The first part of this discussion will look at what I learnt from these three experiences, while the second (the next post) will point out the weak spots that still give me pause for thought.
What I learnt
Don’t shrug off strange behaviour
What immediately strikes me when I review the first two case studies is that I clearly set myself up for both messes. I voluntarily interacted with these two guys for quite a long time. Even when they started to act strangely – as if it was equivocal whether he was from Japan or Korea in #1, and checking up on me repeatedly as I was walking through town in #2 – I kept engaging them.
I put it down to three things: naivete, openness and the desire to trust.
Sleazy old korean man, I wanted to assume him decent. I wanted to interpret his communication as due to language confusion or a mind muddy from alcohol. It’s not even that I had chosen to ignore his gem of “anything you like… You like??”, I genuinely had not understood what he was referring to. My mind had not placed him in the role of predator, so it was only searching within the “normal, friendly stranger” memory bank for some other meaning for his words.
When I went out with the young Malagasy guy, the fact that he had only sex on the brain and was acting in belief that I would be an easy target had NEVER occurred to me. Never. It’s strange to reflect on now because I don’t think of myself as being innocent-minded about men, and because I’d already gotten fed up with some of the crap guys had tried to pull back home in Auckland. Perhaps the reason why I was so oblivious was because just as he was viewing me from a completely self-centred perspective, so was I with respect to him. I was happy that I would get to talk to one more young Malagasy person, I wanted to learn more about life in Madagascar and how he saw things. Even holding the thought that he was an attractive guy, I never saw it as anything more than an opportunity for a nice chat and a chance to get to know another person. That he was a guy following his radar for sex seriously did not strike me until he propositioned me so boldly in the cafe. The pureness of my naivete there astonishes me to this day.
In essence what this made me feel is that just as it is not wise to block out your environment and any lurking, suspicious figures while you’re out walking alone; it is not a good idea to blind yourself to the hints that a man’s behaviour is giving you. Innocence and the desire to give people a chance are important traits to guard in this world; life would be pretty unbearable if everyone chose to be critical of everyone else straight off the bat. Well, probably not tenable at all in fact 🙂 But there’s a difference between enjoying your innocence in the face of something new, and continuing to lean back on it in the face of unsettling information. True innocence can only last so long, and I wonder if my innocence was rather a refusal to modify my rose-tinted lenses because I wanted to see rose, not the truth. I suppose I ended up realising that innocence is at its best as a springboard for learning, and is not necessarily something I should try to maintain at all costs as an abstract ideal in itself. The concept of the springboard is actually a useful cheesy metaphor here. You come into contact with the springboard once and use all it’s got to leap into the air. Not gonna get anywhere when you throw yourself to the ground and cling to the board with both arms.
It was not merely puppiness that blinded me to his motivations, for as I mentioned earlier there was a fair amount of self-centredness in operation as well. I was seeing him as an interesting opportunity for me, never giving a thought to what was in it for him, where he was coming from. Now I’m not saying that it’s necessarily reasonable to attempt to coerce someone you barely know into sex the first meeting you have with them, but what I do critique about my actions is that I went into it from the start knowing that I was not open to any sexual or romantic entanglement. My reasons included that it wasn’t long until I was leaving the country; that I barely knew him and realistically didn’t see that I could get to know him more; and finally that the extra hassle of that kind of relationship and the health concerns that go along with it were not things I wanted to take on at that time. It was never going to happen.
I also know that I accepted the “date” because I was flattered. As a general rule I try to be as clear as possible with guys when their non-platonic interest in me is not reciprocated. So this is another reason why I am a big advocate of No and honesty – it not only saves a girl a lot of trouble but it lets the guy go on his way without being toyed with. In that moment, stuck in a seedy cafe in nowheresville, I was very angry that I had let this bad situation come about. With hindsight I’m glad that I could go through it and come out unharmed because it was a very valuable reminder that if I use my ego to guide my interaction with guys (probably with anyone for that matter), more often than not I’ll find myself rewarded with similarly inconsiderate behaviour.
Paying careful attention to their behaviour, strange or otherwise, is only the half of it though. This is because other people’s behaviour is very often tuned by how you yourself behave and by how you react to them.
Being aware of the signals I send
When I was younger I used to smile at everyone. On the street, in stores, on public transport. In many parts of New Zealand, at least without a doubt in the less densely populated areas, people are quite happy to smile at each other and say Hi or make a friendly comment, even as complete strangers. It was normal to smile at everyone and to have it returned by almost everyone. The learning curve came after I moved up to Auckland for university; there, it was different. Firstly, a smaller proportion of people would return the smile and secondly, a guy between the ages of 18-40 (mostly) would often interpret my friendly smile of greeting as an invitation for them to advance. There was nothing “wrong” about this, but I eventually grew really tired of it, I was annoyed that I couldn’t just smile and bask in a non-specific camaraderie. If I smiled at this demographic in Auckland, I had to be prepared for them to try and get more from me. The kicker with this was also that many of these guys would reveal themselves to be of the “persistent man” variety. So I stopped smiling at random guys, and now more selectively distribute my smile.
I had already learnt this in Auckland, but I think what would often happen when I travelled was that I would act like the old observations of my “regular life” didn’t have to apply to this new, dynamic world of exploration.
