Essays · Strangers

Contemplating Approaching a Woman You Don’t Know

Yesterday I had a bit of an odd experience. It only lasted a few minutes (and the part that made it questionable lasted maybe five seconds), but it’s stuck with me enough that I thought it’d be a good topic for discussion. And that topic is:

Dudes, if you are not friends with a woman, do not approach her when she is alone. Like, ever.

I’ve written about street harassment in the past, but that isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about well-meaning, innocuous (from your perspective, anyway), interactions with a woman who is not a friend of yours.

I purposefully chose to say “if you are not friends with a woman” because I want to make clear that you shouldn’t be approaching a woman you may have been in a meeting with, or one you met once ten years ago at a cocktail party. If the woman isn’t going to look at you and immediately know your name and where she knows you from, do not go up to her when she is alone.

Why? Because it’s fucking terrifying. As with street harassment, a situation where a strange man is approaching me gives me pause. Even if it’s in broad daylight, even if there are people around, I don’t know what you’re about to say to me. Are you going to try to hit on me? Grope me? Spit on me?

I appreciate that this tips sucks for those well-intentioned men who just want to know the time, or where the nearest store is whose bag I happen to be carrying. But if you happen to care about women at all, it’s worth recognizing that by simply approaching women in public, you are causing their stress to go up.

You might be lost and just trying to find the bus stop you got off at earlier in the day, but I don’t know that, at least not right away. When you walk close enough to me to talk, my pulse is going to quicken, my breath is going to get shorter, and I’m going to have to be at attention for at least a few seconds until I can be fairly certain you aren’t interested in dragging me somewhere and assaulting me.

I most recently experienced this yesterday. I was in my car in a parking lot in the afternoon, having just finished up a meeting. There were cars around but not other people. I’d just gotten back into the car (doors locked, because of course) when I saw a man approach the passenger side of the car. He was dressed in casual clothing but was holding a laptop that had a name and the same kind of tracking stickers we use at my work, so I ultimately decided to roll the window down slightly. I went from full alert to 90% alert and asked how I could help him.

It turns out he knew what organization I worked with and wanted to talk about a potential project we could collaborate on. Cool. Legitimate business contact. But the thing is, I didn’t know that in the beginning. At the end of the conversation he sort of apologized for how he approached me and said that I “looked skeptical, which is good. Good to be aware of your surroundings.”

Um, thank you? If you knew I was going to be “skeptical” (i.e., temporarily freaked out), then why did you take that approach? Why not ask a mutual colleague for my work email to reach out for professional reasons, instead of putting me in an uncomfortable position in an empty parking lot?

Because that isn’t his lived experience. He can go through the day and not assume that a woman who walks up to him is about to grab his junk or suggest that he’s a ‘bitch’ for not smiling at her.

So here’s the deal: if I am not in life-threatening danger, and you’re not in life-threatening danger, please don’t put me through the stress of having to figure out if you’re about to harass me because you need to know the time. Just start wearing a watch.

2 thoughts on “Contemplating Approaching a Woman You Don’t Know

  1. I’ve been reading your entire blog and love it, but this one really makes me pause. I work in male dominated fields, my hobbies are male dominated, and I just could not feel more different. I say this also as a woman who has been kiss raped, stalked, harassed, and assaulted (while I was sleeping, he broke into my house) – all out of the blue.

    I think there’s plenty of ways to approach women alone that are nonthreatening, and that it makes me wonder if encouraging men to be almost afraid of their approaching women to do more harm than good. I run in Orthodox Jewish circles sometimes, and it’s very disconcerting to be walking around the Jewberhood and have men intentionally avoid me, avoid eye contact, etc. This is a specific thing in the more right wing culture and it’s adhered to socially. It causes more isolation of the genders and a hell of a lot of relational issues for both in marriage and in social situations.

    If I’m out with my kids and some guy who looks a little creepy approaches me, I always assume he’s fine. I have never been wrong.

    I feel that it is situations where you are in the dark or even in large crowds or unconscious or under the influence that you have to worry.

    Enough has happened to me that if I didn’t have enough positive interactions with men to give them positive intent as a default, I’d avoid them, too. But it’s about positive intent. They say a good defense against rape is positive intent, too. Becoming human.

    If you’re asking men to avoid women because they’re inherently afraid of you, that dehumanizes the woman because it causes separation.

    That’s my take, anyway. I just don’t think that dudes approaching women alone are “assholes.” 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this. And solidarity on working in male-dominated fields!

      I think it’s awesome that no one who has approached you has turned out to be creepy – unfortunately I can’t say the same, and I know many women who also can’t say the same. And is it more important that we be concerned about the feelings of men or the feelings of women? I’d argue that so much of society is focused on placating men that we need to focus a bit more on the comfort of women.

      I also see your point about dehumanizing, but I think men already dehumanize women, often seeing us a collection body parts instead of people, and that random dudes don’t deserve our attention or time unless they prove that they are worthy of it. I’m not suggesting that men and women should be separated, or that we shouldn’t be friends, but just randomly approaching a woman who is alone that you don’t know? Nah.

      I did want to clarify: approaching a woman doesn’t make a man an asshole, but I do think that it is an asshole move. I try to (usually, at least) to separate out acting like an asshole and BEING an asshole.

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