A clear and insightful message for men

About a month ago, I was sitting on a bench at the Sydney waterfront, waiting for my friend James. A drunk man in an obnoxiously bright Hawaiian shirt and a boater hat sat down beside me.

"That's a fetching dress", he said, eyes fixed on my chest. He scooted closer to me and leaned right into my space, telling me all about his big city job, his salary and his cat.

I edged further away. He moved closer. I could smell the beer on his breath, and I turned my face away. Perhaps I should have asked him to leave me alone, or told him I wasn't interested. But I found myself psychologically assessing the situation before reacting in an assertive way, lest the man get angry and attack me. I decided it wasn't worth it, continued to nod imperceptibly and avoided eye contact.

Obviously, I would never equate this awkward and uncomfortable interaction with explicit sexual violence. But in light of the recent rape and murder of Australian comedian Eurydice Dixon - not to mention the hundreds of women who are assaulted and harassed every day - it's important to address certain behaviours men exhibit towards women.

I tried to explain what happened to a male friend the other day. He looked at me quizzically. "Did he touch you?" "Surely he was just being friendly?" "Aren't you overreacting?" What men fail to understand is that every day women have to deal with a myriad of seemingly small violations of personal space and comfort that keep us on guard. We're all aware of catcalling, or groping on the subway, but women are also wary of pointed stares, constant messaging on social media, being told to smile, invasive questions and the excessive complimenting of one's physical appearance.

Over my 23 years on this planet, I've learned that in most cases, if a man or boy is interested in a girl or woman, he will interpret even the smallest, most innocuous friendly gesture as encouragement or flirting.

I'm naturally a gregarious and friendly person. But I've learned to ration my smiles and avoid eye contact around men I don't know, lest I inadvertently send out signals that will be completely, if not willfully, misunderstood.

Obviously men can be intimidated in this way too - by women or other men. But what women are acutely aware of is that in many cases, the man is bigger, stronger and physically more powerful. This implicitly alters the dynamics in any interaction.

Politeness and stiff smiles are drilled into girls from a young age. We're taught to accommodate the larger, louder male presences among us, to laugh at their jokes and ignore the creepy innuendos. We're taught to carry mace in our handbags, to watch our drinks at bars, to take a step backwards if someone invades our space. We learn to walk with our keys protruding from clenched fists at night, like some silly parody of Wolverine. We're taught to refer to our boyfriends - real or otherwise - instead of saying "I'm not interested" when a guy hits on us. We learn to shrink within ourselves, to take up less space, to keep quiet - just in case.

Before you clamour "Not all men!" to me, let me be clear. I do not believe all men are inherently dangerous. I do not believe all men are capable of rape and murder. But too many men are. As women, we're brought up to be polite and accommodating, especially towards men.

For the sake of our safety, we have to assume that most of you are dangerous until confirmed otherwise. I run out of fingers and toes when I count the number of my friends who have been verbally or physically harassed by boys and men.

Just the other day, my best friend told me she was too scared to leave her house because a boy she knew had been following her and messaging her incessantly on social media. She had been polite, firm and clear about her lack of romantic interest in him, but he persisted in contacting her, trying to manipulate her into giving him another shot.

She was in tears, shaking with fear. I didn't know how to help.

For my male readers, I'm sorry if you take offence at this column. I know you probably would never act inappropriately towards women. But put yourselves in our shoes for a second. In New Zealand, up to one in three girls will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16 years. Up to one in five women will experience sexual assault as an adult. And for Maori girls and women the likelihood of sexual violence is nearly twice as high as the general population. Pacific and migrant women are also at statistically greater risk of sexual violence. It's not unreasonable for women to be wary of strange men. So please don't cross our personal boundaries, or try to wear us down into agreeing to have a drink with you. Challenge sexist attitudes towards women in the workplace, and don't laugh at your mate's rape jokes. Don't follow us around, or persistently text or call when you get a frosty response. Think before you comment on a woman's appearance, or ask a personal question.

It's just too risky to say "I'm sorry, I'm not interested." I'll leave you with this quote from one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."

Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.


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