Defining the Line.

This post is not meant as a male-bashing rant. I happened to watch an excellent documentary on Netflix last night, Roll Red Roll, and it stirred up some thoughts that have been swirling around my brain over the last few weeks.     

My whole life I’ve been two people: one who seeks out and enjoys attention, and one who prefers to turn the spotlight on others. The former gets old and unbearable quickly, not the seeking part, but the getting. The latter is driven by curiosity — this need to dig in and really understand people. But I recently clued into a blind spot of mine, a feeling of uncertainty over some of my boundaries. I’ve been wondering, what even is the line I don’t want crossed? And, is standing up for my self-respect going to trash a part of my wholly alive feminine identity?

Naturally, these questions generated others:

Am I guilty of sending out mixed signals? Am I incapable of discerning good-humoured jokes from unwanted suggestive comments? When I accept a compliment from a man, does this give a green light for the above uncomfortable stuff?

Cue one of my fave jams from 1991, C&C Music Factory’s Things That Make You Go Hmm… You’re welcome for that bit of nostalgia.

The #metoo movement woke me from a dozy slumber; one where I simply tolerated inappropriate male behaviour, particularly during my younger years in the food and beverage industry. Like the shame I felt in allowing a restaurant owner to pull me onto his lap at a Christmas party, while he rubbed my thighs in front of his friends and other staff. There’s me, awkwardly going with the flow and not wanting to cause a scene, and him, making wildly inappropriate comments about my body. I surmise the other happily imbibing onlookers simply chalked it up to him being drunk as F*** (like that excused him). Internally, I loathed the man, but he signed my paycheck and I happened to like my job, so it was one of those, “just deal with it” situations.

Then, there’s the opposite side of the coin. I flat out enjoyed the playful banter of the young men who nursed their Sunday hangovers at the popular downtown pub. I’ll admit it, in between slinging their hash browns and eggs benny, I flirted right back. In fact, I encouraged it! Was it just an unconscious hustle for better tips? (Some would argue, decidedly not unconscious.) Did I just like the attention? Both? Rather than chalk that up to twenty-something behaviour, I now wonder if we are asking to have it both ways. 

Have we been setting our men up for future behaviour where they don’t clearly know the line?

I look back on a pattern of “boys will be boys” behaviour in other workplaces, such that if it happened today, HR would (in theory) intervene and consequences would be enforced. I’ve mostly allowed this conduct and I can’t help but ask why. But there was one time, about 22 years ago, when I took immediate action in support of my values; though I’m sure any level-headed woman would have likely done the same.

“You don’t have to accept the things you are not ok with.” — unknown

This specific man, whose name shall go with me to my grave, interpreted my interest in accompanying him on an afternoon mountain biking adventure as carte blanche to put the moves on me.  Further, he suggested I’d be fortunate to engage in a threesome with him and his wife. Ummmm …. a what now? In fairness, I did agree to a backyard hot tub after all that crazy biking. But does that in and of itself equal a signpost that reads, please go ahead and make those assumptions about me? I confess I had no clue I’d be putting myself in such a dicey situation, since the dude and his wife were my friends. Plus, he was twice my age (this means nothing), a professional (also means nothing), and knew my father (apparently this doesn’t matter)!

How could I possibly have known he’d try and stick his tongue down my throat? Today I can say that dripping with icky sarcasm, because at the time, I was apparently the Mayor of Naiveville. Good news, though. After an excruciating ride home in his Beamer, I decided the whole thing was S***. I confronted his wife (Did you actually tell your husband you wanted a threesome with me? Because he says it was your idea! What even is that???), and subsequently helped her pick up the pieces as she kicked his ass to the curb, in a move I both championed and revered.

Then there was that time during an innocent ‘post-engagement-break-up’ date with a guy I had long admired. I confess I was excited he’d taken an interest, but found myself flummoxed when he presented me with the cure-all to my wounded heart: his junk. Oh yeah, baby! He literally whipped it out in a Husky parking lot, assuring me that all I really needed was a slice of his meat. Uhhh, too soon, buddy. Much too soon. Needless to say I did not avail myself of his cure-all on our first and only date, and to this day, he is known as “Cock Boy” amongst my closest homies.

