Trigger warning for brief discussion of boundary violations. Moderation warning: I do NOT want to talk about Elevatorgate again. Skeptics and the gendersphere have rehashed every conceivable aspect of Elevatorgate approximately eleventy kajillion times. Every conceivable point that could possibly be made about Elevatorgate has been already made. If you bring up Elevatorgate, I WILL delete your comment.
Recently there has been a bit of a kerfluffle among atheist blogs around the issue of atheist men hitting on/sexually harassing/making uncomfortable/groping women at atheist conferences. JT Eberhard did a post asking for input about how to hit on ladies, as a socially awkward heterosexual man, without making them uncomfortable or sexually harassing them. And now I have thoughts which are far too long for a comment!
Now, while at atheist conferences apparently the problem is mostly socially awkward men hitting on women who don’t want to be hit on, in the real world it’s far less so. The expectation is still that men initiate and women wait. However, there are a fuckton of socially awkward women, women who initiate, men who don’t initiate– not to mention the queers whom this heteronormative idea completely erases. I personally am female-bodied and mostly sleep with straight men, and yet if I didn’t make the first move I’d never get laid; at the same time, I don’t have this mysterious “ability to read signals” so many people apparently have.
Unfortunately, a lot of advice really isn’t helpful to me. Like that body language stuff! How do I tell if she has her arms crossed because she’s cold or because she wants to get away? He’s turning her feet in the opposite direction– fuck, I can’t remember, is that interested or not interested? Is this too close, am I invading their personal space? And how am I supposed to keep track of the conversation AND all this shit at once? So I’ve decided to prepare a list of things one can do to mostly avoid violating boundaries or making people uncomfortable. (Note for the neuroatypicals: I love you guys, but I am not any manner of licensed psychologist. If you have a brain reason why you can’t figure out social interaction, I’m not sure how much help I can be. This is merely for the awkward, not the autistic!)
1) Be a genuinely kind, non-entitled person. This is my biggest piece of advice, and it ought to be really reassuring to a lot of awkward people. If you genuinely are kind and mean well and are interested in other people, most people can tell. All the body-language shit? Assuming you’re neurotypical, your body will probably handle it for you. You don’t have to learn how to impersonate a kind person (although of course it is possible to do so, as many people have learned to their displeasure), you can just… be a kind person. This is totally my secret for dating people as a socially awkward person!
Unfortunately, we all have a lot of cultural detritus floating around our brains. Like “I want to date this person, if they don’t want to date me they’re an asshole.” Or “if I am awesome enough/fulfill my gender role well enough/find the magic trick to getting laid, I will earn the right to date this person.” Or anything involving the word “friend-zone.” That’s not your fault! Everyone has shit messages like that. Nevertheless, the healthy attitude to take to flirting with people of the appropriate gender is “That person seems cool. It’d be awesome if we dated, but it’s also cool if we’re friends, since they’re an awesome person I’d like to hang out with either way. And, hey, there’s probably another awesome person I can date somewhere else if this one doesn’t work out.” I understand that it is really, really, really hard to believe that if you’re luckless in love; your natural tendency is to cling to hints of interest from the appropriate gender like a fangirl to an autograph from David Tennant. But I know people who have that mindset who aren’t. It is totally possible.
2) Be honest. As your mom always said, honesty is the best policy. Do not wait around hopefully with giant puppy-dog eyes without actually saying anything. Because of the sheer perversity of the universe, two things will happen:
1) The people who don’t really want to date you will realize that you have a crush on them and not really know what to say, as there is no polite way to say “you have a crush on me but I’m not interested” to a person who won’t spit it out.
2) The people who do want to date you will have no idea and you will both be miserably in love when you could be swapping spit and naming your future kids.
It’s okay to be awkward; many people find awkwardness cute. Try not to make a big sit-down-and-have-a-huge-chat deal about it; you can just say casually (when it naturally comes up in conversation) that the person is totally attractive and you’d like to date them. If you want, you can practice on monogamously dating or orientationally incompatible people that you happen to find attractive; some people find that less threatening. The first few times you are honest, it will be terrifying. But every time you say it it’s a little bit less scary, and within the year it’ll be as easy as pie. Uh, assuming you know how to bake pie. I don’t.
3) NO Firthing. Firthing is when you stare at someone you have a crush on very intensely without actually talking to them. Advanced Firthers may stare at someone very intensely when they’re not looking and then look away very quickly when their crush looks around all “I am getting the feeling that someone is staring at me, eh, maybe it’s secret government spies.” Don’t do that shit. There is no circumstance in which Firthing is a valid life choice. (Also, read the linked Captain Awkward article, it is full of helpful geek dating advice.)
4) Look for reciprocation. This is my favorite because you do not have to mess around with body language shit. The basic principle: if you are doing something you cannot reasonably ask about, see if they return the thing you are doing. How do you tell if someone wants to talk to you? They will initiate conversation with you sometimes! How do you tell if someone likes it when you make jokes about how much you want to fuck them? They will respond to your jokes with jokes about how much they want to fuck you! How do you tell if someone appreciates your book recommendations? They will read books you recommend! How do you tell if someone wants to text you? They’ll occasionally begin the texting! You get the idea.
5) Ask before touching. Yes, some people can touch, kiss, or even have sex without ever talking about it. Mostly those people are people who can read signals, and hence are not reading this particular essay. Also, often, their sex lives suck. It is usually best to err on the side of caution. “Do you want a hug?” “I’d like to kiss you now, if you do not mind.” “May I fuck you aaaaall night long?” Once again, you get the idea. Now, of course, once you’re comfortable with where someone’s boundaries are, you might be able to hug or kiss them without asking, but certainly for the first time you should ask.
6) If you violate someone’s boundaries by accident, apologize and never do it again. Boundary violations happen to the best of us– even people who aren’t socially awkward. However, if you get angry when someone asserts their boundaries, the only consequence is that they’re not going to trust you and that people will not assert their boundaries with you in the future, which means you could be making them uncomfortable without even knowing it. No boundaries are silly boundaries: if someone doesn’t want to be hugged or to have their hair touched, respect that shit. There is exactly one proper response to someone telling you “please don’t do that”: it’s “I’m sorry” and not doing that.
7) Realize that you are mostly not the problem. The complete strangers who feel the need to compliment my ass every fucking time I’m in girl-drag? Not socially awkward people making a mistake. The complete stranger who ground on me at prom and made me feel so awful I almost cried? Not a socially awkward person making a mistake. The dude who asked a friend of mine for a blowjob the day her best friend died because “you need to be cheered up”? Not a socially awkward person making a mistake. The unnamed atheist speaker who groped a woman? Not a socially awkward person making a mistake. All of those people know exactly what they’re fucking doing, and part of the enjoyment IS in making people uncomfortable.
The most common failure mode for socially awkward people is not violating boundaries; it’s never saying anything in the first place. (Although that causes problems of its own: see #2.) Therefore, DO NOT fucking assume that every person who violates someone’s boundaries is a socially awkward person making a mistake, because chances are, they’re not. I know that you’re socially awkward, and you’re afraid of making a mistake, and the psychology behind that makes sense to you far more than the psychology of a predator does. But that doesn’t mean that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.