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When did physical approach become scary? Not every stranger who talks to you is a creep

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images


July 12, 2022   7 mins

When did physical approach become scary? By “physical approach” I mean what used to happen constantly on the street, in restaurants, in bars, in between classes of all kinds: a person approaching another person to flirt with them or ask them out. There was etiquette, and many gross breaches thereof, but, just by itself, it wasn’t considered rude or a “performance of masculinity”.

My impression is that this is no longer true, that approach, while it still happens, is now much more fraught.

I first thought about this in 2014 when I was in a dance class and there was a woman maybe 20 years younger than me who I really liked as a dancer (great sense of humour, super expressive). We’d talked in the dressing room and one day she turned around on the dance floor and spontaneously hugged me. So one day after class I asked her if she’d like to get a drink sometime. She looked startled, so much so that, even though we exchanged numbers, I wondered if I’d done something mysteriously but definitely wrong.

I told a younger friend about it and she said: “She’s probably just not used to someone asking her in person. That usually happens on Facebook if you don’t know the person.” We went out several times, we became casual friends, but I still remembered that first strange moment. I don’t know if my friend’s take was right, but it means something that she even had that take in the first place.

Five years later, I thought about it again when I was doing a phone interview with novelist Rebecca Watson (author of Little Scratch) in connection to a story I’d written about a man cut down to size #MeToo- style (This Is Pleasure). In our complicated conversation about #MeToo was another complicated conversation about tech and how it has changed the way people relate to each other. I had told her that I hate the new normal of making an appointment to call a friend — that while I have become used to constant texting, it can feel like a false connection, a fragmentation of my experience, both of the texting friend and of my own life.

I had separately told Watson that I think part of #MeToo has been that women and girls are now so used to being approached through electronic mediums that physical approaches, especially by strangers, feel vaguely threatening even when they’re not. That didn’t sit right with her and after our Zoom call she emailed me to say that being approached on the street by a stranger was to her as fragmenting and false as getting texts is to me because “it picks at our time alone
 it can feel uneasy, like a performed powerplay that disrupts and takes you out of your own head”.

I found this a puzzling analogy. A text is an abstract electronic message that you can get when you really are alone, say, in the bathroom or getting ready for sleep. It’s enough stimulation to take you slightly out of your private environment and your bodily response to it, yet it doesn’t give anything comparable; it’s disembodied. If you’re out on the street, you’re not in your private environment and, really, you shouldn’t be “in your own head” because you have to be at least minimally aware of what is happening around you. If someone comes up to you for any reason, it’s a full human experience and you have to make the effort to deal with the reality of this other person, even if the effort is to ignore them. To me this was a natural socialisation process.

I emailed her back saying all of this. I also admitted to her that when I was young, I didn’t like being approached on the street. I was quite shy, I was living on my own during the time of maximum street attention (between 16 and 21), and while at first I found it flattering, it quickly became annoying, even excruciating. I didn’t like having to smile when I didn’t mean it and if I didn’t I was criticised. It seemed like there was no right way: if he was clever, I felt stupid; if he was dumb, I felt irritated; if I was nice, he wouldn’t go away; if I was reserved, he’d (often) call me a bitch. It took me a long time to realise how vulnerable the experience is for men and when I did, that just added to the discomfort.

But it was a socialisation process and a mixed one, rather than good or bad. I had to learn to set boundaries, feel my way through whatever level of politeness or self-assertion was required. Given that I really was shy and more insecure than average — I’d left high school early and was socially awkward even in that environment, let alone a more varied adult world — this was a challenge. But at least, unlike high school, there wasn’t a group of insiders scorning me every time I made a mistake. And my lack of knowledge about social rules may have helped me because I was forced to find my own feeling responses and trust them.

As noted, this was not always fun. Mostly when men said things to me it was compliments or generic greetings. Sometimes it was a funny experience or friendly or irritating or weird; sometimes it actually was threatening.

