I went to a community event with a new group of friends Thursday night. Some of the individuals have been in the community longer than I and some were newer than I.
Brand new that night was an individual I'll call Bill. Bill seemed polite enough, so when he friend requested me the following afternoon from our community page on a social networking site, I thought nothing of it.
When he messaged me a "hello," I responded. A "How are you?" opening and an honest response of "Sunburned" led to flirtatious banter. This was a bit sudden for me, but being an occasionally overly friendly individual and sometimes flirtatious individual, I didn't have an issue with light banter.
Within a few exchanges however, Bill's remarks stopped being light banter and became distinctly, yet subtly, sexual. I told Bill not to get dirty with me, that banter was fine, but he'd crossed a line. To this, Bill responded, "I love banter. But at some point you have to shit or get off the crapper."
Time to shit or get off the crapper fewer than 10 hours after I met you and 35 minutes into our first conversation? Time to shit or get off the crapper when my profile online clearly indicates that I'm not interested in ANY kind of relationship other than friendship? "Friends with Benefits" was an option and I did not choose it.
Immediately, I sought to steer the conversation away from anything even remotely sexual. Forget light banter, forget subtle flirtations, forget friendly conversation. I signed off without so much as a good-bye and went about my day.
Thinking on it later, I was actually quite upset. I talked to my person, Eddie, with whom I am beginning, really have tentatively begun, a relationship. "Am I being overly sensitive?" I asked. "I was really uncomfortable."
"If you're not comfortable, I'm not comfortable. And all things considered, from the way this is going, I'm actually gravely concerned. This is how we're going to address it online - this is how we will label our relationship online. If you're okay with that. It might seem a little extreme, but it should send the message that you have interests elsewhere and end the unwanted attention. My only regret is that I can't be there physically to protect you."
I was 100% okay with this resolution. And so, the next morning, I headed to a coffee shop, accessed the internet, and updated my relationship status as we'd discussed. I felt better. Territory MARKED; all others beware.
This did not stop the unwanted attention. Another message that could have been read in a manner that was completely non-sexual or very sexual. I can assure you that it was intended as the latter. I chose to respond as though it were the former. I chose to make clear that Bill's overly sexual attentions were not welcome. I thought I was clear.
And then last night's party.
My friend John and I have been hanging out a bit lately and we were both on the early side in arriving. John asked about my profile update and things with Eddie. I gave him a brief rundown of what had happened with Bill and how Eddie had recommended we address it online. "If you'd asked me, I'd have offered to stand in to protect you," John said.
"That's actually why I'm telling you the whole thing now," I said. "All of this happened after we had ice cream yesterday. Since Eddie is 800 miles away, and Bill has indicated he will be here tonight, can you act as my buffer? Will you be Eddie's proxy?" John agreed immediately.
We began to socialize with others, chatting with each other and wandering individually to other people and conversations. I was feeling comfortable and safe and genuinely enjoying myself, though I was as nervous as I ever am in social settings in which I don't know many of the assembled.
When John rejoined me, I touched his arm a few times, a casual affection because I'm comfortable with him and because I wanted him to know what my "comfortable" touch felt like.
"I don't know what that touch means," John said to me.
"That was just casual, friendly affection," I explained withdrawing my hand. "I didn't mean...if it bothers you...I'll stop."
"No," John said. "It's fine. You can touch me. I just wanted to know what you were communicating."
I explained that most, if not all, of my touch was likely to be casual affection. "If something happens and I feel unsafe, I'll touch you in a very different way."
"How will I know?" John asked.
"You'll know," I told him. "If you have any doubt, I'll tell you that's why I'm touching you."
Shortly thereafter, John and I were joined by Victoria. We were chatting and headed outside for a few minutes so that Victoria could smoke. Not long into our time outdoors and Bill showed up with two other people. I recognized him immediately though he was still some forty feet away.
Everything in me began screaming. Internal red flags waving frantically, alarm bells pealing loudly, icky tummy feelings. All of it. Absolutely screaming. Frantically, I clutched John's arm. "That's him?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," I whispered back.
John immediately shifted himself in front of me, using his body to block access to me. He stepped up onto the curb, placing himself slightly above me and making himself seem larger. He allowed me to pull his arm around my waist and hold his hand behind my back.
As Bill and the other two people with him approached our group, he paused. Everyone introduced themselves to Victoria who introduced herself to these three. Bill pointedly ignored me.
