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On "I Have a Boyfriend" and the soft no

This editorial has been going around my Facebook, and it gives me chills. Not good chills. I think that this is a firmly feminist piece, and it's wonderful for that. The author, Eberhardt Smith, is talking about agency, and empowerment, and respecting yourself, and being honest. But still, it gives me chills.

If you haven't come across it yet (it was also posted on Luna Luna Magazine and xoJane), in "Stop Saying 'I Have A Boyfriend'", Smith is arguing that women need to stop using the "I have a boyfriend" excuse to turn away unwanted advances in bars. Some of this editorial is just terrific.

Yes, this may be the easiest and quickest way to get someone to leave you alone, but the problems associated with using this excuse far outweigh the benefits. There is a quotation that I've seen floating around Tumblr recently (reblogged by many of my amazing feminist Tumblr-friends) that goes as follows:

Male privilege is "I have a boyfriend" being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.

This amazingly puts into one sentence what I have been attempting to explain to ex-boyfriends and friends (male and female) for years, mostly unsuccessfully. The idea that a woman should only be left alone if she is "taken" or "spoken for" (terms that make my brain twitch) completely removes the level of respect that should be expected toward that woman. It completely removes the agency of the woman, her ability to speak for herself and make her own decisions regarding when and where the conversation begins or ends. It is basically a real-life example of feminist theory at work–women (along with women's choices, desires, etc.) being considered supplemental to or secondary to men, be it the man with whom she is interacting or the man to whom she "belongs" (see the theory of Simone de Beauvoir, the story of Adam and Eve, etc.).


But from that, we go to this:

And the worst part of the whole situation is that we're doing this to ourselves.

So what can we do? I think the solution is simple — we simply stop using excuses. If a man is coming on to you (and you are not interested — if you are, go for it, girl!), respond with something like this: "I'm not interested." Don't apologize and don't excuse yourself. If they question your response (which is likely), persist — "No, I said I'm not interested."

From this editorial, I get this creepy feeling that women who use this excuse are making it more difficult for all women. I mean, if EVERY woman refused to use the "I have a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner/spouse" excuse (even when she does!), it would be gone, right? But what this scarily ignores, to me, is the major fear a lot of women have of giving a hard no. Many women are simply socialized to not be able to give a hard no. Some women feel more comfortable maintaining a flirty and nonthreatening persona, and blaming their lack of follow-through on an absent authority (i.e. a man). Others may not really be able to get those blunt words out of their mouths, after a lifetime of having to dance around their thoughts and opinions when the man in your face won't like it. Sometimes it's scarier than that, and you know from experience what a hard no can get, even in a bar. You know that the worst that can happen is NOT an uncomfortable conversation or an argument, as Smith says has happened to her when it "isn't easy", but that you could come to actual harm, now or later.

I know I'm afraid of the hard no. I wore a ring to bars to be able to say "I'm engaged" without even speaking, I would just gesture at the ring, because I felt too intimidated to place my rejection on my own opinion - the appeal to authority meant "I cannot be convinced, please don't try", and I would be left alone. I couldn't even hit the person who sexually assaulted me, knowing that I had not consented to this, him knowing I was not a willing participant, but he was an acquaintance, and almost a friend, and I just couldn't do it. He laughed at me when I tried. There is a lot of socialization (and patriarchy?) behind women feeling like "I have a boyfriend" is the only excuse you can use to get someone to back down, and we are not the cause of it.


There is a reason why articles like this one mention that the girl had a boyfriend - because the story of a boy stabbing a girl in a stairwell because she turned him down for prom wasn't bad enough. We had to know that she was already taken. There is also a reason why the top comment by jonezbeech with 1213 recommends is:

This story is for all the men that don't understand why women can't just say no to them and have to "play games." It's because we're sometimes scared that if we tell you no flat out, you'll fucking stab us.


Women know this is happening! We know we don't feel safe! And sometimes we may be comfortable to start changing the norm here, but this is still NOT the demographic that you should be calling out. You should be calling out the men and boys who perpetuate this. The 'journalists' who need to report that a girl had a boyfriend when she was stabbed to death for a hard no. The culture that teaches boys you should try as hard as you can to win a girl's heart, unless she has a boyfriend (or sometimes still then). The world that does not respect women's claims about their own feelings and opinions. Not the women who operate within that system and have to use patriarchy to their advantage to feel socially and physically safe.

I love this editorial for talking about the patriarchy behind the "I have a boyfriend" excuse. I am bothered by this editorial for making me feel complicit in that patriarchy by hiding behind it for my own safety, or what I perceive is my own safety. I am bothered by a perspective that frames the victims of patriarchy as the ones responsible for educating their oppressors ("maybe, possibly, the man I'm speaking to, or other men observing the encounter, may learn something about the agency of women") and the ones responsible for turning the tide of male ownership of women's bodies.


What do you think? Is this how we finally smash the patriarchy?

Edit: Here is a more thorough take on the general issue, thanks for the link BajiNaji!


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