While I tend not to offer massive smiles to random men while I’m travelling, I have had the habit of smiling, laughing or responding in a congenial way as I’m trying to turn down offers. It’s also a problem that the prospect of learning something new is like bait to me, so if they’ve made even one intriguing comment I have often chosen to keep talking to them. This is not a bad thing, but I eventually had to ask myself: at what price this opportunity? One chuckle at a witty or goofy comment, one question to find out more about something they’ve said…… These have turned out to cost me from 20 minutes of trying to get them to stop pursuing in a regular not-so-fun case, to two hours in the worst instances such as #2. I have definitely learnt from this because I have not had any attempts at persuasion reaching anywhere near the one hour mark since Madagascar.
This has been perhaps one of the most important lessons for me. I’ve found that in general people respond to the emotion they perceive more than to the words that are being spoken. A guy can see happy and think “oh I’m making some progress here!”, when the reason for my mirth might be good-humoured self-deprecation and incredulity at being caught in an awkward situation again.
There’s quite a fine line to walk here because in many countries a woman can be set upon for having “done” very little. In some places a man is not a man if he doesn’t try to obtain what he wants regardless of the lack of interest from the woman, and if he doesn’t persist at least a certain minimum length of time. To some it is worth even more when there is struggle to be overcome. In these cases the interest of the man is in himself entirely and has very little to do with the woman. So I’m definitely not claiming that it is a woman’s fault when she can’t get a man to leave her alone. Sometimes a man will cross the line even after a thousand Nos and overwhelmingly negative non-verbal indicators. But it’s never 100% about them, and if I can’t stop the initial harassment I can at least make sure I don’t exacerbate matters by giving them any leeway.
Thus I return to the point I iterated earlier that a woman is safer maintaining awareness of what’s going on in her environment than she is ignoring it in an effort to avoid trouble. This environment comprises the physical, material world of buildings, landscape, shapes, sounds and other human bodies; as well as the social world, which with respect to interaction with a predatory man includes the warning signs in his behaviour and the interplay between your reactions and his motivation to keep going.
Waiting facilitates seeing
Ultimately what I found out about myself from #1 and #2 is that I need to wait. To let time run its course and reveal more information before jumping into the interpersonal fray. My weakness is that I love talking to people and tend to become more impulsive in this regard as I’m travelling. I love the idea of easy indiscriminate friendliness and of being able to gain new insight left, right and centre. But not every guy will acknowledge my boundaries. Asserting these boundaries strongly and consistently once he has started pushing is one way of reducing the chance of something bad happening; but what’s an even better guarantee of success is not interacting with him in the first place. Unless I avoid talking to men altogether, I’m going to have to rely on my intuition to tell me that he is this sort of guy. I know my intuition is always whirring away in the background, but I can only understand what it’s saying when I pause for a second to stop thinking about this interesting new situation or person, and start thinking about how they actually make me feel. If there’s any doubt at all, I know that I need to remain more closed than open until I get good proof of trustworthiness.
The truth can set me free
One of the things that I am most proud of is that I got out of the unfavourable circumstances in #2 by being honest with him. Before that I had tried a multitude of other strategies and excuses to put him off, the result of which was conversely an intensification of his taste for the hunt and increasing helplessness and misery on my part.
This could also be described as making a personal appeal. Stop being a goal, stop being a symbol in their mind. Wake them up from their selfish view of you. I think three things occurred when I told him he was scaring me and making me feel bad: 1) he felt sorry for me, 2) he saw what I saw, realised that he was in the role of the bad guy and wanted to not be that, and 3) he became aware that he could get into trouble.
There are never any hard and fast rules when dealing with people however, so I think that the success of this method is contingent on having already had some reasonable interchange with the guy so that a degree of personal rapport has been built up; and on the guy being ultimately decent. The post to come after the next one will tell a lighter story and will demonstrate how trying to paint the situation honestly can be ineffectual.
Get other people involved, no matter what
In case study #1, I attempted to draw the immigration officer into the problem; in case study #3 I sought the attention of the couple in the distant carpark. Clearly it was futile in #1 whilst being the reason for my success in #3.
In case study #2 I hadn’t tried to get people involved but I had made an assessment of the other occupants of the cafe. It didn’t look promising, the owners appeared to be deliberately avoiding eye contact with me.
So what does this all mean?
To me it says that some people are courageous, and some people will do whatever is most convenient. When no-one is stepping forward I cannot expect that the latter type will at some point transform into the former. I will therefore take the choice out of their hands and get the help I need.
I was really thrown off-guard in #1, I mean I was in as official and as public a place as you can get and still no one saw something wrong in him accosting me. I felt truly helpless. By the time I got around to #2 some two months later I knew that even if the owners or the other customers in the cafe preferred to make like I didn’t exist, I would stick myself to the side of them if I felt that I couldn’t get out of that situation safely by myself. I didn’t need them to care about me, I just needed their bodies and their presence.
This is not the nicest way to go about things. Then again, it’s not the nicest thing to be ignored when you clearly need help either. When I am in trouble and everyone else around me isn’t, hell yeah my physical safety matters more than their comfort, embarrassment or sense of propriety.
On a more minor note I feel justified in this attitude also because people may have misjudged the situation. I have a strong suspicion that one of the reasons why no one helped me at the airport is because they assumed that the businessman and I were together. We were both Asian, and it is hardly a new story to see an older businessman with a young, female plaything in tow. Whether she’s happy or not.
Final lesson for my slow-learning self
It’s one of the most important and most reliable lessons: Beware the random drunk men who are super eager to talk to you. Really, really, really, really.