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.