I have a boyfriend.
Well I actually don’t, but that’s what I used to tell men who refused to accept I didn’t want to be bothered even after I politely turned them down. It was a lie that I’m not proud of – mainly because I prefer to be honest – but I was afraid of what could happen if I declined their advances. However, I soon learned that means nothing to someone who won’t accept “no” for an answer.
I had been living in my last apartment for nearly four years when one of the groundskeepers started lurking around my building. Every morning I’d see him poking in the shrubbery and mulch. I recall thinking, Damn, didn’t he just prune those bushes yesterday and the day before that? And when I would stop at the complex’s dumpster, I’d spot him driving over to the trash site in his golf cart hauling stray twigs as I descended the stairs. His behavior annoyed and unsettled me, but I didn’t want to appear paranoid so I ignored that gut feeling that tells you something is amiss.
One day he got up the nerve to invite me to dinner at his place.
“No thank you,” I replied.
But he only tried to entice me with promises of authentic African food like that would change my mind. However, I wasn’t impressed by his self-proclaimed cooking skills, and the more he insisted, the more my responses moved along the spectrum from nice to not-quite-nasty.
“My friend is from Sierra Leone, and she cooks the best ‘African’ food,” I retort. “I’m good.”
I told my friends at work that the maintenance guy was trying to make me dine at his apartment.
“Well, is he cute?” they ask.
I was appalled that his actions were excusable based solely on his looks or that I should automatically say, “Yes!” if he’s attractive. It still didn’t mean he was safe, and he was still a stranger even if I did run into him every day all across the premises. But they also seemed to miss an entire point: If a woman says she’s not interested, then that’s exactly what she means. She isn’t overreacting, and she shouldn’t relent to pressure based on a superficial trait like appearance. So I didn’t mention it to anyone else. Not my family or the guy I was seeing. I didn’t even tell the property manager, and that was partly because if he was fired, he’d still know where I lived, which wasn’t in a gated community or a secured building. The last thing I needed was to find him outside my door.
I thought he’d give up once he saw my guy walk me down the steps one morning. He didn’t look up, didn’t even whisper a “good morning.” But the idea that I was with someone only encouraged him to become bolder in his approach. The groundskeeper called me one afternoon, only I never gave him my number! He didn’t even have my full name! The only explanation I could come up with was he went to the main office and looked me up with whatever little bit of information he had. I felt violated because my file held a wealth of personal information: my social security number, birth date, employer, emergency contact.
Over lunch the next day, I told a male friend what had happened. “You know he can access your apartment at any time,” my friend cautions before launching into another warning on hidden cameras.
That was enough to prompt a conversation with the property manager, but it didn’t make me feel any more at ease. In fact I felt less comfortable than the two times men chased me in a car and a Penske truck – just a few months ago for the latter mind you – on busy streets as I traveled home. Both times I had to speed and run red lights to elude them because I didn’t want them to know where I rested my head at night. This fool, on the other hand, already did!
I remember these events as I read about Janese Talton-Jackson, the 29-year-old mother of three who was recently gunned down outside of a Pittsburgh bar by a man whose advances she rejected inside the establishment. For whatever reason, she wasn’t interested – and that is her absolute right. Yet her shooter still felt he could take her life because she turned him down. It was a senseless act predicated on the assumed entitlement to our time and bodies. The rationalization must be that we should feel lucky and flattered to receive male attention, but we just don’t admit it because we’re too coy or playing hard to get. It’s equally upsetting when other women think the same way and fault us for not engaging with the man anyway.
But the truth is we’re just not that into every man. We aren’t obligated to entertain anyone if we don’t want to, and anything a man offers beyond the initial “no” is simply unwanted. And we won’t accept for blame for the way men process rejection.
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I shouldn’t feel compelled to lie, flee, duck, and hide from guys who think persistence is sexy. I shouldn’t have to assuage egos, either, and say, “I’m seeing someone,” which is perceived to be gentler than the harsh “I’m not interested” to avoid any repercussions. I shouldn’t have to hand out fake names and numbers to get a guy out of my presence. And Janese Talton-Jackson shouldn’t have had to exit a bar, looking over her shoulder and peeping around corners because she expressed disinterest. We should be able to simply say, “No, thank you” and not fear that we’re going to be stalked or killed in return.