Working in a male dominated industry for 15+ years also taught me a thing or two. There were times I longed to speak up and share my insights, but never did, partially because I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and partially because, did I really want to be “that girl”? The one who dumped everything on its head by proposing some alternative strategy? I did and I didn’t. I had things to contribute and so I would, on occasion. But other times I simply seethed in my chair, not having the energy nor confidence to stand up and say “Hey! How about a little female perspective here!” As a woman, I can say that things are definitely getting better. And yet it’s an exhausting quest, constantly trying to make your voice heard without being “too loud”, or “too opinionated”.

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” — Eugene Ionesco

A long time male friend of mine recently asked if he had made me uncomfortable when he commented on “all the walking I must have been doing.” We go back so far that I answered him sincerely, his compliment was appreciated, because “yes! I have been walking a whole helluva lot!” (Things tend to get toned when one walks. Which is not why I walk lol.) But his genuine inquiry was indicative of a time of uncertainty for men, too.

Ahem. What is my role in all of this? Why have I not called out sexist behaviour that I witnessed on display at past work functions? Why have I allowed myself to play into the narrative of “boys will be boys”? How and where do signals get crossed? And why am I only thinking about these things now?

I refuse to deny utilizing my skills in the flirting department to get out of a speeding ticket. I also own that, when convenient, these same skills have been deployed to move me closer to the front of a long line-up, or into a more favourable table location at restaurants. Is this overt use of my sexuality contributing to the confusing landscape men now wade through? I dunno. I just. Don’t. Know.

I feel that discussing this is a matter of radical responsibility to myself and others… a chance to inform and educate what the damn line is. Or at least generate some discussion. See, in the past, I’d simply sweep the unsavoury behaviour under the rug, usually by ignoring it. I always hoped this strategy would result in them coming to the conclusion on their own. They’d wake up one day and magically think, “Gee, perhaps I overstepped.” This is fool’s thinking, as we all know. I’m also guilty of simply giggling, and “aw shucks-ing” myself away from the offensive remarks. I think part of this stems from an aversion I have to embarrassing anyone.

The question remains, then, is my silence not a contributor to the problem? I think so.

Back to speaking up and out, the fact is, everyone has something new they can learn about themselves. Always. It’s the same way I own my previous lack of understanding of the specific words “Black Lives Matter” in the BLM movement. I couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t just say, “all lives matter”, since everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. I found I needed more education on the matter, and after immersing myself in some youtube (I implore you to watch this), I finally connected with the importance of specificity… BLACK LIVES MATTER. Saying ALL LIVES MATTER is precisely not the point! It’s difficult for me to admit all this, but we don’t know everything, people. Many of us have been asleep on these issues for years… either by default or choice.  

But I digress. If a person has a clear understanding of the boundaries as laid out by the people they meet — then they should be able to stay within those limits, especially if they value the relationship. Are we at a fork in the road? Must we have a review of what is and is not acceptable?

What is the bloody line, then?

Is my line one, where the occasional compliment coming my way from the male species makes me feel good about my aging self? Sure it is.  But my acceptance and appreciation of that does not feed into blanket permission to up the ante! Is my line one, where the use of kissy emojis and hearts  in texts  is open for interpretation? No! Those things are a dime a dozen in today’s techy world and some would even say they devalue the message being sent. (I’m always concerned I will come off as ‘harsh’ or ‘too direct’ lest I pepper each communication with some sort of emoji. Kill. Me. Now.) Is my line one, where my interest and concern for a member of the opposite sex translates into me wanting sex? F*** no! It simply means I’m a human being, and you’re in my circle of people I care about.

The fact is, I’m a mom of two daughters. It is imperative that I set a clear example of these boundaries that aren’t often discussed. Oh sure, the flagrant, “no means no” stuff is discussed. But how will they go out into the world and handle the occasional bout of sexual bullying? Will they be flattered into a rabbit hole of regret? How will they deal with the inevitable attention they’ll get vs totally inappropriate conversations they should not be engaging in in the first place? This know-how is something I need to instill in them. And while they’re blessed to be living in a more enlightened era (the #metoo movement is never going away), they require the tools to tap into their own empowerment.

So let’s circle back. Is it possible for a woman to define a line with seemingly opposing sides? Can she keep the important connection to her femininity and her integrity for herself intact?

The answer is. I want to believe, yes.

What if we saw this whole thing as a delicate dance? A dance where we, the women, set the rules. Eyes up. Hands here. Respectable space between our bodies unless otherwise invited. I think that’s the key difference. We need to lead the dance. For too long it was always only the men who led. Now it’s our turn.

I’ll just say this. I’m gonna lead the dance. And that’s my line. Any questions?

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