It has been an eventful few weeks in the United States, as the somewhat dormant issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault has been awakened by allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken and Louis CK, to name just a few. For some reason, within the past couple of weeks, the United States has decided to stop sweeping things under the carpet that for a long time would have been seen as just an oddity of behavior, or something to be shrugged away. This is good. I can say that I have never used a position of power to manipulate someone for sex, and I can say I've never knowingly touched someone sexually without consent. But like all men, and probably like all women, I have done and said things that might have seemed inappropriate or made people feel uncomfortable. And I wanted to talk about why. Maybe that will be seen by some people as me dodging responsibility, or engaging in whataboutism, or that I am just have undiagnosed Aspergers Syndrome and have missed social cues without my life. Also, after coming up with my "The Price is Right" analogy, I realized that the metaphor might be problematic since Bob Barker also has had allegations of sexual harassment, but I hope we can overlook that detail.
For all of my adolescent and adult life, the go to advice on dating and romance was: Be self-confident. Be spontaneous. Take the initiative. Be bold. All of which is very good advice, until it isn't. And this is where the analogy with "The Price Is Right" comes from. Because on The Price Is Right, the idea was to put in the highest bid, until you went over the limit, at which point you lost. And so it was with the romantic advice I was given: try to be the most fun, sexy, romantic and bold as you could be, without crossing the invisible line into "creepy" (the second part mostly an unspoken addendum). And this isn't the advice that I learned from beer-slamming frat boys, this is more or less what I have been told by women (as well as men) throughout my life. When I was a teenager and I asked my grandmother how to ask a girl to kiss, she said "Don't ask, just do it, you will know!". And with like so many other aspects of life, people who take risks and succeed are praised, while those who take risks and fail are condemned. Being outgoing and spontaneous in romance is encouraged, until it doesn't work. Then you are a creepy loser who lacks obvious social skills.
Twenty five years ago, during the first period of awareness of sexual harassment that I can remember, Antioch College published a sexual consent policy that caused controversy because it required specific verbal consent for each new level of intimacy. Despite this being embraced in some quarters, in the past 25 years, the social norms I've mostly noticed (and this was in Portland, Oregon, a generally enlightened city) still put context as the key to what is appropriate and what is not. And, despite this explanation of my confusion, I can tell a context where romantic behavior is appropriate from one where it is not. Most of the time. In my 20s, during the Wild West days of the internet, when I would meet women on sites like Literotica or OKCupid or the more open parts of LiveJournal, I would often have a specific laundry list of what they were interested in, and exactly how much. But much like being self-confident, context works until it doesn't. The line between "hanging out" or "being friends" and potential romantic interest is not something that is exactly delineated. Context is also sometimes defined in a circular way: something is a date because its the type of activity that reflects romantic interest, and you know that there is romantic interest because it is the type of activity you do on a date. I feel that figuring out the territory for what is a date or not involves navigating a metaphorical eruv: there is a territory in which things that are normally inappropriate are now appropriate, but knowing when you are in that territory means scanning for shadowy lines draped around you. And in some cases, this might be a more literal eruv: because if picnics are what people do while hanging out, and restaurants are for dating, what territory does an enclosed patio fall under?
These are two tacit beliefs, given to men. That romantic success is dependent on being as self-assured and bold as possible, but that this spontaneity must be contained inside of certain contexts that "everyone knows". These are the two beliefs that seem to lead to the most problems, and they are beliefs that, while sometimes cherished because they are seen as necessary for "romance", may have lived out their usefullness. And failing some type of open conversation about why people accept these beliefs, with all their damaging consequences, perhaps we should follow some other advice of Bob Barker, and just all get spayed and neutered.
This was one of the harder things for me to write, and I know this is a delicate issue. I hope that everyone can believe me that I wrote this in good faith, and also forgive the somewhat rambling tone.