There was the time late at night in the Seventies when I was selling flowers on the street in Toronto outside a bar. A group of drunk boys walked past me and one of them loudly said “Rose are red violets are black, you’d look good with a cock up your back”. His friends laughed as they walked past; I said, also loudly: “And you’d look even better like that.” A mild come-back, but he turned around and came towards me, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand the way men do when they’re thinking about hitting someone. His friends stopped, watching. He said: “What was that, girl?” At first I was scared. But then I saw something in his eyes that made me know he did not want to hit. I said: “You insulted me. So I said it back.” He paused for a few seconds. “Oh,” he said. He turned and walked back to his friends.

Yes, what he said was gross, especially saying it to a teenage girl by herself on the street late at night. But under the grossness something else was present and I think we both felt it; our rightful animality.

A few years later, still in Toronto, I was walking home in the middle of the day. A man came up behind me, quite close, and began telling me in a low voice what he wanted to do to me. He didn’t just say a few nasty bits and vanish; he followed me for maybe a block, mumbling non-stop. I was scared because I was going to my apartment and, it being Canada in the Seventies, the building actually didn’t have a locked door, meaning he could follow me in. And, it being mid-day, my neighbours might all be at work. It took me a long moment to translate my fear into anger, to make my eyes and body hard, to turn and jab my finger in his face and say — but I didn’t get to say anything. As soon as I confronted him he turned on a dime and retreated. I was shaking as he walked away, but I also felt good. I’d dealt with it.

But another time, when I turned to curse someone who’d grabbed me hard between the legs, instead of backing down, the guy glared at me with a face of such hate that I retreated and quickly moved on rather than wake up in the hospital.

Many years later, when I was living in Houston in my 40s, I was at a convenience store buying an ice cream sandwich when a man looked me in the eye and said: “Lady, you scary, the way you look at people.” I was trying to figure out what to say to that — it was a majority black neighbourhood; did he think I was a creepy stealth Karen? — when an older man came up to us, put his arm around my shoulder and said: “This lady is alright! I’ve seen her come out every night, religiously, to buy herself an ice cream sandwich.” And we stood there and talked for a little bit. It was nice, even though a stranger touched me without permission; plainly, it was an asexual gesture of friendly inclusion.

Another time in Houston, I was walking home in the early evening carrying two grocery bags. It was unusual to see anyone walking in that area besides homeless people and that’s probably why a guy pulled up to me in his car — I assumed he was asking for directions. He spoke so low that I couldn’t hear him; I asked him to repeat himself twice. Realising his mistake, he looked down, sighed melancholically, and said “I thought you might want some company.” I laughed, and said something like “No thanks, I’m good.”

There is one time I still remember over 25 years later. I wasn’t young, I was 40. The guy who approached me was handsome, about my age, with an open, honest aura. He said he never walked up to women like this but he had seen me walking around a lot and he thought I looked really interesting and wanted to talk to me. He asked for my number. I did some shameful bullshit; I asked him for his address and told him I would write to him. He was surprised but he gave me his address — he even seemed to like the idea. But I never wrote him. I intended to, but I was obsessed with someone else who didn’t like me all that much and had no bandwidth for some random person, even one who was so attractive and seemed so nice that to this day I wonder what would’ve happened if I had written to him.

I don’t recount any of this to idealise these experiences. They are just stuff that happened. But they don’t square with the vision people seem to have of such exchanges now. I hear a lot that younger people think my generation has been conditioned to accept men acting like assholes. But what I just described did the reverse. These and many other experiences taught me to identify assholes, to know when they were actually a danger and when they were not really, and to be assertive in dealing with them or fast in escaping them if need be. It perhaps taught me to be more wary than necessary most of the time. But it also taught me how to connect with people in motion, to feel their spirits in a variety of ways that were not always sexual.

Last week, I was in Moynihan Hall (Penn Station) in NY, standing in front of an exit door eating a cookie before going out on the street. An angry middle-aged woman was there too, mumbling into her phone. As I finished my cookie, she screamed at her device: “Answer the fucking phone!” I looked at her with deep sympathy, but she mistook my expression and actually bared her teeth at me. I smiled and made the WTF gesture with my arms; she scowled though with less conviction.

I said “I’m empathising with you! I agree!” In a tone of sincere amazement she said “Really?” And I said “Yes! I feel it too! Answer the fucking phone!”

