When Wooing is Harassment

Refusing to take no for an answer isn’t romantic, no matter what the movies tell us.

I’m a fan of Dan Savage’s “Savage Lovecast.” In a recent episode, Dan answered a call from a woman who dated a man for a while, realized she wasn’t into him, and ended the relationship. The man asked if they could stay friends, and then spent months clearly trying to woo her back. He thinks of her all the time, she said, and does things like sending her a series of hand-made birthday gifts and offering her father a kidney.

That latter craziness was the focus of the call and response, but I want to address something else — because I have been this guy. My teen years, into my early twenties, featured a series of women who turned me down for relationships, who I then continued to pursue and work to impress and change their minds.

I thought myself unlucky in love, unappreciated. That’s how I was taught to regard myself by a whole series of romantic comedies and television shows in the 1980s: The guy who gets passed over, who some girl will eventually realize she loved all along. You just have to stick it out, and win her affection through some grand romantic gestures, right?

No. What I was doing is harassment. A gentle sort of harassment, true, nothing on a level with Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore, but harassment nonetheless. It’s a form of harassment most women — if not most people — have to endure, and I’m here to say: Guys, stop it.

How do I know this harassment? Easy: The woman said no, and yet you’re still trying. Rather than acknowledge the decision made by the object of your affection, you’ve decided you know better than her. You just need to prove why she’s wrong: You send flowers. You write poetry. You remember her birthday, her favorite songs, her favorite movie, her favorite type of flower. You remember her parents’ birthdays. You remember her pets’ birthdays. Whenever a special occasion comes along, you go the extra mile to stand out among the other men in her life — especially the guy she’s currently dating.

And what’s worse? While you’re working your manipulation, doing everything you can to undermine the decision she made and informed you about, you pretend to be her friend.

Not only is this deceptive, it puts the woman in the terrible position Dan Savage’s caller described: Seeing through the guy’s manipulation, feeling pressured and resenting it, but not wanting to hurt the feelings of someone she considers a friend.

I’m sure this is not unique to men, or to heterosexual relationships. In fact, if I think about it, I probably did this to one or two men in my lifetime. I’m sure women and nonbinary people are guilty of the same approach. I’m addressing men because, like most forms of sexual harassment, it’s practically an epidemic.

It’s so common, in fact, that it has a name: “The Friendzone.”

You know, that term “nice guys” use when women make up their own minds instead of dating (or just sleeping with) whatever guy takes an interest. The term that portrays friendship between genders as something a person is sentenced to, rather than something to pursue.

Guys, you haven’t been friendzoned. You’ve been rejected. Accept it and move on. Respect a woman’s right to choose.

Photo by Jonathan Potter, used under Creative Commons license

To be clear, I’m not arguing here against all forms of wooing. Relationships are complicated. Sometimes people want to be pursued. How do you know, then, if what you’re doing is unwelcome? The good news, guys, is there’s an easy indication: She said no.

What’s the right way to respond when you ask a woman to date you, and she says no? Move on. If you honestly want to be friends, then be friends. But don’t make a big performance of showing her what a romantic you are — be yourself. Be a genuine friend, a person who enjoys spending time together simply for the pleasure of that company and not in pursuit of some ultimate goal.

Yes, it’s true that occasionally people change their minds. People do fall in love with friends. But that won’t happen because you harass her. And trust me, for every couple who started out as “just friends,” there are thousands, if not millions, of women being softly and gently harassed by some fake friend who thinks he’s courting her.

And ladies? You don’t have to be kind to these guys. Yes, they come across as sad lovesick puppies, and are only too eager to talk about their unrequited feelings, but ultimately they are refusing to accept that you said no. They figure if they work really hard, they can force you to change your mind. And the truth is, they might succeed — after enough gentle, steady guilt, you might just find yourselves alone, maybe when you’re vulnerable — say, right after a breakup — and the two of you will share a bottle of wine and do something you’ll definitely regret.

If that story seems familiar — and if the sex isn’t necessarily consentual — it’s because date rape is on the same spectrum of harassment with this refusal to take no for an answer. Sure, they might be pretty far apart on that spectrum, but they originate in the same place: “Rape culture,” our society’s nefarious way of teaching that women are supposed to be deferential, and men are supposed to get what they want.

So just don’t do it, guys. Recognize this behavior for what it is, a gentlest form of abuse and harassment. Learn to take no for an answer, and move on with your life. And ladies, don’t feel trapped by your would-be suitor. You don’t have to tolerate any man who won’t respect your decisions — better to be rid of him, before his refusal to hear “no” leads somewhere darker.

Writer, cartoonist, and nonprofit pro. I have too many interests, but let’s focus on culture & politics. Bisexual, cis. He/him, please. | Twitter: @keeltyc.

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