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Why Turning Men Down Is So Exhausting

Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
A woman about my age and an older man standing close together were having a spirited discussion in my office’s lift as I got on the other day, until I realised that they weren’t and that the woman was telling the man off. "Why are you hitting on me in a lift?" she asked him sharply. "This is a business environment. Step back. Step away from me." He did, and was quiet for the rest of the ride down. I wanted to say something to the woman after we got off, but "What you just did was cool" sounded dumb in my head, while "Hey, you okay?" sounded condescending; she hadn’t asked for my take.

But the way she had handled a man in her face in a public place was cool — calm, unequivocal, and effective. It was also completely unlike how I tend to deal with unwanted attention.

I am accommodating. I smile a lot. When harassed in the street, I’m silent, other than the occasional "fuck you" I mutter under my breath (thank you, noise-cancelling headphones, for limiting the number of times I hear unsolicited comments in the first place); when faced with a distasteful advance one-on-one, I’m still sweet. Because I want you to like me, even as I demur. I want you to find me sexy even as I turn you down. And I hate that impulse.

I was out with friends recently when the stranger I had started talking to asked me what I do, since that’s what you ask in New York within 30 seconds of meeting someone, and so I told him that I wrote and what I wrote about. His next question: "So you must not be a virgin, huh?"

"Excuse me?" my give-no-fucks, take-no-prisoners feminist self replied. "That’s inappropriate, and I need another drink, bye." Except I didn’t say any of that. I think I smiled and protested limply — flirtatiously, even: "I don’t think that’s your business, heh!" And although I disentangled myself from the conversation soon after that, I was friendly toward this charmer for the rest of the night when we crossed paths.
Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
You could call me a flirt. Or you could say that, due to both nature (how much of the urge to people-please is hardwired?) and nurture (from birth, girls are taught in a million and one ways to people-please), I’d like for you to like me, never mind what I think about you. Maybe there isn't a difference between flirting and wanting to be liked. But I feel acutely the disconnect between the person I am online or onstage — someone serene and steadfast in her conviction that every girl and woman should be the master of her fate and ought not to suffer fools, least of all fuckbois in bars — and the person I am in the bar, seeking said fuckbois' tacit approval. Go away, but please like me. Do you like me? Please leave me alone, if that’s okay with you, of course.

Yes, we do still live in a world in which rejection is often met with hostility and even aggression, and it’s not always safe for a woman to tell a street harasser or would-be suitor exactly what she’s thinking. But safety and the need to please can be separated. When I read articles of the "I did this thing for this many days and here’s what happened next" variety, I think that the hardest thing for me would be to give up smiling. Smiling is the lubricant I apply to my social interactions, my means of assuring those around me — men included and especially — that yes, I am happy to be here, yes, what you are saying is interesting, and while no, I don’t want to have sex with you, it’s not because of you. I just have to rejoin my cock-blocking friends or, so sorry, I have a boyfriend, but in a perfect world I would totally follow my heart’s desire and go with you back to your apartment in Murray Hill, I promise.

And that mental script — I may not be super into this, but don’t worry about that, I want to make sure you are — can spill over into sex. It’s part of why at times, some women fake orgasms instead of saying "Hey, that wasn’t totally working for me, let’s try this instead." It’s why, for example, I get anxious instead of enjoying myself when I'm getting head and an orgasm isn't imminent. It's why instead of thinking, this feels awesome, I'm thinking man, is this guy/girl giving me head okay, should I put on a podcast for them to listen to while they’re down there so they don’t get bored?

This isn’t strictly about the male gaze; I’ve felt this when hooking up with women, too. It’s about an external focus — a preoccupation with how the other perceives me that trumps my attention to how I'm feeling. Meghan Trainor’s new song "No" (which is a banger, so sue me) celebrates "no," but like mine, her "no" is delivered sexily. "All my ladies, listen up," she sings. "If that boy ain’t giving up, lick your lips and swing your hips, girl all you gotta say is no." Yes, girl, be exactly as sexy as you want to be for you and your sexy self. But I wonder why I can’t skip the lip-licking and hip-swinging and skip straight to the rejection, or the "not like that," "I changed my mind," or "step away from me."

Worrying about being unsexy — or worse, unlikeable — when expressing anything other than enthusiastic consent is exhausting. I’m practicing my "no." So are you a software update? Because not right now.