With that I walked out the door, smiling. Talking to her had made my day a little bit better; I hope it did the same for her.

***

A version of this essay first appeared on Mary’s Substack, Out Of It. You can subscribe here.


Mary Gaitskill is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Her Substack is called Out Of It.


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Birute Bagdonaite
Birute Bagdonaite
1 year ago

Very refreshing article, indeed! Excuse my unpolished english here, not a nativ speaker. I usually never write comments, but this topic is very very close to heart for me…

It is interesting that many comments only touch the romantic interest based approaches – flirting, trying to get someone’s number etc. I wonder how many of the commentators actually work with people, face to face, every day?

I manage a very busy medical Praxis in Berlin, Germany, and this topic is very interesting to me. I have worked in other industries before (art, music, gastronomy, events, sales – always as a first point of contact to people), but ever since I stepped into medicine I cannot shake off this feeling (or unfortunate insight) that many people are locked up in their bubbles. Where we go, what we see, who we choose to talk with (or not), our families, friends, neighbours and neighbourhoods… How many strangers do we actually talk to daily? If any at all?

So for the person that said “i’m not sure its possible to draw any conclusions as yet” I have to say – I’m afraid we are too late to draw conclusions. I only can talk from my personal experiences, so have that in mind please, AND that this all is not a rule and there are exceptions – altough I feel comfortable and confident that in this topic I can actually generalise people into pockets of typical behaviour…

Being the first point of contact for every single patient incoming, emailing or calling us, I am overwhelmed with how little social skills people have left (and also how those social skills declined over last decades). For me it is obvious that the decline in social interactions are directly related to, if I may call it so – social technology.

If the phone rings – there is rarely any sort of “hello”. It’s like talking to a broken AI – people have no idea how to ask for stuff, explain their situation or even give their name (?? don’t let me start on how many people misspell their names, addresses and other essential information). Emails are just a mess – rarely people have an idea how to compose them and, although, auto correect and spelling corrections are widely available – that’s somehow totally fine with people to come out as illiterate, I guess… Maybe that’s a question of taste, haha. Anyways. But in-person interactions are actually the most depressing – no eye contact (tell me I’m old-fashioned), no knowledge of how to represent one’s self (identifying by name or at least appointment needed), and when it comes to important information – I have to repeat that at least five times… there is a real lack of ability to comprehend what is being said… And so very often it happens that once people take their phones out to look at their calendars or work schedules, they get LOST in the phone right away. Imagine just trying to have a conversation to help someone and then, within a second of phone being in front of them, they are gone – completely and utterly absorbed in the screen. It takes 20-30 seconds (if I am lucky) until they realize that they are not alone. Sometimes people just stand at the front desk in front of me and start scrolling social media while I am waiting for them to tell me when can they come in for a treatment… Is this enough to draw conclusions?? For me – definitely.

And then please bear in mind that these are the things people actually need. It is not a stranger talking up another stranger or flirting or asking for directions or time or else. It is a medical procedure that people come to us for. They come to us, not we go to them and yet even in need they are unable to hold down any person-to-person interactions.

I write hundreds of emails a week, because no one picks up their phone. I also write hundreds of emails a week because many people cannot listen and comprehend what is told to them in very plain language.

We are so prone to believe that other people are so bad, it is always The Other. They will take your money, your time, your attention and so on. Well, will they?.. Or is it your phone (and the available social media, advertising, internet shopping) that takes most of that away from you, giving a false feeling of connection while looking at the screen while on the toilet? People have lost connection to the actual reality around them, actual events happening around them. On my daily work commute on the bike I have to be increasingly more and more careful – someone lost in their phone always walks right into the bike lane or a busy street. Is this life? And why no one is allowed to talk to anyone anymore? Not even glace? To so many women I know almost every man is basically a rapist in disguise. But the reality is so different. Yet social media has only one single tone of voice. And it is more divisive than ever – recently a friend of mine told me that a group of girls at work were talking about some queer/flinta/whatever demonstration happening soon. When he asked them when and where will it be, they simply told him he is forbidden to go there – he is a straight man and that somehow automatically means he is the enemy and cannot be the supporter of anything at all. Why have we made other people enemies? In culture that is supposingly all about inclusivity and love and acceptance there is more hate and division than ever before. I wonder what is this magic thing everyone is connected by to perpetuate false ideologies about other people, hmm…. 🙂

