Bars have always seemed safe, happy, warm places to me, probably because several beloved family members have worked in them over the years*. I know many women feel uncomfortable in a pub, especially alone, but it’s the first place I go to regroup when I alight from the bus.
Consequently, I have run across a strange and motley array of aspiring pick-up artists and other social vultures. You sit, alone with your book and your whiskey, enjoying the pleasant hum of noise around you, perhaps making small talk with your bartender, then BAM. He’s at your elbow, asking what you’re reading in that slightly-too-aggressive tone, or wondering why a pretty girl couldn’t find anyone to go out with her.
The “neg,” the back-handed compliment designed to disorient and weaken self-confidence, seems the favored opener for men who operate in a predatory way. Its popularity may result from its romanticization on the page and silver screen, or from its resemblance to the genuinely pleasant banter that many people enjoy.
Most people, though, defuse the potentially aggressive connotations of banter either by limiting it to well-established friendships and flirtations, or by keeping it gentle and light at the beginning. A well-intentioned charmer may open by banter, but he won’t touch on any personal subjects, he’ll shy away from backhanded compliments, he’ll look for reciprocity, and he’ll accompany his remarks with lots of personal space and a big smile.
In other words, the charmer is openly teasing, and trying to signal non-aggression in the process. The neg masquerades as compliment, but in such a way that you’ll be knocked off balance, doubting your social perception or wavering in self-confidence.
The neg also works as a verbal breach of propriety, a violation of verbal boundaries to lay the groundwork for the violation of physical or spatial ones. Most well-socialized people, for instance, do not criticize the personal appearances or clothing choices of complete strangers. This is weird and intrusive. A pick-up artist might, though, and by framing it as a compliment or positive attention, tries to trick you into accepting it.
The most important step to dealing with these pests is going with your gut, because your gut is precisely what the PUA is trying to alienate you from. If you feel something is creepy or sketchy or just….something, it probably is. If you are getting an adrenaline rush, and you’re not aroused, your body probably thinks you’re in danger. On the other hand, if you’re feeling happy, relaxed, and open, if you feel in control of the situation, if you want to keep talking to this guy, go with it until something changes.
That second point is as important as the first, and less touted. If your response to all male attention is dictated by anxiety, you’re going to have no frame of reference with which to compare genuinely alarm-triggering interactions. Rules-based safety advice (don’t go to bars, if you must go to bars don’t drink too much, don’t flirt, avoid men of this race or this class) harms women by shifting their attention from the validity and importance of their own instincts and desires to an abstract behavioral checklist.
So, the guy’s neg worked, and now you’re feeling disoriented and uncomfortable. Say so.
“Wow, what a personal remark.”
“Do you think being rude is going to help make my acquaintance?”
“I really don’t know how to reply to that.”
“That made me feel uncomfortable.”
Bland bluntness is good. Do you remember A Wrinkle in Time, how Meg resists It by reciting the periodic table? Or in the Silver Chair, how Puddleglum thrusts his foot in the fire to break the spell of the witch’s voice? The principle is the same here.
The pick-up artist wants to draw you into a little world of his own creating, just for the two of you, where he gets to determine all the boundaries and all the norms. Maybe he’s trying to cast you in a role–if you’re bookish or noticeably religious, you’re the shy ingenue, he’s the sophisticate who’s going to seduce and liberate you in spite of yourself.
By reacting with mild, disdainful surprise, you are drawing the curtain on Oz the Great and Powerful. You are resisting his attempts to immerse you both in a smoke-world where it’s sexy and exciting to be put down by strange men. You belong to the ordinary world, where people are polite to strangers, his behavior is bizarre, and his pathetic scripts and roles have nothing to with you and your life. You are Puddleglum, and you remember the sun.
If someone violates your personal space, same unapologetic vocalization of your desires: “Can you please give me a little more space? I feel uncomfortable with your hand on my back.”
Of course sometimes we want to be touched, because we’re enjoying the flirtation and want it to progress. Humans are pretty good about signalling their receptiveness to mild levels of contact; the honest flirt will be paying attention to your signals and trying to figure out if you would appreciate a light touch on the arm. The pick-up artist is trying to move the flirtation along unilaterally–he wants to make you accept his touch, thereby convincing you that you wanted it, rather than the other way around. There’s no clear-cut way to differentiate the two in the moment, so again, pay attention to your desires and listen to your gut.
If he backs off or apologizes when you call attention to a crossed line, then he’s probably more socially inept than predatory. Manipulators will try to punish you for enforcing basic social boundaries; they might call you stuck up, touchy, a princess; they might make a great performance of offense and hurt; they might try a sad sack I-should-have-known-you’d-never-talk-to-a-guy-like-me. They might argue with you about the legitimacy of your reaction, or try to re-eroticize the conversation by calling you “feisty.”
Engaging their arguments or outrage won’t work, and moreover, why should you? You are not Fanny Price, whose every free moment belongs to the nearest asshole in her proximity. You are at your leisure, entirely the mistress of your own time. When you walk into that bar, you’re Emma Woodhouse, and you owe no one anything**.
So when he dials up the manipulation, you don’t have to prove your right to end the conversation. Just assert. Repeat yourself, because you were perfectly understandable the first time, and why waste brainpower on this fool?
“I did not like what you said to me. It was intrusive.”
“I’m not enjoying this, and this conversation is over now, thanks.”
“I’m going back to my book/drink/people-watching now. Have a good night.”
Declarative, polite rejection is death to PUAs, because their schtick depends on smoke, mirrors, and the creation of insecurity. At this point, most will leave with an eyeroll, huff, or muttered “bitch.” Some, however, will stay to wheedle, verbally abuse, or physically intimidate. Now all civility is at an end. Say loudly, calmly, and firmly that you want him to leave, that you have asked him to leave, that he is making you feel unsafe. If people hear you, so much the better. Arguing with him, reasoning with him, trying to win him over will all be totally fruitless. The only thing you can do is reject his White Queen logic, and make him look like an asshole in the normal world to which you have asserted your allegiance.
Don’t be afraid to get the bartenders involved. Most of them, especially in quiet local Irish pubs, have absolutely no interest in anyone harassing their female patrons***. All you have to do is catch his eye, and quietly tell him that you’ve unsuccessfully asked this this gentleman to leave you alone.
If you’ve got the righteous wrath in you for something like this, go ahead. They may escalate more quickly to verbal abuse; but I’ve reacted this way once, having a drink after twelve hours waiting tables, where accommodating entitled asshats is part of the job. I think it was the quiet, near-unhinged fury in my voice that made him reconsider.
Eventually, if you can avoid ensnarement in his illusory world, the urge to dominate won’t be worth the social cost and negative attention for him. He won’t leave gracefully, but he will leave, at which point I suggest you reward yourself for your dragon slaying with a quick trip to the jukebox.
*Get me to tell you about the time my dad had Chase Utley as a barback.
**Except the bartender. You owe him a decent tip.
***And if you see someone being harassed, support them. Move physically close to them and make it clear you’re listening. Ask the harassee if she wants you to get security, if he’s bothering her, if she wants to come sit by you. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or strong. The main point is signalling that a) you are watching closely, and b) you do not think this behavior is ok.
Captain Awkward is the queen of boundaries.