Dating is different in the post-#MeToo era, and Jean Hannah Edelstein is here to help you navigate it in her pop-up advice column.
Send your romantic quandaries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What I would like to know is how to say no. I know it sounds stupid, but because of low self-esteem and fear of unpleasant reactions, I have had a lot of sex out of politeness. My whole life I’ve been this way, and I’m now 38. It has often left me feeling used and regretful. I would love some guidance on how to negotiate situations if you’re with someone you don’t know very well, when you’re afraid of hurting feelings or provoking ire. I’m a woman, if that matters.
It doesn’t sound stupid. It sounds pretty normal to me. It’s important to know how to say no to sex – or, indeed, how to hear “no” – and it’s not something that we do a very good job of teaching young people (or older people for that matter). You’re not alone in feeling that you’ve had sex just to be polite – many women are socialized to be polite to people at the cost of their own feelings or wellbeing, so it’s not surprising that it can apply to sex, too.
I’m about the same age as you, and when I was growing up I was told to say no to sex until I was married; no one told me how to say yes to sex that I wanted or, indeed, how to change my mind about sex if I was being lead in a direction that I did not want to go.
Perhaps this was what happened in the case of the anonymous woman who went on the infamous date with Aziz Ansari: reading her account on Babe.net, it seemed when her lines were crossed it was difficult for her to push back or leave, perhaps because she did not want to upset or anger him, a person far more powerful than she.
Let me be clear: if you do something sexually because you are afraid of what will happen if you say no, then you are not at fault. The person who is making you feel threatened is at fault. But there are some things that I think you can do to help avoid getting to the point where you feel like you must have sex that will make you feel used and regretful afterwards.
If you anticipate that a situation may lead to you having sex out of politeness – perhaps you can recognize the signs by now – whether that’s a first date, a reunion with an old lover, a party where the drinks are flowing, or an invitation back to the apartment of someone whose company you’ve enjoyed but who you don’t know well, take a moment beforehand to set a clear intention, eg “I am going to go home on my own tonight”.
Write it down: on a Post-it note, in your phone, somewhere you can refer to if that helps.
Make a clear plan about how you’re going to make that happen: how you’re going to get home, independent of anyone else. Enlist a friend to check on you, come with you, or pick you up. It’s easy to get caught up in a flirtation, but if you feel there’s even the slightest risk that you will feel regret if you are intimate with someone, spend some more time with them in a situation where the stakes are lower – probably a public place – until you feel confident that you will feel good about yourself the morning after. If they’re not interested in affording you that patience, then you probably don’t want to sleep with them.
Additionally – if you’re not talking to a therapist already about the impact that these encounters have had on your self-esteem, maybe that’s worth thinking about? I think it might be really helpful to talk through some of these experiences in a safe, supportive environment. Perhaps you’ll be able to forgive yourself for what is making you feel regretful. A lot of women swallow these bad experiences as part and parcel of what it means to be a woman, but if #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that we no longer have to be silent. You’ve spent a lot of time being polite to other people. Now it is time to be polite to yourself.
One of the things I think is now universal, but maybe I’m wrong, is that it’s now inappropriate to say hi to a stranger on the street. No matter how nice you are, it seems like if it’s unwarranted it should be avoided. This doesn’t go for bars and clubs, obviously, but more for buses, street corners, elevators, etc.
What’s your take?
It’s not inappropriate to say hi to a stranger on a bus, in the street or in an elevator. It is inappropriate to get upset when the stranger you say hi to does not respond the way that you would like them to respond. Even if you’re really nice.
If you indeed don’t get the response that you’d hope for, keep in mind that many strangers have experienced harassment or abuse that may make them wary of engaging with other strangers. Or maybe they’re just busy. They don’t owe you a greeting, and to be clear, this also goes for bars and clubs – in these contexts people may well be more open to being approached by strangers, but they also may be there to spend time with friends they already have. Don’t take it as a personal rejection. How could you? They’re strangers.
(It is absolutely inappropriate to say hi to a stranger on the street if by hi you mean you say: “Every time I see you walking your dog I wish I was at the end of the leash”, which is something that a man in my neighborhood said to me recently. I am sure he, too, believed himself to be nice.)