I think this may be the most important personal choice we all have to make. As long as we are the slaves of screens, nothing of importance can be accomplished in the world as people simply are no longer able to comprehend realities that surrounds them…

Last edited 1 year ago by Birute Bagdonaite
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Great English and well put points. Extending your experiences – I was casually cycling in my neighbourhood last week (since I’m retired) and the kids happened to be leaving their secondary school. Every single one of the kids was walking along and glued to their mobile phones, even those walking in groups – there was no conversation between them at all, no looking up to view the world around them. They’re being trained to engage with technology exclusively at a young age, even when they’re with their friends.

Angelique Todesco
Angelique Todesco
1 year ago

Birute your English is excellent as is your insight. I feel quite sad reading what you have written, mostly because I know it to be true. I am of Italian extraction and hugging, touching and contact are part of my conversation. It has become somewhat of a joke with my friends “you are not going to hug me are you?” (in mock jovial horror I should point out).
I have a teen son and I have done my best to make him connect with people, it is hard though, as you say most of his friends live through their phones. However, I will keep trying to pass my eccentric foibles on to him, because a world without human warmth, contact and banter is a grey world indeed.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
1 year ago

Brilliantly put – and a lot better than many natives, I may add! Your comment about toilets resonates as I lost a longtime friend over her inability to refrain from speaking to me in the toilet. I asked her not to and explained that it grossed me out but the echo-y nature of toilet acoustics on a mobile told me a lot about her respect for our friendship. I was able to prepare myself for her much anticipated calls as if she were physically visiting and found the non-reciprocation difficult to swallow. Thanks for your insightful comment.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

Very well done! I enjoyed reading your response more than the original article, to be honest. As long as there are people like you in the world, there is hope. Keep being you!

B Bagdo
B Bagdo
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Whoa, that’s very kind of you. Thank you. You made my whole week! Sincere opinions are hard to share – I would assume many of us feel alienated and may get many rude reactions to our insights or observations when talking to people “in real life” (unless we are lucky to have many like-minded people around us). I know I do hear all sort of “stay positive”/”it is not so bad, you’re overreacting” comments. So, thank you, this is very special for me.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
1 year ago

Leonard Cohen said that there are five age-related stages of a man’s appeal to women — attractive, unattractive, repulsive, invisible and cute.
I am somewhere between “invisible” and “cute,” so it’s academic now, but what I just can’t abide is the prevailing premise that a man who is attracted to a woman must be so clairvoyant as to know for a certainty that she is also attracted to him before making any kind of tentative approach to her, even in a very appropriate place like a bar. If he makes such an approach and she finds him to be unattractive, then he is ipso facto a “creep.” He should have known that he was creepy!! A man who takes this mindset seriously will just drop out of the game; a man who is a boor will plunge ahead.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Donovan

It is something that never fails to surprise me, how so many of my fellow females seem to expect men to be psychic. This isn’t just in the dating game but also beyond when husband gets his wife the wrong present. A “surprise” is all good and well but guys rarely pick up on subtle hints so if you want something in particular then tell them!
As a young single woman, I enjoyed the chase. I was confident enough to make the approach, flirt and get my man..or not as was sometimes the case. Had I not, I wouldn’t have got my husband as he was oblivious to any subtleties. Had I sat there, silently willing him to notice me, I would’ve lost him to someone more bold. However, its not lost on me that by todays standards I would be considered a predator.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Donovan

As a woman I am not sure that Leonard really knew what he was talking about with that.

