible combination for any wacko with literary pretensions.

Flavia said...

Irina: you win!

Actually, yes--I'd forgotten about this variation. I've never been stalked, and I don't think I've ever had someone actually show me his writing, but a certain number of random dudes have indeed professed a desire for me to give them my (ahem) serious opinion about their poetry, novel, or--in one deeply icky instance--"erotic fiction."

I'm not sure how much of a variation this is, though--the guy is still convinced that he's a genius, and under no circumstances does he want your actual opinion; he's just found someone he considers to have some minimal taste/qualifications to appreciate his particular brand of genius.

(Sheepish, if you're reading: I've suddenly remembered the story from maybe 3-4 years ago about the very old, very persistent guy who wanted the two of you to become the next--which comedic duo was it?)

Anonymous said...

My daughters (twentyish) and spouse refer to this as the "breathing while female" condition - male incidence of same is < 0.0001%.

the rebel lettriste said...

Here's my anecdote: after three dates with a slightly mad musician, I decided to cut it off.

Musician had been quite impressed by the fact that I was "into" poetry, as he put it. But had no curiosity about what that actually entailed. And when I told him I didn't want to see him anymore, he sent me free verse, Deep Image nature poetry about his anguish that I wouldn't have sex with him. Via text message.

i said...

Flavia: Thanks! What's my prize? A spray can of anti-creepy-dude repellent?

Actually, out of the two anecdotes I described above, the second was by far the worse situation. It's one thing when a creepy dude follows you around when you don't have any sort of relationship or reason to behave nicely to the creepy dude. But the owner of my favourite used book store? Where I got discounts regularly? Where I sold the few books I was willing to let go of? Where one of his employees would give me money to go buy Coke, and we'd sit behind the register mixing it with the rum hidden under the counter, and he'd smoke and tell me about Russian philosophers I'd never heard of?

Damn straight I had to read that manuscript.

Liza Blake said...

I had a scarily similar incident on public transport yesterday that made me think of this post (and followup comments). I was riding home with a bag of books I had just checked out, and I got out one to start reading. The guy sitting next to me took off his headphones (to which he had previously been bopping rather enthusiastically) and asked me what I was reading. Stuart Clark's book on the history of vision in early modern Europe, I told him. He looked blankly at me, then told me he had just started reading two months ago (I'm guessing, since kindergarten, not from scratch) and it was worrying all his friends, and then stated very impressively that he had gotten through almost 300 pages in two months. I "mmm"ed encouragingly and bent back over my book, and read about epistemological crises to the soundtrack of how Ayn Rand had changed his life.

I finally started assigning him reading to accompany his analysis of Rand, and that drove him away quickly. This has been my main -- and usually successful -- strategy of getting rid of random walkups (telling them to read before they tried to talk to me again), though it did backfire once when one guy worked through a whole list I had given him and came back wanting to discuss ...