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When Men Claim They’re ‘Harmless’

What does harmlessness mean? I believe it means more about answering a question I haven’t explicitly asked.


By July Westhale

When I was in the third grade, I got stabbed in the forehead with a pencil.

I was recently recounting this story to a group of coworkers while we were on a work trip to Vegas, since the last time I’d been in Vegas in any real and exciting way was when I was 7. The details of that trip are blurry — though I remember we stayed at that castle place, I thought Merlin was a sham, and I electrocuted myself on an outlet by trying to show off my resilience to a disinterested cousin — but the clearest memory was this: Vegas, in 1993, still had coins for the slot machines. They were thick, and hefty. They had slightly ridged edges. They probably felt, to adults, much more like money and promise than the slide cards of today (though the slide cards of today require less cognitive activity, and therefore, make the process of gambling effortless).

But for me, the slot machine coins were currency of another kind: status.

Remember 1993? Fresh Prince, Walkmans, the Barbie Liberation Organization, Steely Dan, the “What is Love” Jim Carrey remix (also, Jim Carrey), Groundhog Day, and, of course, pogs.

Pogs were hot shit at my elementary school, and maybe yours, too, if you are a peer of mine or just a hella cool retro-loving elementary-school kid. And slot machine coins? These were the most perfect goddamn slammers.

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So when I returned from Vegas, I was a puffed-up peacock with my pog collection, which had risen in stock dramatically from its pre-coin glory. And my first day back, I’d carefully set it in the basket under my desk next to my lunchbox — only to discover it was gone by the time recess rolled around.

It was this asshole, Sam. He sat behind me, and regularly wrote “July sucks pickles” in pencil on his desk in the thick graphite of repetition. When I confronted him about the pogs thievery, he immediately picked up his pencil (the same pencil of pickle infamy) and stabbed me in the forehead with it.

I don’t much remember the aftermath. What I do remember is that it was the first time I’d learned to be afraid of the unpredictability of boys who’d had their power challenged. I still have a small scar on my forehead, a little space where forehead used to be. It’s nearly imperceptible, but still there.

On the more recent Vegas trip, the one I went on for work, I’d been eating alone at a place on the Strip I’d always wanted to try. Three men at the bar were cruising me, a fact I’d noticed the moment they’d walked in. I had chosen to ignore them. However, as I was finishing my meal, one of them approached me.

It was the first time I’d learned to be afraid of the unpredictability of boys who’d had their power challenged.

“Hey there,” he said. I straightened my back and positioned my body into a diplomatic brick wall. “My buddies and I noticed you’re dining alone, such a pretty girl.” He motioned toward his friends who were smiling from the bar. They raised their martinis. “We are just so bored, and it’s my birthday” — I rolled my eyes internally — “and, well, we are harmless. Let us buy you dessert.”

I didn’t. A few days later, while back home in Oakland, I got a message from an old coworker, a man who’d hired me to work as a ghostwriter for a publishing company, then had been subsequently laid off from his job. I still work there; he doesn’t. It’s awkward. He sent me a message saying that he was moving back East — he and his wife were splitting up, and he was really a mess. Could I meet up for a drink before he left town?

I was ready to immediately respond with a soothing “yes” — after all, I’ve been there, and man, does a drink with an understanding friend help — when his next message came through:

“BTW, I’m planning on flirting with you shamelessly. But don’t worry, I’m harmless.”

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A few days later, my partner and I were on our way to see Maya Rudolph and her Prince cover band, Princess. Starving and hungover from a party we’d been to the night before, we stopped at a mediocre pizza place in the Mission district of San Francisco for a slice. The lights were too bright, and the smell of grease made me feel caged-in and ill, so I sat down at a spacious booth while my partner ordered. Almost immediately, a man came into the pizzeria and sat down next to me in the booth, forcing me to move quickly around the rest of the horseshoe to scramble out of it.

I was thinking, “Why do men always think it’s cool to sit so goddamn close to me,” when he simultaneously hissed out a “I just need pussy. I swear to god if bitches keep treating me like this I’m going to fucking kill someone.”

