Let’s talk about crossing the line. It might not seem like a “church” issue, but it’s an issue in any place where humans cross paths.
I’ve seen some complaints over the past year, ever since #MeToo started flying across our social media and a handful of well-known men with credible allegations against them lost, well not their lives or their wealth or their freedom, but their jobs.
The main complaint from some men is they’re worried they can’t even speak to women anymore. “If I approach a woman, she’ll just accuse me of harassment and I’ll lose everything!”
Aside from the fact that an accusation alone doesn’t usually put much of a tangible dent in anyone’s life, that’s not how this works. Speaking to a woman isn’t going to end in a sexual harassment accusation.
But I do understand where that fear is coming from. In the past, when women just endured harassment in silence, men didn’t have to think through their interactions with us. Most men I know would never harass a woman anyway, but now they’re in a position of having to second guess themselves because they didn’t know it happens so frequently to women. Or they’re wondering if maybe they were trying to flirt and crossed the line sometime in the past.
Part of the issue is what some men define as “friendly” or “flirting,” most women would define as “harassment” because that’s what it is. It’s possible to intimidate and harass a woman without even knowing you’re doing it.
There are three different basic interactions at play in social settings.
Friendly: You can approach a woman in a friendly way. You aren’t trying to form a romantic connection with her. You’re an interesting person. She’s an interesting person. You just happen to be different genders.
Flirty: You’re interested in getting to know her better because you’re physically attracted to her. You want to let her know you’re attracted and test the waters a little to see how she responds so you’ll know if it’s reciprocal.
Harassing: You approach a woman in an inappropriate way which makes her feel anxious or afraid. You ignore her personal boundaries and verbal and nonverbal cues that she isn’t interested in talking to you. You don’t assess the situation to see if it’s likely she’d be interested in you or not before approaching and/or you approach her in an inappropriate place or at an inappropriate time.
I know most men don’t want to harass or intimidate women, so let’s look at a few different scenarios so we’re closer to being on the same page:
(Note: We’re talking about adults here.)
You sit next to a woman at a church meal. You don’t know her, so you introduce yourself and ask basic questions like, “What do you do?” and “Are you a member here?” and “Hey, did you see they have seven different pies up there?”
You spend the next hour talking about a book or TV show you both enjoy. She turns to face you while speaking and doesn’t lean away or try to angle her body away from yours. She’s actively engaged in the conversation, smiling and speaking at least as often as you are. She’s not sending signals she’s trying to escape the conversation.
Congratulations! You just had a friendly encounter with a woman.
When the meal is over, she’ll walk away with a good impression of you. Maybe the two of you will become friends. If you’re both single, maybe you’ll eventually develop a romantic relationship. Maybe you’ll be great friends without any romantic connection. The important thing is you had a social interaction that was pleasant for both of you.
You sit next to a woman at a church meal. You don’t know her, but daaaaaaaaang she’s hot, so you stare at her for several minutes as she gives you a nervous side-eye and tries to scoot her chair further away from you.
You lean in and whisper, “Hey. You’re pretty hot.”
She turns to stare at you, then stands up and walks away.
For some reason, you don’t think that means she’s not interested, so you follow her to another table and sit down. “You want to go out with me this weekend?” you ask.
“How about next weekend?”
She crosses her arms and breaks eye contact to look over at another table, hoping to find some excuse to exit this conversation. “I’m still busy.”
You don’t take the hint and continue to tag along after her for the next hour as she moves around the room to get away from you. You figure she’s just playing hard to get and if she really wasn’t interested, she’d be more clear about it.
That’s because you don’t know how dangerous it can be for a woman to tell a man she doesn’t find him attractive. You know you aren’t a violent or vindictive person, but she doesn’t know that. She isn’t likely to risk making you angry enough to hurt her.
Women are also conditioned from an early age to be accommodating and worry about other people’s feelings more than our own. It’s up to the person pursuing to pick up on clues that she isn’t interested.
“She just doesn’t know me. If she took the time to get to know me, she’d totally be into me,” you say.
No, dude. You already blew it. She’s not the only woman in the world, so learn from your mistakes and move on. Next time, don’t ogle and hit on a woman who’s just trying to enjoy some delicious baked goods. Whether it’s your intention or not, when you hit on a woman without even trying to get to know her first, you’re telling her, “I don’t care about what kind of person you are. I just want to have sex with you.”
What about that whole “playing hard to get” thing? No mature adult does that, so don’t worry about it. If you think a woman might be playing hard to get, you’re wrong and she isn’t interested in you. At all. So, go away.
You sit next to a woman somewhere that isn’t a church because churches aren’t the place to try to pick up women. Seriously, y’all. If you meet a woman at church and get to know her over time, that’s awesome and you can totally date her if she’s interested in you, but it’s not the place to get all flirty with women you don’t even know. Church definitely shouldn’t be a place where women have to worry about fending off inappropriate advances.
So, let’s say you’re at a bowling alley because I’ve lived in a small town for way too long and I have a boring social life.
You meet a woman at the bowling alley and you think she’s attractive. She might be glancing your way an awful lot too.
You engage in a little small talk first, just to see how she reacts. She reacts positively.
You throw out a couple of jokes. She laughs.
She doesn’t cross her arms or try to move away from you or break eye contact to try to look for a friend to rescue her from your attention.
You say, “I haven’t been bowling since I broke up with my girlfriend,” because she seems super cool and you want to make sure she knows you’re single.
She says, “Yeah, my ex hated bowling.”
Oh, hey! She’s single too!
Her body language is still positive after a little more conversation, so you ask if she’d like to go bowling with you next weekend.
She’s totally into it because bowling is her love language. The two of you exchange numbers and you don’t text her anything sexually suggestive.
Congratulations! You totally have a date with a woman who’s into you! Isn’t that so much better than hounding a woman who isn’t into you?
Why does it matter?
It’s easy to excuse something like Scenario B. I mean, you didn’t even touch her, right? All you did was follow her around and make her uncomfortable.
But let’s think about what really happened there. A woman’s needs were ignored because a man felt entitled to her. That’s what happens when you cross the line.
Harassment (and following around a person who clearly isn’t interested is a form of harassment) sets the stage for assault by teaching men and women to ignore what a woman wants. Whether it’s consciously done or not, it’s a form of grooming. And, anyway, women should be able to enjoy public places without worrying about dudes getting creepy.
If we’re interested in changing our culture so that we can reduce sexual violence, we have to learn to respect the wishes of people who aren’t into us. We don’t have the right to another person’s body or attention.