John Michael Robson
John Michael Robson
1 year ago

Every aspect of our lives is somehow being controlled, or maybe focused would be a better word, in specific directions by the people who have a vested interest in the way we choose to do or not to do what we believe to be the best things for ourselves. I’m not initiating any conspiracy theories here, but what I’m saying is that there are thousands of people in the world who want to take your money, your time, your effort and your ability to go elsewhere to do the same for other people wanting exactly what they do. Folk are becoming anti social, in the normal understanding of the concept, because social activity—these days—is online as much a it is in the physical world around us. People are becoming solitary beings as opposed to our natrural inclination toward interaction with others like us, to being tribal, community minded, family orientated social creatures. We’re conceivably walking away from our nature as human beings, and inevitably there will be consequences due to that significant developmental and directional change of course.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Yup, one major consequence being the snowflake generation that is terrified of disagreement, being ‘triggered’ and experiencing a negative social interaction.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago

Good article! Aside from the good points about social media and how our physical interactions have changed there’s an age old issue underpinning it.
The problem is that a large number of guys who frequently go up to girls are precisely the sort of guys who are more likely to be obnoxious.
The average guy will almost never ever ‘cold’ approach a woman without some sort of basis or cue. And if or when they do they are completely out of their comfort zone and may well come across as a bit odd (unintentionally)
Women will be naturally on their guard as the other 90% of those who do come up to them are the sort that have no qualms and do it to each and every girl they feel like. They are also less likely to care how they come across or behave.
I don’t think either sex can “win” on this to be honest.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

That’s why i’m not willing to jump to conclusions about whether the options now available for making genuine approaches via dating websites / social.media are necessarily a retrograde step. Sure, there are creeps and charlatans using that approach too, but at least the aspect of unsolicited physical confrontation is avoided.

Many people still meet their partners through work, where a common interest plus an opportunity to check responses to different types of humour and work pressure can hugely facilitate the process. Get it wrong though, and you could be looking for another job, or worse!

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yeah agreed.
For all the obvious downsides and pitfalls of dating apps and social media – it is a perfectly reasonable way to meet people. It has far fewer of the difficulties and dangers of meeting people in person, and you can essentially ‘vet’ people before you meet them.
We’re perfectly used to texting and talking to our existing friends and family – so dating apps and social media allows you to do the same to strangers. You can reply whenever you want and not at all if you like.
Now of course there are many risks and downsides too – that are always and often talked about. But the positives are not frequently mentioned.
I met my current partner through an app – and there’s almost no way we would have met otherwise except by pure luck. We both work in industries dominated by our own sexes and so meeting potential partners at work is exceptionally hard – not to mention there are plenty of downsides of dating co-workers and it not working out. Also other issues as you mention.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I agree, as a single person looking for a partner, apps are great, no matter what age one is. This has become the main way that people meet; both of my children found their partners via apps. That doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s a shame that the IRL (In Real Life) approach has become almost outlawed; the ability to see the person in 3D and detect their pheromones, is helpful and has served us for millennia.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

But app selection is even shallower than selection after a conversation. The people you might miss out on by swiping right



I would probably have swiped right in an app on my wife of thirty years due to her having a serious lifelong illness and with a disabled young child. But I met her at a social occasion in the eighties and found a woman of very strong character, due to being divorced, ill, and with a disabled child; and her daughter was lovely. QED.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Bless you. An all too rare human being. (ps when you say ‘was’, did the girl die?)

R P
R P
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

This is extra sweet because you don’t know which way to swipe! Right is yes, left is no. But your point’s the same and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve spent years on the apps and lament that it’s the norm now. People don’t approach each other for any kind of friendly or flirtatious interaction anymore. We’re worse off for it.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

Thanks for this balanced piece.
It’s rather strange how social interaction has developed in the physical space since the advent of social media or even before that with online dating or texting.

I well remember being mocked for my reserve in the 70s by huggy-kissy female relatives and friends. “We should be more spontaneous like (insert idealised foreign culture here)!”