It was audible throughout the whole shop. My partner, whom I’d found a way to hide behind at this point, heard it. The line cook heard it. And the man ringing up our order heard it. The man looking for pussy slunk out the door, glaring at me the whole time. As soon as he was gone, the cashier laughed.

“You have to know how to handle these crazy motherfuckers. Don’t act so scared. He was harmless.”

Why do men always think it’s cool to sit so goddamn close to me?

I live in a part of Oakland where I have been sexually harassed every single one of the 761 days I’ve lived there. I know this isn’t the case with many people, as was pointed out to me in a piece The Establishment recently published about the de-sexualization of disabled bodies. But men always have things to say to me, about my hips, my smile, what I should and shouldn’t be doing. And very often, they counter with “I’m harmless” as they move closer into my space, as if that is the magic word that lowers the drawbridge across the moat.

My partner, a communications professor (on the humanitarian/conflict resolution side, not media), plays devil’s advocate. “I think it’s in part that men are on edge about always being perceived as predatory.”

Rebecca Solnit’s book, Men Explain Things to Me, holds the theory that such interactions assume that women don’t know any better than what they are told by men — and I liberally take her theories here to say that men believe that their authority means more than a woman’s feelings of safety. Saying “harmless” makes it true — and so it was decreed. Or something.

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But in The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, there’s a theory that predators are continuously stating truths in the form of non-truths — “I’m harmless” falling under that category. It’s a little bit like how you can learn a lot about red flags on a first date by really listening to the ways people talk about their past relationships (not to parallel these experiences, because different systems of social hierarchy and oppression are obviously at play).

So what does harmlessness mean? I believe it means more about answering a question I haven’t explicitly asked, except through body language, through primal fear, through the ways the world has taught me to be afraid of spontaneous violence against my person. I am never asking, I am never, ever asking for it.

I think my partner is talking about how current discourse around the predatory nature of men is presented in the media as an absolute — and for good reason, of course, because of rape culture and the systemic oppression of fetishized bodies. But I do believe that there is clearly more nuance. There are men who possess self-awareness enough to know that they’ve been told their whole lives that they are predators, and they perhaps have no idea how to navigate that (or don’t have the skill set to navigate that), except to preface every come-on with the statement that they are the exact opposite.

There’s a theory that predators are continuously stating truths in the form of non-truths.

What is missing, in these interactions, is this: When we talk about rape culture, or the sexualization of women/feminine bodies, we are talking about a problem that is systemic, not anecdotal. Recently, I was in a bar with a group of men who bristled visibly when I brought up street harassment, and how there was no such thing as a society that was inherently safe for women. As accustomed as I am to always being the “feminist killjoy” at the table/party/event, I’m constantly learning how to broach these subjects with grace and empathy, to try to take into consideration that the majority of those with privilege (including myself, in the arenas where I hold privilege) aren’t entirely aware that they possess it, nor how to be a proper ally.

The men I was in conversation with at the bar continued to bring the conversation back around to the fact (which I didn’t doubt even a little) that they, themselves, were good men. Harmless. This is another kind of harmless, of course, because these men were not using the word to preface a sexual advance towards me, only to try to show that their anecdotal experience meant that we were living in an era beyond sexism and rape culture. That women were, essentially, safe with them.

Because we could not seem to get the conversation back on track to a global perspective on systemic issues, I pounced on the opportunity to frame it in a way they could understand. One of the men had once shaved his head — an uncommon thing for him at the time and place when he’d done it. He talked about the ways in which people moved differently around him, how he had to think carefully about routes he walked home, places he frequented, people he talked to. Not only because he could be perceived as a threat, but also that he could be threatened for being different.

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“This isn’t exactly the same,” I said, “But try to channel your lived experience into empathizing with the concept that women face these kinds of decisions every single day.”

This seemed to work. Their task, we discussed, was to use their empathetic understanding to become better allies, and to open themselves up to being educated about fighting predatory behavior — which included participating in a kind of knowing that may be uncomfortable for them.

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