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The Borders of Sexual Harassment

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The Borders of Sexual Harassment

I file onto Alitalia flight 649 — a direct flight from Rome, Italy to Caracas, Venezuela — groggy from the Wednesday morning dawn, irritable from the usual array of micro-inconveniences that comprise modern day air travel. My seat is 14L, a window. I get to my row and a short, pudgy Italian man in 14K pops up to allow me in. He’s all smiles — one of those “morning people” I suppose.

He has a beach-ball belly, probably mid-60’s, ear-length hair parted down the middle, with 70’s-style, slightly tinted thick-rimmed glasses on. He looked like a Serpico-era Al Pacino that grew grey and rotund and forgot to change his clothes for the last three decades.

I sit. He retakes his seat next to me. He lunges over the armrest to begin talking to me, clearly breaching the invisible, unspoken demarcation of personal space between two airplane seats. He corners me with his small talk: Hello, where are you from? Oh you speak Spanish? Beautiful morning, isn’t it? Are you on vacation? What do you do? Are you staying in Caracas? Oh how nice, I’m an actor.

Each word launches torpedoes of halitosis-laden air toward me; the man has possibly the most vile breath my lungs have ever confronted. I begin inching my head back farther and farther away from him, but the entire region is crop-dusted. He leans — no, invades — the invisible armrest-border into my territory, besieging me and my comfy 14L leather-chair empire, blanketing me with his esophageal stench and pleasantries; Markantinople is burning, burning with the stench of old man, ransacked and pillaged, subjected to wave after wave of non-conversation.

I retreat into my backpack and offer him a stick of gum. Disaster averted. I then counterattack by putting my seat back and nudging him off my side of the armrest. He’s off-balance, chewing contently; the onslaught has abated. Then I make my move. I quickly follow up the seat-back jab with a combination right-hook of headphones in my ears and iPod on, and before he can gather himself, I blast the music and close my eyes. Uppercut.

It seems all is well and the flight will proceed as normal. But maybe 15 minutes later I feel a tap on my shoulder. I ignore it. The tap turns into pointy-fingered jab. WHAT!?!?! I open my eyes and zombie Al Pacino’s face is hovering close to mine again, way over on my side — further, even — as he pantomimes silent words underneath the music. I pull my left earbud out, making every effort to not hide my irritation at him, I ask him the most angry Qué? I can muster.

More small talk. But this time it comes in cool mint.

Eventually, through Herculean efforts of passive-aggression and feigned sleep, I get him to stop talking and to (mostly) stop touching me. But he’s ceded no territory. He’s now spread himself across the armrest with his knee jabbing into my long thigh, the borders have been redrawn, the geopolitical tensions between 14K and 14L remain tense.

And as with any active border dispute, peace is a mirage, conflict is never far away. An hour passes. Awake and now eating, the Italian man, the Roman invader, the unrepentant Caesar, turns to me and reinitiates diplomatic communication. Am I married? he asks.

No, I’m not. Are you?

He was for fifteen years he says. But not anymore. He’s “free” now, he says, extra emphasis on “free,” — libré, he adds special accent to the end of the word for emphasis.

I offer a generic platitude in return: “That’s great, it can be great to be single. ”

“Yes,” he says, “I can fuck whomever I want.”

I try not to betray how awkward his last statement was, so I nod lightly and return my gaze to my food, my cold pasta suddenly mesmerizing me.

He leans over again, now launching an artillery of spittle and bread crumbs all over me, he looks me in the eye. The old bastard is serious: “True freedom is when you can fuck whomever you want.”

Despite my past in writing thousands of words on promiscuity, dabbling in polyamory and defending the merits of casual sex at length, I somehow find myself utterly repulsed and speechless.

Then he put his hand on my leg.

I freak out a little bit inside. He’s hitting on me. I look at the little screen on the back of the seat in front of me. It shows the flight path, just begun, and flashes “Time to Destination”: 9 hours 47 minutes.

He takes his hand off and looks at me for a long time without saying anything. I inch away, now in full retreat, I look at the screen, out the window, anything — I’m trapped in the leather throne of my 14L empire, getting smaller by the minute.

A moment passes and he resumes: Freedom means being able to fuck both men and women. He watches me for a reaction. He gets none, so he doubles down: “I like to have sex with men. Do you?”

I tell him I don’t. He asks why. I say I’m just not interested in them.

He laughs. “That’s what I used to say when I was your age. But I just didn’t know then.” Hand back on leg. Leg moves away. Hand dangles loosely, once again inhabiting my territory — my god, this is a 747 and I feel like I’m stuck in the trunk of a car. He’s leaning all the way over into my side now. I’m overrun.

He tells me I should try it: sex with men, that is. I reiterate: thanks, but no thanks. He laughs again. It’s just love. You just don’t understand he tries to say. You’re so young. I said the same thing when I was young. Women are nice, but a man is different. You don’t know yet. No one’s showed you. You just need to learn.

The implication was obvious.