By the time I’d learned to loosen up and reciprocate, the tide was already turning and I made some embarrassing faux Pas.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

That’s funny, Brendan, and mirrors my own experience growing up in the 70s. We had a fair few distant US cousins who came visiting. From NYC, Chicago etc. Very confident, very huggy. I found it excruciating. Especially if it was a super-confident girl your own age, and you, a riot of teenage hormones, somehow had to hug this American goddess in your living room, in front of your Mum and her Mum – while trying not to blush. A hand-shake would have suited me better, tbh. But now I’m the forward person who does crazy stuff like chatting to random strangers and who calls people on their phones out of the blue for a chat …

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 year ago

Obviously some of your encounters with men were inappropriate, but today men are afraid to even make friendly approaches to women. What is an unwelcome advance? No one can possibly know, but if a woman decides it’s unwelcome it can be the difference between the start of a relationship and the start of criminal charges.,

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

A welcome advance is an approach by an attractive alpha-male.
An unwelcome harassment is an approach by a plain beta-male.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago

Central Scotland – 1955 to 1966 – ballroom dancing. Ballroom dancing has many slow dances involving very intimate physical contact between the sexes: it was taught at my school from age 12 to 17 in the lead-up to the Christmas dances. The main adult dating scene then became the ‘dancin’ at scores of local ballrooms. I won’t detail the dancefloor shenanigans but most ladies certainly knew how to ‘tease’. Total strangers then paired off for the ‘see you home’ followed by more shenanigans in the back court. You then asked for a date! and if agreed would likely be a visit to the ‘pictures’. A limerick of the time was appropriate:
The dancehall and cinema emporiums
are not only super sensoriums
but highly effectual, heterosexual,
mutual masterbatoriums.
How times change! … in our generation’s opinion … for the worse.
footnote:- Shenanigans – Fun with no threat to virginity.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

They still teach Scottish Country Dancing as part of phys. ed. at a lot of schools. Normally reticent teenagers are surprisingly keen on it once they get into a social event like a wedding and realise they get to dance and make physical contact with everybody, including that one they fancied but were too shy to approach.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

My late Mum, aghast at ’70s and ’80s discos, told me that “your generation doesn’t dance – you just stand there by, shaking by yourselves”. I argued back at the time, resenting the slur on my generation, but she was right. My generation missed out on social dancing.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Joni Mitchell —
Back in 1957 we had to dance a foot apart, and they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines, holding their rulers without a heart. But with just a touch of our fingers we could make our circuitry explode. And all I ever wanted, was just to Come In from the Cold.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe Donovan

I know the song but how the hell do you dance a foot apart?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

I never had the courage to ask the girls out after dances – I so envied my confident and good looking cousins in Glasgow who had girls asking them for dances.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

That would be the solution to a lot of these problems. Supervised contact between the sexes starting at an early age, dancing taught as a skill, an understanding that the supervision will be light, and an even firmer understanding that no one is to get pregnant.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

Not scary for men, just dangerous.
Definitely not worth the risk.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

“When did physical approach become scary?”
Since women made it clear that they consider any approach by men to be borderline sexual assault.

Last edited 1 year ago by William Shaw
B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago

“When did a physical approach become scary?”
Excellent question!
A quick guess might place that particular moment somewhere around 1977ish…. about the time a ‘critical mass’ of female approachees began angrily berating the approachers as they opened a door for them….offered to buy them a cup of coffee…a beer….walk them to their dorm/apartment/car…asked them to dance….expressed even a passing interest in them as sexually attractive individuals (perhaps worth getting to know).
All it really took to tilt that playing field was the irate glare, the indignant strike-a-pose that said “Who the blank do you think you are?!” It was enough, especially given — as Ms. Gaitskill has noted — the vulnerability risk associated with any IRL overture. It doesn’t take much before the nervous eagerness to attempt a physical approach is blunted and soured by two or three harsh & bitter responses: “I can open my own door, thank-you!” (perhaps a little sneer in passing). [I can hear Jesse Pinkman’s response, even as I imagine him skulking back into the shadows!]
And yes, indeed, a physical come-on in a world made virtual has now become shocking. Its very multi-dimensionality overwhelms. In text or random Facebook posting we only have to negotiate the words …and we have the freedom to do so at our leisure (or not — there is no compulsion to respond).
But in person? OMG!
There is the verbal content of the overture, there is the physical presence (looming!!!) of the approacher. There is the tone of voice to decipher, the context of the scene, the proximity of others, the nature of the smile offered (sly, snarky, smarmy, suggestive, intriguing…too many possibilities to count). There’s even the scent of the individual, his clothing, the haircut, Nike or Brooks!?? The list seems infinite. And all that has to be grasped and analyzed in the blink of an eye!
Today it is too much for all but the very brave and durably resolute.
Instead, we hear, that a physical, real-world approach — one human being in the here & now confronting another…becomes essentially an attack, an invasion which…”picks at our time alone
 (feeling) uneasy, like a performed powerplay that disrupts and takes you out of your own head”. and they’re right. The world does that — take us out of our own head. It should do that. Life is all about getting outside our heads, escaping from our own claustrophobic closets. But if it became scary in 1977 to do that kind of thing; it’s impossibly terrifying now.
Especially impossible since we defined ‘sexual assault’ as “anything unwanted” and mandated ‘affirmative consent’ as the operational orders for dinner & a movie. ‘Touching without permission’ (and presumably a signed affidavit) is right up there with chainsaw juggling.

