Downtown Seattle at a burlesque/circus arts show with friends, January 2018. Anywhere, anytime.
THE INITIAL INTERACTION:
I’m on the dance floor with my girlfriends, trying to avoid the attention of a tall guy in a Lycra onesie who is a little too attention-seeking with his moves and not reading my cues of disinterest. As my friend and I are chatting between songs, he comes up to me fast and close and puts his hands on my hips. I immediately shove his hands off me hard and snap, “Do you want something?”
He holds his palms out and says, “To dance.”
I look at him for a long moment, considering, seeing his outstretched palms and asking myself, Do I actually want this or am I just doing this to placate this dude? Time slows down and we seem to rest in the pause. I’m vaguely grateful my friend is still there, watching; I’m not alone. Then I decide I’m open to a short dance, so I take his hand and we swing for a minute or two. Then we’re done; I disengage and go back to my friends.
“I like how you handled that,” says my friend.
THE FINAL INTERACTION:
At the end of the night, as I’m waiting for my friends, I see Monsieur Lycra across the dance floor. I can see that he’s spotted me; he slowly stalks up to me wanting attention. He gets in front of me and drops the new opening line: “I like your glasses.” He is much taller than I am and he’s standing close; I have to look up into his face to see his eyes.
“Thank you, I say.” He asks my name and I say, “What’s YOUR name?”
He smiles coyly, “I asked you first.” I raise my eyebrow and don’t say anything. We stare at each other for a long moment and time dilates again. Then his face crumples slightly and he says, “…I’m Teddy.” I tell him my name and we shake hands. When he starts making small talk, I cut through: “It really bothered me that you touched me on the dance floor without asking.”
He says, in a long drawl, “I’m sorry you felt uncomfortable…but I’m not sorry I touched you because I’m very attracted to you.”
My blood boils. I move closer to him to be heard over the loud music. I say something like, “That is NOT OKAY with me, I’m telling you that you crossed my boundary and that has nothing to do with whether I’m attractive. What you just said isn’t an apology and that’s not acceptable to me.”
The next thing he says is something like, “Being a guy is about making lots of mistakes. You to have to make these decisions fast and sometimes you don’t make the right one.”
I tell him, “That’s a human thing, not a guy thing. I need you to understand that when women dance publicly, we are dealing with the fear of getting hit on or someone touching us ALL THE TIME. Sometimes we express our sexual energy in ways that look inviting,” and he cuts in to say, “and provocative,” so I say “Yes, and provocative, and you need to not assume that it’s for you. Sometimes there’s an invitation, and sometimes there isn’t. The best thing to do is to ask.”
From his expression, I see his mind is computing the “but what if it’s loud and I can’t hear and we can’t talk?! You mean I really have to ask?!” So I cut in again: “There are nonverbal ways of asking on the dance floor but you ignored my cues and this happens to a LOT of women who dance to express their sexuality… You came at me too fast and didn’t let me say no, that’s why you crossed a boundary.”
He says, “That’s fair. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ignored your lack of interest. I’m sorry I crossed your boundary. I’m not sorry that I’m attracted to you but I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable.”
I say, “Thank you. It’s OK to be attracted and I hope you consider this in how you engage on the dance floor. I accept your apology.”
And then we part ways, sweeping off to our separate nights. Nothing like a little 1am consent education on the dance floor.
This happened so many times before I found my voice to speak up in the moment. And the ability to speak fluidly and confidently now is what heals the parts of me that felt voiceless for so long. But I don’t always have these conversations because after you’ve grabbed my body on the dance floor, I rarely want to do the emotional labor to explain to you WHY you should not come at me fast and hard, disregard my signals and grab my body on the dance floor. When I do, it’s activism — cutting through the confusion that so often pervades these complex interactions of gender, power, and bodily autonomy and, hopefully, injecting some clarity and a bit of compassion.