‘Look at him, he’s so keen on you. Give the poor bastard a chance.’
This was the persuasive argument of a male friend of mine at a club many years ago, referring to the man who was eyeballing me from across the dance floor. This man would later become my boyfriend, my abuser, my stalker and the recipient of my Intervention Order. He would steal years of potential happiness from my life along with thousands of dollars. He would give me panic attacks and anxiety that I still have to manage, all because I took that advice and ‘gave him a chance.’
Of course, this doesn’t happen to every woman who gives a guy a chance, but it is definitely a lesson learned for me, and a fair reason for women to not dole out chances just because ‘the poor bastards’ want them. We are wary, and we are wary for a damn good reason.
‘Give him a chance’ is a common phrase, and it speaks to a belief that men inherently deserve chances, and that this overrides a woman’s feelings. It places male desire above female autonomy, and tries to persuade women to say ‘yes’ when they might really feel like saying ‘no.’
There are many reasons women might want to say ‘no,’ and all of them are valid. Often, it’s something quite benign, like the fact that they feel no attraction. But sometimes it’s more sinister, like they’ve noticed some red flags in the man’s behaviour and they are not willing to get caught up in any of that shit. To encourage women to give men a chance, despite lack of attraction and possible red flags, is not just insulting to the woman’s sense of personal choice, but it is horrible, dangerous advice that contradicts society’s insistence that women should realise the risks of being women and just stop doing silly things like getting raped or beaten.
‘Man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal,’ Jane Austen had her character, Henry Tilney, proclaim in Northanger Abbey. Things have changed a little since Austen’s time, we no longer have to wait passively for marriage proposals but now we get to fend off hundreds of creepy messages and unsolicited dick pics. Yay for progress. But I do like the idea of the power of refusal, (even if Henry was giving it little credit) not just for women in historically oppressive times where marriage was one of the very few options available to them, but as something that can, and should, be used by anyone at any time. We should not underestimate the power of refusal, nor should we hesitate in using that power.
When I get a flirtatious message from a man I don’t know or barely know, I feel the anxiety rising. It’s actually scary these days to be flirted with. What a sad state of affairs. My safest course is to not reply, and this is what I often do. Because I know from experience that it’s too often a very short trip from, ‘Why won’t you just give me a chance? I’m a nice guy!’ to ‘You’re a fat bitch, I hope you die.’ And when my answer, ‘Hi I’m good thanks,’ is often interpreted as ‘leading someone on,’ sometimes it feels like we have few options of negotiating a safe refusal. Silence feels like one of the better options, and even though silence doesn’t work all the time, it’s a perfectly legitimate response to unwanted attention.
‘But it’s so rude! Why can’t you just say, ‘thanks but no thanks,’ or better yet, just give the guy a chance!’ I hear all the dude bros yelling. Because it’s about safety, that’s why. Both physical and psychological. And while it may not be every guy who responds aggressively, we do not have the advantage of knowing in advance. Also, silence is not oppressive. It is not to be confused with silencing. Silence is a choice not to speak, silencing is making that choice for someone else. On that note, blocking someone online is not oppressive either. That is a choice not to listen to abuse. Nobody is required to listen to abuse, and blocking someone is not stopping their voice, it is stopping their voice from causing us harm. This distinction is very important for female autonomy, we don’t oppress others by simply protecting our own safety and mental health.
Silence is also a hint, and a pretty damn nice one, that we are not interested. Sometimes my silence means, ‘I really don’t know how you are going to respond to my carefully worded polite let down, so I’m just going to not send it and hope you go away, because I don’t feel like being abused today.’ I’ve made the mistake of attempting to negotiate for my own autonomy in the past. I’ve been honest yet diplomatic. I’ve said, ‘I’m really sorry but I just don’t want to date you,’ in a variety of tactful ways. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. Too many times it has drawn me into a long debate over ‘But why don’t you want to date me?’ Which frankly, I don’t always possess enough tact to honestly, yet politely, answer.
I feel for the younger generation, growing up with social media and what it has done to the dating game. But I also have hope. I was dropping my son off at school the other day, and I noticed a group of girls, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, in the playground singing and dancing to Meghan Trainer’s No. Their voices rang loud and their feet stamped the ground as they sang, ‘My name is no, my sign is no, my number is no, you need to let it go, you need to let it go!’ Watching them, I felt a sudden surge of power. I wanted to call out to them, ‘Sing it sisters!’ Although that would really have embarrassed my son. But it was so uplifting. These days, it’s never too early to learn the power of refusal. Or even sometimes, the power of silence.