Saturday, April 2, 2016

The one thing I never knew about straight men and women..until last night

What a difference two years and a few beers can make. In May of 2014, I wrote an essay for The Huffington Post called "5 Simple Rules for Straight Women in Gay Bars." I continue to stand by every word I wrote in that piece, but I'm finally ready to ease up a little on girls' nights out in gay bars.

Who said you can't learn crucial life lessons over beers on a Friday night?

Yesterday I was out with my friend Jose and three of his female colleagues, when what had started out as an ordinary evening at Darlo Bar unexpectedly morphed into Sexual Harassment 101.

Our party of five gained a new member when a good-looking guy who'd later introduce himself as Liam singled out one of the women in our group, clearly unaware she wasn't single. He made perfunctory small talk with the rest of us, but it was obvious where his interest lay. All hands were above the large table between them, though, so no harm done.

But the newcomer got one of the other ladies in our group thinking and then talking about boys in bars. She started complaining about men who approach uninterested women and can't get the hint…or take no for an answer.

I came in mid-monologue, so I assumed she was talking about Liam, who hardly seemed like a pushy predator. And from where I was sitting, it looked like he might have had a shot with the object of his attention, who appeared receptive to his considerable charms.

As it turned out, the monologue wasn't about Liam. He'd only inspired it. Watching him work our table, his eye on a specific prize, had gotten her thinking and talking about men and women and how difficult it can be for them to coexist in nightlife.

She described to me how hard women sometimes have it when they go out - or when they're simply in public. As she explained it, when men approach them and they're not interested, women generally react in one of two ways. They either engage him against their will (which is what she implied her co-worker was doing), or they politely inform the unwanted suitor that he's interrupted a girlfriends-only conversation (her preferred approach).

The former, I learned, is what women sometimes do to keep the peace because if they jump to the second response, guys might not take it well and resort to name-calling, slut-shaming or worse. Her words immediately made me think of my own experiences as a gay black man in gay scenes dominated by white men. Guys sometimes hit on me in the most aggressive and racially charged ways, and if I don't respond positively, they've been known to angrily hurl the N-word at me.

"I get it. I know exactly what you're talking about," I said, relieved to be on the right side of the men-can-be-such-dicks conversation.

I told her about the time I spent hours detained by the Buenos Aires police after my rejection of a man who had been harassing me in a nightclub ended in a physical altercation. (Read all about it in "The Kick Inside," a chapter from my first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World .)

Not so fast.

Although surprised by my story (which included a few choice words from the angry suitor, including the N one) and appreciative of my empathy, she told me there's one big difference between my gay expat encounters and women's experiences with pushy men who can't take "not interested" for an answer.

I can respond with a swift kick in the shins, confident that if the violence escalates, I'll probably come out on the winning side. Most women, however, don't have the luxury of letting out their inner fist-fighter.

And for many women, she pointed out, the episodes aren't nearly as isolated as the ones I described. To say it happens all the time for some women wouldn't necessarily be an exercise in hyperbole.

I felt like I'd just woken up from a lengthy coma. How did I not know this? How could I miss it? I knew encounters with tacky men came with the territory of being a woman, but I wasn't aware of how regularly they had to be fended off, sometimes in the most strategic ways. I had no idea how confronting and exhausting alcohol-fueled social situations can be for women.

In my book, I wrote about being routinely touched against my will in Cambodia. I concluded that my experiences there gave me a greater understanding of what women go through, but I had a lot more to learn. There's so much that goes through a woman's mind during an encounter with a strange man that I'll never truly understand.

Considering how many close female friends I've had over the years, I couldn't believe I'd never been privy to this information. As I listened and learned last night, I realized this sort of thing must happen to them more often than I realize.

How could I not have known? Is it because when I'm out with my female friends I provide a buffer between them and would-be predators? Maybe it's the sort of thing women typically discuss amongst themselves but not with men, not even a gay one?

Don't get me wrong. I know what jerks men can be. I've heard the cat calls and witnessed the unwanted advances. I've also seen stranger-danger scenarios with sexual-assault potential, though to be completely truthful, my experience with them has been mostly from TV, movies and Amber Rose anecdotes, not from everyday civilian life.

I'd always assumed casual social encounters between women and men they didn't know were more a nuisance for women than anything else. I'd never really considered the psychological element, the fear factor.

I looked at Liam again. He was still cute and charming as ever, but I couldn't get the P word (predator) out of my mind. I'm not sure I'll ever look at men and women interacting in a straight bar the same way again.

I'm not saying I'll love it when women crowd gay bars looking for a safe space where they can dance without fear of harassment, but from now on, I'll certainly be more understanding. Lesson learned.
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