When men are sexist, the least I can do is tell them not to be. I should say ‘nope’ or ‘fuck off’ or ‘are you shitting me?’ – sexist men deserve challenging responses. The last thing they deserve is for me to play along. Smile and nod and say ‘haha yes’, before sidling away and then kicking myself later. That’s the last thing they deserve, but it’s sometimes what I do.
It’s a Tuesday, about two weeks ago. I walk into a newsagent to buy some cigarettes and chewing gum. It’s hot, I’m late, and I’m sweaty. Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of myself: I’m wearing a sleeveless shirt for the first time in… god, maybe four or five years? I hate my arms, and I rarely get them out in public. At least not like this: not cut off at the shoulder. But I’ve recently bought a couple of sleeveless tops that I really like, and we’re in the middle of a heatwave, so I wear one out of the house.
I’m pleased and proud and happy, and on my way to hang out with brilliant friends. There’s almost nothing that could dampen my mood right now. So when I go into the shop and the guy behind the counter smiles at me, I grin back.
“Hello!” he exclaims brightly, and I reply with an equally cheery “Hi!”
I ask for cigarettes, put chewing gum on the counter, and rummage in my pocket for a battered credit card to tap.
“Nice day!” he tells me, and I agree.
“Nice arms!” he adds, and I start in surprise.
“Nice arms! You have muscles. You look strong.”
I stare in confusion: I don’t have noticeable muscles. I probably used to have them, years ago, but they’re now impossible to discern beneath the subcutaneous layers of macaroni cheese and cider.
“Umm… thanks.” I say, and I hold up my card to indicate I’m ready to pay.
“Did you have a good weekend?” he asks. Then he waves the cigarettes in his hand, as if keeping a treat back from a child until it’s said a polite ‘please.’
I would like to have the cigarettes, and I’m late to meet my friend, so I’ll say whatever he wants if he’ll just let me grab them and go.
“Yes, thanks. It was lovely and sunny.”
“Did you have fun?” a short pause “…with your boyfriend?”
I spot an escape route.
“Yes. Yes. I had fun with my boyfriend. And I’m in a bit of a rush…”
“He’s a lucky man. Does he know that?”
He still hasn’t rung up my stuff on the till, although I’m hovering with my card near the reader. He grips the cigarettes in his hand, waiting to hear the right reply before he’ll hand them over.
“Yes, he does.”
“Good,” the man exclaims brightly. “Because if he doesn’t, you’ll come see me, yeah?”
He reaches forward to scan them and hit the ‘total’ button. I can see the light at the end of this conversational tunnel, and I know what I have to do.
I have to play along.
“Yes,” I tell him. And then I smile. “Yes, I’ll be sure to come to you.”
I have completed the task.
I said ‘please.’
I played along.
So he gives me my cigarettes, takes my payment, and I am released back into the wild. A little sweatier, more frustrated, and somehow smaller than I was, but at least now I am free.
I’m kicking myself for playing along, but it’s not the first time.
There have been countless times when I’ve played along with this shit. Said yes to a sexist guy because I was in a hurry, or smiled at a flirting stranger because I was too tired to scowl and deal with the fallout. Each time I do it I hate myself a little more.
I hate the guy, too, for doing this to me. But my anger and frustration is mostly directed inwards. He’s bad, but I’m worse: I should know better. I should fight this. And if I don’t teach him, he’ll never learn.
It’s not a one-off incident, this withholding-until-I’m-a-good-girl. I think the record for delaying me to flirt is held by a Wetherspoons bartender, who managed a good fifteen minutes. He was a beautiful, friendly man, who I’d have been happy to chat to in a different situation. But I was ordering drinks with someone I loved, who I hadn’t seen in a while, and we were looking forward to a chat before we had to run and catch separate trains.
We ordered gin and tonics, and the bartender asked us how we were.
Then he asked us if we were sisters.
Then he leaned on the bar asking intrusive questions about whether we were single, what we’d been doing that night, what we were planning on doing, and why. And all the while his hand hovered over the till as if to say: “soon. You’ll get your drinks soon. Just answer these twenty-five riddles first, and flash us a smile to say thank you.”
I was thirsty, and I was tired, and so I played along.
How do you end a blog post like this? If I were talking to a younger version of myself, what would my positive and empowering message be?
“Sometimes you just have to play along”? Fuck that.
You don’t have to play along, you know. And I don’t have to play along. Any one of us is justified in refusing to answer intrusive questions, or refusing to smile, or just asking that whoever is flirting with us shut up and give us our goddamn drinks.
But I don’t always have the energy to either bollock someone or teach them. Saying ‘just tell them to fuck off’ makes me hate myself, because I don’t always have the time and energy to challenge this shit when it’s right in front of me. Sometimes it’s hard to say ‘fuck off’ or ‘stop it’ or ‘please Sir could I just pay for my stuff and get on with my life now pretty please with a cherry on top?’
Weirdly, it wasn’t until I started writing this blog post that I realised what the answer is: it’s not a message to people on the receiving end of this shit, but a message to the people who do it. The guys in corner shops who withhold cigarettes until you’ve flashed them a perfect smile. The bar staff who wave drinks in front of you and insist on a chat before they hand them over. Or security staff at airports who engage you in flirty banter while they rifle through your hand luggage, knowing you can’t show a hint of frustration because they have all the power.
If I could command these people to just fucking STOP IT then I would. But seeing as I don’t have that power, I’d rather just ask them a question:
How does it feel to know I’m just playing along? To know that the smile you’re so keen to tease out of me is fake? How does it feel to know that the flirty banter you’ll boast to your mates about later is done through gritted teeth? Because there’ll be two types of people who do this: the ones who do it because they like the power, and who actively get off on the knowledge that I hate it, and then there are ones who don’t realise they’re ruining my day.
The majority of people would, I think, put themselves in the second category. They know that it’s not OK to exercise power over people to try and force them to flirt. But given the overt body language – mine of discomfort, theirs of power and control (no drinks for you, naughty girl!) – I think plenty of people do actually know when they’re doing this.
You don’t have to admit it to me, but at least ask the question of yourself: how do you feel when you learn that I’m playing along?