The Bristol branch of the Awkward Army is meeting this weekend, about which I am excited! So when I got a Facebook message a couple of days ago from a fellow Bristolian Awkwardeer, albeit one I didn’t know, I was pleased before I’d even read it. Awkward people reaching out to each other and networking, yay! What could possibly go wrong with that?
Toby (not his real name) introduced himself as a friend of two women I knew from the last meetup. He said he’d been reading Captain Awkward’s blog for a while, and that he and his girlfriend decided to come to the May meet. So far, so cool. He then disclosed that he has an account on a dating website I use, and gave his username. And for a second I was confused, like, ‘Yeah, so? Are you trying to ask me out or something?’ But then he went on to talk about coincidence, and how he’d had no idea I was part of the Awkward Army when he’d joined, and didn’t want to come if it would make me uncomfortable…
And the penny finally dropped. Holy fuck – you’re THAT Toby.
He wasn’t asking for a date. He was someone I’d already dated, once, and who had sent me a couple of follow-up messages afterwards. And I had never responded to those messages.
Well, I thought, this is terribly awkward. Which is… sort of almost comically appropriate, I guess?
Toby and I went on a non-romantic, looking-for-new-friends date last autumn, and passed a pleasant evening wandering the city streets and talking about our favourite games, books, movies, etc. I tend to feel somewhat out of my element when getting to know new people. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the constant anxiety of What if we run out of things to talk about? What if the conversation falls flat on its face? What if I say something stupid or seem boring or everything just gets awkward or AHHHHHH. For me, meeting new people feels more like work than play, and the part where I feel relaxed enough to properly enjoy someone’s company comes later, when I begin to develop a sense of knowing what to expect from them. I knew this about myself going in, and I was prepared for it to take a few dates before I felt out-and-out positive about continued contact with anyone.
What I didn’t take into account was the sheer amount of shit going on in my life at the time. I desperately wanted to be generally okay enough to get out there, meet new people, be awesome and have fun; and I set the cart before the horse somewhat. Walking home after my friendship date with Toby – my first (and so far only) online dating experience – my sense of wanting to hide under my duvet and make the world go away was ratcheted way up. At a time when my anxiety levels were running higher than normal on the best of days, elevated anxiety was not something I wanted to keep volunteering for on a regular basis. Although I only understand that in a rational way in retrospect; at the time my experience was simply Gahhhhh, so many scaryfeels, why did I think this was a good idea?
When Toby messaged me through the dating website a couple of days later, my feelings about meeting him again were very mixed, so I let my reply slide while I was ‘deciding’. It slid for a couple of weeks , at which point Toby texted me to say it was cool if I didn’t want to see him again, and asking for feedback on if he’d done something wrong or if I’d just not clicked with him. I felt guilty for not having replied to his earlier message, and every time I looked at his text my failing-at-life anxiety spiked a little, so again I kept putting off writing a reply. And then another week had gone by, and I ended up thinking, Well, fuck it, it’s been a rough few months so I’m going to just let myself off the hook and be okay with not replying. It’s a big city; it’s not like I’ll ever bump into him and have to justify myself.
That is all.
I literally smacked my palm on my forehead when I finally realised who the message was from. I would super, super hate to be the reason why anyone didn’t feel comfortable being an active member of the Awkward Army. So I immediately replied to Toby’s Facebook message and apologised for cutting contact, assuring him it had been nothing to do with him, and that he hadn’t given me any ‘creepy internet stalker vibes’ when we’d met, which was his chief concern. We messaged back and forth a little, and the happy ending is that we will be sharing snacks and being friendly with each other at the meetup.
This, my friends, is a lesson in privilege.
I have never had to worry about giving anybody a ‘creepy’ vibe. I have never had to worry about coming across as physically or sexually threatening* when meeting a new person for the first time. My privilege in presenting as a short, white, female person makes me incredibly unlikely to ever be identified as potentially dangerous, unless I am being aggressive on purpose. It had not occurred to me that, as a strange man meeting a strange woman from the internet, not wanting to appear even slightly threatening would be a very real concern for Toby. Neither had it occurred to me that he might be wondering if I had never replied to his messages because I’d felt creeped out by him. My guilt rested on the idea that he might feel rejected and sad; the ‘Was I creepy?’ angle simply did not enter my head.
Men should be aware of this when they go on dates. They should be aware that a woman will probably have concerns for her safety playing at the back of her mind when out with a stranger, and they should be aware that comments or jokes that are often well-received as harmless fun by other men may well send a red banner running up a woman’s flagstaff. For instance, a date who ‘harmlessly’ makes a jokey comment about an act of sexual assault or domestic violence, or who uses a slur like ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ as a term of endearment, is unlikely to ever hear from me again. Even setting aside the valid fear that such men may be out-and-out rapists and abusers who are testing my boundaries to see if I would make a pliable victim, in my experience these comments are the signature moves of people who don’t have the self-awareness to realise what they are seeking: to feel good and safe and strong within themselves by behaving in ways that encourage others to feel ‘less’. Less intelligent. Less funny. Less able to judge right from wrong. Less able to stand up for themselves. Less valid as human beings. I am not interested in feeling ‘less’, or in being around anyone who needs me to feel ‘less’ in order for them to feel ‘more’, so these people tend to get weeded out of my life as quickly as I can manage it.
Toby is clearly aware of all this potential-red-flag stuff. I take my hat off to Toby; he has pole-vaulted over my minimum standards for Decent Human Being with quite a bit of clearance room, which makes me very glad to now have a second opportunity to get to know him. What I need to be more aware of, going forward, is that guys are aware of this. They are concerned about being regarded as creepy. And that means, if I drop a decent guy after a date or two for UNRELATED LIFE REASONS and don’t ever explain why, he is going to be asking himself if he came over as threatening. And that’s not cool of me. So in future, I must Use My Words!
* I’ve never been regarded as physically threatening, to my knowledge, but I have met guys who seemed emotionally threatened by my confidence, assertiveness, and pride in taking care of my own shit – or at least, they just weren’t into women with such traits. Mostly they were guys who dated very feminine-presenting women, which put them in the position of being the Manly Man who protects ‘his girl’ and insists to her that no, really, she is beautiful, even if she’ll never believe it. Or better yet, that’s she’s beautiful because she’ll never believe it, a la that puke-making Bruno Mars song about the timeless attractiveness of young women with low self-esteem. All of which is fine, I guess, if you’re into that; but holy moly am I ever not the lady for those men, because that relationship would run like –
Dude: Give me that large object you’re carrying; it’s too heavy for you.
Kate: It’s cool, I got it.
Dude: No, I mean it, you’re going to hurt yourself. Give it over.
Kate: Get out of the god damn way, before I drop it on your foot.
Dude: Aw, baby, you’re so beautiful!…
Dude: …when you’re trying to be angry!
Kate: *chokes* *drops heavy object* Well, now I’m really beautiful.
Dude: WHAT THE FUCK YOU CRAZY BITCH OH JESUS THE BLOOD
Kate: Would you please excuse me while I call you an ambulance?
(Okay, not really; only in my wildest fantasies would I actually maim this guy. But I wouldn’t call him, and I’m guessing that wouldn’t be a problem, because he probably wouldn’t call me either. I love how guys like this just opt right out of my social pool; it sure does save me the job of telling them to fuck off.)