Shawna Potter is the vocalist for co-ed feminist hardcore-punk outfit War On Women. The Baltimore-based band just dropped their sophomore album, Capture the Flag, via Bridge Nine, and Potter will be releasing a book, Making Spaces Safer, on AK Press in 2019.
While my band War On Women went on the road with Vans Warped Tour last summer, I taught a workshop called "Creating Safer Spaces," which was based on the street harassment and bystander intervention education work I do back home in Baltimore. I go into venues of all kinds to talk about victim blaming, crisis response and the effects of harassment; I also give advice on what to do if someone says they were harassed in your space.
Most of the people I spoke with last summer identified as audience members — they didn't necessarily work for a club or play in a band. This dynamic allowed me to skip some of my advice that focuses on authoritarian positions, leaving room for the audience to steer the discussion. Lots of people wanted to know how to flirt in a way that doesn't come across as harassment.
I get it. You see a cutie at the club or bar or basement and want to interact, but with all this #MeToo stuff going around, you don't want to be accused of harassment. Good for you! But before I give you my "Do's and Don'ts of Healthy Flirting," I want you to think about something: When women (and transgender and non-binary folks) say they're tired of harassment and assault, they are often met with the sentiment, "So, what, I can't talk to women anymore?" It's a prime example of how our modern ideas of romance and sex are based on non-consensual interactions.
In order to avoid making people we're attracted to uncomfortable, we must work on recognizing the differences between flirting and harassment, avoid victimizing behavior, and call out our friends we when see them veering into "harassment territory." No, this doesn't mean you can never talk to a woman again — it means that you understand that she might live in a more violent world than you do. Even though you're a "nice guy," she doesn't know that; the best way to be a "nice guy" is not to tell her over and over, it's to show her. And, yeah, sometimes that means leaving her alone.
We've grown up with this idea that you have to "win a woman" by wearing her down until she gives in, as is depicted in any romantic comedy movie from the Eighties and Nineties. Yes, every individual is different, but in general terms men have learned to push while women have learned to push back. But what if we lived in a world where women's boundaries are respected? Where a polite "no" is heard and heeded? For one, we'd have more fun! I know that I'd be more open to chatting with a stranger at the bar, as opposed to worrying about his ulterior motives, a spiked drink, or how to bow out of the conversation if things went south.
When women and LGBTQIA folks are assaulted, followed, groped or raped, they are often blamed for their own victimhood and questioned in a way that victims of other crimes are not. It becomes instinctual to avoid these scary situations because the support we need doesn't exist yet. So, yeah, it's easier to protect ourselves by blowing you off, even if you're a perfectly nice guy. It's not about you—truly "nice" guys get that.
That brings us to Step One in respectful flirting: understanding that if the person you're hitting on belongs to a group of people that's typically preyed upon by someone that looks like you, they may not want to risk opening a dialog. With that in mind, read on for some jumping-off points for interacting with strangers in public spaces. It's not a perfect list; you can't learn a script for human interaction and have it go as planned. What you can do is help build a world where women and members of the LGBTQIA communities are not perpetually on-guard, where we are free to have fun at a show without being harassed (accidentally or not).
- Unless you actually want their number, hope to date, or are raring to hook up, then leave them alone. If you're not going to follow through, then you're leading them on at best, harassing them at worst.
- Don't stare. I abide by a "two seconds or less" rule. If you want to stare, know that everyone else probably does, too. This rule applies to anyone and everyone — people who are very tall, very short, very tattooed or bear some other distinguishing feature are all tired of feeling like sideshows, even if some of these traits are chosen.
- There's no reason to tell a stranger what you think of their appearance, especially if that is all you want to talk to them about.
- Read the situation. Are they with friends, maybe deep in conversation? Are they zoned in on the show? Are they in the middle of ordering a drink? Respect context clues and don't interrupt their good time.
- OK, they're free to talk and you have more to say than, "Hey baby, nice ass." Talk about something they have control over, whether it's their shoes or hairstyle, maybe their jacket or what brought them to the show. Don't lie — I know you can come up with something to say.
- Don't comment on their body in any way, and be wary of mentioning the band shirt they're wearing. Depending on the design, they might just think you're looking for an excuse to look at their chest. If you think you're being slick by taking quick-hit glances below the neck, trust me — we see it every time and you look like a doofus. Eyes up here, please.
- Take the "no" with respect and grace. It's not always about you! They're just not interested, and there are about a million possible reasons why.
- Remember that there are lots of "no's." Sometimes they're verbal ("No thanks," "I'm good," "Maybe next time," Not tonight," etc.). Maybe it's a grimaced face, nervous laughter, or a shake of the head. Oh, it's frustrating that some women just won't say what they mean?! Well, that's not nearly as frustrating as feeling unable to voice your discomfort for fear of your personal safety. If you encounter someone who's not comfortable saying a firm but polite "no," it's probably because they don't know you or what you're capable of. Remember, we're living in a world where if I am attacked, it could be construed as being my fault, so I've learned to protect myself by avoiding confrontation. If you take everything other than an enthusiastic "YES" as a "no," then you will never accidentally disrespect someone's boundaries.
- Don't push someone to do something that they're not totally psyched about. Don't spike people's drinks. Don't get angry if someone says "no." Don't follow people or stand too close to them or manufacture an excuse to touch them. Don't rape. If you don't think you can avoid any or all of these actions, then don't attend public gatherings without a buddy and promptly book a therapy session — this is something you need to work on. You cannot be a good partner to anyone if you have issues with boundaries, selfishness, narcissism, entitlement, anger, or believe that women owe you anything.
If any of these tips above are new to you, please take time to analyze them from all angles and distances. Learn to recognize the difference between asking for someone's number and pressuring someone into giving you their number. Discuss these ideas with friends before they harass a stranger (accidentally or not) and definitely after.
These tips are not just for men, and they do not apply solely towards women. While statistics show that men are most often the perpetrators of gender-based violence and harassment, absolutely everyone deserves respect in public spaces — even if they are fucking hot! If you can be someone that others trust to respect boundaries, even at inconvenient times, people will feel a lot safer letting loose around you. And you can feel good knowing that it's because they genuinely want to