Mike Thatsallyouget
Mike Thatsallyouget
1 year ago

There might be a great irony that when the percentage of creeps among men might be lowest (today until tomorrow) that there is the biggest fear amongst women being approached that would automatically reject any interaction with the higher chance of it ending up good or at least not dangerous.
I’m not sure if in the summation of random encounters, when grading it they find they were treated as equals, if interest was brought up and respected when not reciprocated, or it just being ephemeral and that being fine to both parties would not lead to the lessening of general or social anxiety. Mary brought up cues and how integral they are is important to everyone, and we’re actively being dissuaded from believing or responding to them. What are cues on social media? Pokes!?
Not having the internet during my childhood but having it as a young adult, I’m thinking I’m one of the last (1981) who can recall the socialisation during youth where we did have to go and talk and risk it to people for any friendships to bud and then attempt to use those skills when we had the maturity to find them attractive. That’s where I find this internet thingy and when it infected a person, and what age, to be such a epochal difference between me and one even seven years my junior.
Mind, I still suck at talking to girls but I am getting better at conceptualising it 🙂

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I’m great at talking to girls, but it’s because I’m safe ground as a married man of 30 years so they’re comfortable interacting with me.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Me too and I’m very, very thankful that I’m not single now as opposed to in the 1970s… which were a lot of fun (despite me being something of a nerd).

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

A fascinating topic, and thanks to the author for being candid about her experiences over time.

Whilst i agree that the online world is changing the way we interact with each other (this forum being its own particilar microcosm) i’m not sure its possible to draw any conclusions as yet. The insights Mary gives us into her interactions with both sexes shows how fraught with risk they sometimes are for an independent woman. She adds that it took her some time to understand the different type of risks that males traditionally had to take to connect with potential partners, whether intended as short or long term. Social media has now removed a good deal of the risk of initial embarrassment.

She also writes about how social interaction previously forced us out of our individual bubbles of consciousness, whereas now we tend to schedule such interaction. I can fully relate to this. I guess it depends where one sits on the introversion/extraversion scale, but not having ones consciouness constantly interrupted by soneone else’s, whether trivial or otherwise, except at a time and place of ones choosing is an absolute blessing to me!

In many ways, this process of changing the way we interact might be seen as a continuation of evolution. As mass education and the concentration of people into urban environments changes us, would we want to roll those processes back? Both bring benefits but new challenges, and some people will adapt more readily than others. This article is, i feel, a much-needed contribution to how we begin to recognise the adaption process required by new technology in the social sphere.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

When you say ‘seen as a continuation of evolution’, do you mean the mutations over millennia from goo to you/fish to philosopher sort of evolution or the one scientism swears is fact? Or even ‘random, unguided change over time except when it isn’t’ sort of evolution? So many definitions; so ambiguous. Perhaps your word ‘adapt’ is all that’s required?

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

As an extreme introvert myself, while I certainly understand the appreciation of not being jarred out of my bubble, I think that in the end it’s actually healthier to have that happen. Other people are not an imposition even if we feel they are and introverts need reminders of it at times.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Enjoyable, wise and humane article. It’s prompted me into researching her books, with a view to buying some. This article could not have been written by a younger person. If you want tolerance nowadays, you tend to find it among older people.

