I recently went on a (bad) date, and noticed a few things coming up that I wanted to unpack.
The guy was nice, and seemed very eager to connect; his enthusiasm and interest were actually a bit aggressive. He commented on my freckles (and nail polish, eye color, and curls), he wanted to touch my jewelry and find out what all my tattoos meant, and he insisted on playing me a song on his guitar. It was…. a lot.
It struck me as interesting that while I’m normally a very open, soft, excited, and enthusiastic person, this dude’s energy triggered a complete shutdown on my part. The more he casually touched my arm, scooted closer, leaned in, or otherwise tried to connect with me, the more rigid and cold I became toward him.
Since this guy wasn’t picking up on my non-verbal personal space cues, (whether willfully or cluelessly I don’t know) I found myself in the position of needing to play defense.
This sucks, because when you’re playing defense you can’t actually relax or enjoy yourself.
Like most women, I’ve had to spent most of my life playing defense against clueless and coercive men, and when I was uncomfortable and unable to hold my ground, I would inevitably turn to nastiness, coldness, and (for lack of a better term) aggressive bitchiness. I hated that side of myself, but I had discovered that guys generally back off if you’re cruel to them, and I desperately needed them all to back off because I was terrified.
Since that is not the way I want to live or the person I want to be, I’ve put a ton of work into being clear and assertive enough to hold strong boundaries while staying soft and open, and for the most part these days it works great. I am not afraid to tell someone to stand a bit further away, and I am not afraid to tell someone if they’re making me uncomfortable, and I don’t need to be nasty to do either.
Usually. This guy though…
When I went to show him a photo on my phone, he swung his legs around to be sitting right next to me. When I scooted away, he protested with “what? I don’t bite!” so I told him my phone was private and I wanted space while I searched for the photo. His response was that he didn’t mind seeing naked photos if that’s what I was hiding, and leaned back in. At one point I took his hand off my leg and placed it back on his leg and said “that’s too much.” He just laughed and touched my forearm playfully, as if we were old friends joking around.
Well now, this brought up something old and triggery inside me.
Oh, are my boundaries funny? Are they completely silly and cute to you? Because if so, I can’t trust you not to completely obliterate them. I’m not proud of this, but what happened next came directly from fear.
Instead of authentically asserting my boundaries from then on, I found myself being cold, bitchy, and flat out lying to put some space between us as I figured out a way to leave.
I told him I hate music (he’s a musician). I told him I hate nature (he wanted to drive to a park). I told him I don’t allow strangers in my apartment (he wanted to see my balcony), and that I don’t give my phone number to men (he wanted it) and when he called me paranoid for both I just shrugged and said “yep I’m pretty fucked up.”
Oof. None of that shit is true, obviously, but I panicked.
The guy himself wasn’t particularly scary, but I felt backed into a corner, because he had been pushing past my boundaries since he first showed up and he obviously wasn’t concerned with how I felt about that.
After I made an excuse to leave (he protested, obviously), I wondered WTF had happened. When had it gone from “a bit awkward” to “a bit scary”? When had I gone from my normal embodied self to feeling shut down and numb?
That’s the thing, though.
There was no specific moment, because it had been a steady escalation. He started by barely touching my jewelry, and then my tattoos, and then my hair and shoulder and leg. I was ok with the first few touches, so I didn’t say anything, but then it all started to feel like too much– too many touches, too much eye contact, and he was sitting too close to me.
And here’s the thing they won’t tell you about sexual coercion, harassment, assault, and even emotional abuse and domestic violence:
Once someone has pushed past a whole bunch of small boundaries with escalating intensity (a purposeful tactic that’s actually a key part of the pick-up-artist game), it becomes really fucking difficult to just pick a random boundary and put your foot down about it.
It makes you feel stupid and ridiculous… like, oh ok so touching my leg for one second was ok, but three seconds isn’t?
If I establish that boundary now, he’s going to call me on it and make me defend it (he absolutely would have) and I’ll have to come up with a reason that doesn’t sound completely crazy. In fact, maybe that’s what he’s counting on by calling me out: that I would sound completely crazy and discredit myself.
Looking back I’m still not sure if this guy was being intentionally manipulative or just socially inept, but I can say for sure that his behaviors sent up some major red flags about manipulation, coercion, and boundary violation.
It was enough for me to lose access to my body though.
Those trigger spots are still there, even for those of us who have done the work to heal and recover from our traumas.
The worst part is how many other women have experienced something similar, or have had had their boundaries violated by people who feel entitled to their time, attention, bodies, sexuality, emotional caretaking, and more.
So many women have been put in the position of constantly playing defense, and are chronically unable to relax, soften, open, connect to their bodies, or be authentic or assertive.
To be honest, I started writing this from a place of confusion and sadness, but now I’m furious.
We women deserve better than to spend our lives playing defense. We deserve to feel safe, and to have our boundaries affirmed and respected.
We sure as fuck deserve to spend our time and attention on more important shit than keeping other people out of our personal space, or convincing them that we don’t exist for their pleasure.
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