I had a guy friend come to me recently and ask me to translate girl for him. The conversation allowed me connect a few dots for he and other guy friends who were there, as well as articulate something for myself.

Here’s the sitch: He’d been hanging out with this girl to the point where they were seeing each other all the time and being flirty and talking every day, alone, etc. He really liked her so he told her so, and that he was interested in dating. She came back with the old “I’m not looking for a boyfriend” line. Before he could finish, I interrupted him “She’s not into you, but doesn’t want you to take it personally.” He was good with that but asked why girls can’t just directly say that. Why they obfuscate.

At this point, the other guys started complaining about this: “she wants you to move her sofa sometime;” “she’s keeping you on the back-burner;” “girls only know how to play games.” I had to interject, obviously.

“Oh, no, we can’t just turn you down directly, that’s not safe. We learn, from around the time we are 12, that if you tell a boy, ‘thank you, but no,’ sexual-harassment-experimentthere’s a really good chance they will call you names like ‘whore.’ And not just once and then walk away and get over it, we’re talking full blown grudge-fest with violent overtones, whether or not they materialize as actual violence. They might get in your face with their buddies. If we dare to injure the wrong guys ego, we might get hit or raped or worse. And the thing is, most guys seem normal and friendly, they might even be our friends until that switch. So we have no way of knowing who we can be honest with, and who we need to cushion the blow for.”

They looked at me, saying nothing so I went on.

“I remember the first time I ever said to a dude and his friends who had been “flirty” and “friendly” from a distance, ‘Sorry, we don’t want to hang out, but thanks for the invite.’ I was at the river for a three day weekend with my friend Nicole. We were in junior high. ‘What? You’re too good to party with us? Tricks!’ the group of older guys with beers shouted at my 14 year old friend and I. I, hoping humor would provide us an escape, laughed ‘But I thought tricks were for kids?’ as we kept walking. ‘Dirty sluts! Come hang out, what are you afraid of?’ They came back, with more colorful, foul descriptions than I am gonna recount.

I was young and so principled and didn’t know any better (you know me) so I re-engaged. ‘Look, I don’t think you know what that word means. By virtue of our refusal of your kind offer to “chill”, we are not sluts. But we do now know “chill” means “sex”. Point of fact, I can’t be any of the things you are calling me, because I DECLINED. And a ‘trick’ is the man in the prostitute-john equation, not the woman…. Also, if we didn’t want to hang out when you were being ‘nice’ to us, do you really think that hurling profanity and epithets is gonna change our minds and make us see what we are missing out on – like oh, well the forceful way he calls me a slut just makes me weak in the knees??’ I had just gotten going, was on a roll with no intention of stopping and didn’t notice the absolute danger I was in as he and his posse closed in around me, but the much more street-savvy Nicole did. She grabbed my hand and pulled me the hell out of there. We didn’t stop running for a while. Anything could have happened. Nothing did.

Variations of this scenario have happened countless times since. Even walking in the mall with friends looking at the earings we’d just bought at Claires, guys, some we knew, some we didn’t, might approach and turn scary if you turned them down. It took me several times to learn I should not address misapplication of the word ‘bitch’ to myself or my friends, ever. Much safer to just say ‘yep, sorry’ and keep moving. As recensexestly as last week, a girlfriend and I were accosted walking to a comedy show from a restaurant. ‘What’s wrong, you don’t like compliments?! TALK TO US!’

And the scary thing is, this is just par for the course. This is just what happens. Anywhere. Everywhere. And so we learn this is normal – that it’s our problem, and maybe our fault. So obfuscating becomes innate and ingrained, a survival skill we do without thinking about it or realizing what we’re doing. Not just trauma victims, by the way, all women learn this without ever being aware of it. And we learn even the boys we go to church or school or later, work with or who we grew up with may become verbally and/or physically violent when we turn them down in a clear, unambiguous way. Sometimes our ‘nice-guy/good-guy’ friends decide they are tired of ‘always finishing last’ and start stalking us and we have to get restraining orders. So we take street combat classes (at least that was my solution) and we nudge and hint and push at our answer when it’s “no” but we don’t say it too concretely, because bad things happen if there isn’t a possibility-laden qualifier after that ‘no’. It’s not fair to you or the other 80% – 90% of the male population that would just be cool and move on, but one or two out of ten is high risk when its your life on the line and it’s way better to stay alive.”

His face at the end was …definitely something. He still wishes women would just be direct with him. But I think they all understand the struggle a little bit better now.