David Lewis
David Lewis
1 year ago

The responses to this article are peppered with the word ‘inappropriate’. What does this overused word mean in its modern context? If you feel I have said something ‘inappropriate’ surely it simply means that you disagree, but have chosen to use a word that implies independent arbitration by: society-at-large, god, your mum, all ‘right-thinking people’, ‘decent folk’, or who exactly? Mind you, it is certainly a modern ‘trigger word’. In a (medical) professional environment a few years ago a young female colleague disagreed with/misunderstood a comment I had made and decided to take the matter to a senior colleague. Her use of the word ‘inappropriate’ swept aside any chance of me correcting the misunderstanding or defending myself. Perhaps we should ban ‘inappropriate’?

Margaret F
Margaret F
1 year ago

I think part of the problem is that people now believe that they have no right and certainly no obligation to step in and protect an innocent person who is being harassed in public. It wasn’t always like this. For example when I was young (50+ years ago) if a man bothered a woman on the bus the other men would rough him up and throw him off the bus. I saw this happen several times. Knowing this made me feel safe. It made everyone feel safe enough to smile at and strike up pleasant conversations with strangers. Now people are so afraid of cell phone cameras and being called a racist or a Karen etc that they hang back and do nothing except maybe call the cops who will show up 30+ minutes later, if at all. Also it doesn’t help that people dress like slobs now and have tattoos. Nice people used to present themselves nicely so you had at least some idea who was safe to talk to. When so many people look so scary and there is little hope that passers-by will step in to help it just seems prudent to be paranoid when out in public.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago
Reply to  Margaret F

Some simps will still step in to help a woman being harassed but many men have heard the message from feminists loud and clear.

Last edited 1 year ago by William Shaw
Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
1 year ago

Oh, gee. I found myself bracing myself as we approached the conclusion of that vignette of that exchange in Toronto … (Sigh …) … I am glad that nothing very bad came of it.
I puzzle over a parallel issue … or, maybe the same issue: When someone accosts me, why do I find myself wondering what game they’ve got going?
The reason is, most of the time, people who accost me do put their game on. For example, I have a lot of experience in East Asia as a young fellow. I came to appreciate going to the public bath in my ratty neighborhood. That would be on Sunday, maybe a Saturday morning, in the winter when leafy patterns of ice would colonize the windows of my little apartment. The windows would freeze over from the inside.
Yes, it could uncomfortable. So, to go to the public bath and enjoy unlimited hot water for 700 Korean won (about $1 back then)… That was glorious.
I’d see the regulars: A few older fellows, a father with his young boys. All good. they got used to seeing me, the one paek-in who lives in the neighborhood.
Not so good was visiting Korean-run public baths in Northern Virginia, right outside Washington, DC. Long story short: Being drawn in to conservation with slithery young men looking to hook up … Really? I am so out of your league, and do you really get simpatico vibes from me? Hey, I like talking to people, but not when they’ve got their game on, not when they’re pursuing a predatory agenda.
I visited a very nice public bath recently. T’was the first time in a few years. A very nice fellow engaged in conversation. Yes, I do think he was looking for opportunities … or maybe he was just being a good fellow.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chauncey Gardiner
M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago

I found this article really interesting and I broadly agree with it. There is a reality to our embodied interactions that seems to be missing from the lives of a lot of younger people these days. I’m also very shy, but it has been through having interactions and casual conversations with people in random settings that I’ve become much better at connecting with other people.
So much of our lives now are abstracted, disembodied, and controlled, it seems to prevent people from actually doing real things and forming real relationships in the place we are. We lose our connection to our location and social ecology. I think it makes us less human.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago

I found this article really interesting and I broadly agree with it. There is a reality to our embodied interactions that seems to be missing from the lives of a lot of younger people these days. I’m also very shy, but it has been through having interactions and casual conversations with people in random settings that I’ve become much better at connecting with other people.
So much of our lives now are abstracted, disembodied, and controlled, it seems to prevent people from actually doing real things and forming real relationships in the place we are. We lose our connection to our location and social ecology. I think it makes us less human.