A few uncomfortable moments pass. The food is gone, minus the lingering crumbs he launched onto my person. I have an overwhelming urge to get up and move, but part of me is mildly ashamed to. I’m a progressive and open person. I’m tolerant. I’ve known plenty of gay men — hell, plenty of gay men who have openly solicited me, flat out — and I’ve rarely had a problem with it. Not like this. Why was I so repulsed?

His arm is beyond the armrest, elbow digging into my side now. His leg, despite being perhaps half the length of mine is somehow occupying twice as much space.

But I will not be conquered. I sit up and finally ask him to move and give me space. He grunts a bit and inches back, but not much. He finally goes silent and starts watching a movie.

I ask myself: Can I deal with this? I can deal with this. He’s old; he’ll probably sleep. Right? Time to destination: 9 hours, 13 minutes.

But he doesn’t sleep. He taps me again. He says he has a place in Caracas. He says I should stay with him for the night. He offers to give me his number. He says he can “show me a fun night.” He says Caracas is a dangerous place and that he can help me. He says that he lives alone and that he has nothing planned while I’m in town. He touches me again.

I collect my things and announce I need to use the bathroom. He lets me out. I conspicuously bring my things with me and don’t look back. I find a flight attendant and tell her I’d like to change seats, that the man I’m sitting next to is bothering me. She kindly places me in 24F. A new throne. A new personal leather empire. Ahhhh….

The Fine Line of Creepiness

creepy-manAfter being reseated, I spent much of the next hour thinking over the situation. Like I said, I’ve met plenty of gay men in my life and pride myself on being at ease with them, even when they flirt with me, even when they proposition me. Rarely have I gotten as uncomfortable with their advances as I did with this man.

Yet, these rare occasions are when I truly sympathize with what women must go through on a regular basis: the unwanted attention, the forced and awkward conversation, the needling of their insecurities, the condescension, the invasions of personal space, privacy, solitude, the old men and bad breath.

But at the same time: did this man have a right to speak to me? Of course. Did he have a right to inform me of his, err, sexual proclivities (or should I say “freedom”)? Yes, again, of course. Did he have a right to proposition me, to invite me out — or rather, in — with him? Yes and yes.

So what made this feel so inappropriate?

I’ve argued with feminists and defended a man’s right to initiate an interaction and demonstrate sexual interest to women. I’ve also, I’m sure, creeped out my fair share of women in my day — most of them unintentionally, but surely a number by being crass or drunk or just an idiot.

So where’s the line? Who has what right and when? What makes this situation so uncomfortable, when my gay Brazilian roommate earlier this year would openly lament that he wanted to sleep with me and wished I wasn’t straight, and I had no problem with it? How is what this man did with me different from what I’ve taught and encouraged men to do for years?

The difference is respect. It’s about people’s boundaries and borders and not steamrolling over them.

Just as the old Caesar disregarded my personal space, my silent pleas for privacy, my demonstrated lack of interest in his sex talk, he also disregarded my ability to choose for myself, my right to make my own sexual decisions. I said the same thing when I was your age; you don’t understand sexual freedom yet. Stay with me tonight.

No. Fuck you. Who are you to say what I want and what I know about myself?

In my book on dating and attraction, Models, I put forth that the idea of “creepiness” is the opposite of flirting: it’s demonstrating sexual intent in a manner which is unwanted or ill-received.

But after this episode with the horny Roman, I don’t believe I went far enough. Creepiness occurs when someone demonstrates sexual intent while undermining or disregarding the recipient’s personal autonomy or consent.

High heel stepping on man's tie

Whether it’s a man prying a woman’s will with free drinks, a woman’s ridicule of a man’s masculinity for not hooking up with her, or an older gay man’s pooh-poohing of a young straight man’s comfort in his own heterosexuality, what these actions have in common is that the initiator is attempting to invalidate the recipient’s ability to make their own sexual decisions.

In short, it’s subtly dishonest, and it’s what leads to so-called “harsh rejections” or “buyer’s remorse” or low quality interactions and relationships.

Over years of giving advice on attracting women, I naturally arrived at two principles I teach to anyone who takes me seriously:

  1. Be honest with your intent. Don’t hide who you are or what you want.
  2. Always be respectful of her autonomy and decision making. If she’s not interested, move on.

It’s about honest action (hence the subtitle of the book: Attract Women Through Honesty). It’s also about pursuing sexual relationships with dignity, both for yourself and others.

I initially arrived at these tenets mostly through pragmatism: In my experience, I found that being upfront with my interest and being respectful of a woman’s interests/disinterests not only gave me the best results over the long run, but it facilitated the most enjoyable process.

And, as the gay Roman showed me, it’s also the ethical way to pursue someone. Both men and women have a right to express their sexual desires. Both men and women have a right (and responsibility) to reject unwanted interest or desires.

The problem is when these rights are disregarded. That’s where it gets unethical. That’s when it gets creepy. That’s when it borders on harassment.

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