Maybe he had finally, blissfully, gotten the message. Maybe he saw John's protective stance before me, arm around me, and understood that I was not to be approached, that his attentions were unwelcome and everyone in that particular circle knew that this had been communicated clearly.
Once Bill and his group had moved inside, Victoria turned to me. "What is going on? What was that?" she asked, intense concern lacing her voice, as John said, "Yes, I knew what that touch meant."
I explained the situation to Victoria and told her I was pretty sure it was being handled. "If he bothers you again, these are the people you can ask and they will take care of it," Victoria said, listing off eight or ten people.
Feeling more confident and comfortable, I began to relax again as John and Victoria finished their conversation and we headed inside.
Once inside, our group split up. We each sought new conversations. Before long, John and Victoria were deep into focused conversations and I was interacting with a few new people, while keeping an eye, generally, on where my "safe" people were.
And this is the moment, when John was physically removed from my presence, that Bill chose to show up. Immediately he attempted to strike up a conversation.
Fortunately, the woman to my left remarked on something that I had an interest in and I was able to use that to turn from Bill's attentions and begin asking her more in-depth questions. Thankfully, Bill moved on. But not all that far. He took a seat directly between me and the door and I was clearly in his line of sight. Soon, the woman with whom I'd been conversing moved on.
I thought briefly of finding John, but I needed to get out. NOW.
One of the safe people Victoria had named was walking by. I quickly got his attention. "When he's done with his conversation, will you please let John know that I left a little early?" I asked.
"Yeah, absolutely," the man said.
"And would you be able to walk me to my car?" I asked, beginning to tear up.
"Of course," he said. He escorted me out of the building and through the parking lot to my car. "Is everything okay?" he asked.
"It's fine," I said. "I just had a really uncomfortable interaction with someone online yesterday and they're here tonight, and they approached me and I just really need to leave."
"If you're sure you're fine," he said, "but connect with me through the community page. If you decide to give us a name, we can address it directly and make sure you aren't bothered again." I thanked him for his kindness and headed home.
On my drive home John called to check in and I explained how Bill had approached me as soon as John himself was completely absorbed in conversation elsewhere, "That to me was just absolute confirmation that my internal alarms were right," I said. "That he waited until I was isolated from the person he knew was looking out for me."
"That kind of pisses me off," John said, "and you're right. That he waited until you were alone to approach you is absolutely confirmation that he is unsafe."
Next, I explained what had happened to Eddie, that I was safe, on my way home, that the community had my back tonight, and that I would be sending a very strongly worded message to Bill when I got home that he was not to approach me in person or online again as he had not respected the boundaries I'd established.
By the time I had composed and sent this message to Bill, a general message had been posted to our community board about the expectations for community engagement. Above all, safety for the members of the community is priority. Perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps the individual posting heard what had happened and wanted to clarify for EVERYONE what is acceptable and what is not.
Regardless, I'm grateful that I have a community that is concerned with the safety of its members, new or seasoned. I'm grateful that I do not have to justify my internal alarms to this community. I am grateful that I am part of community which clearly states that it is acceptable to be friendly and flirty without the expectation of any sexual or physical contact. I'm grateful that people will not only tell you they'll take care of individuals who continuously violate an established boundary, but that these same people WILL take care of (i.e. remove from the community) individuals who continuously violate established boundaries.
Bill has as much right to be in this public space as I do. However, Bill does not have the right to use intimidation and subtle threats (through isolation and boundary violations) to frighten people. And that's exactly what Bill was doing.
I met Victoria for the first time not 15 minutes before Bill arrived. If she picked up from my body language that something was SERIOUSLY wrong, there's no way in hell Bill didn't know. If John was using his body to physically block access to me, there's no way in hell Bill did not intentionally seek me out when I was not in immediate contact with John.
I am grateful for Victoria, John, and Eddie. I am grateful for the bouncer who walked me to my car. I am grateful for the way they treated me in the midst of this.
I did not have to explain or justify my feelings. I did not have to justify or defend the fact that I had engaged in banter. There were no questions about why I was wearing a red dress and 5 1/2" heels if I didn't want sexual attention from men. There was no hint that the choices I had made had invited the unwanted attention. There was no suggestion that I was being overly sensitive or unfair or that I should give everyone a fair shot. There was no indication of doubt concerning the veracity of my experience. There was not a single word uttered that would in any way justify or excuse Bill's behavior or seek to blame me for any of it.
Whether I stay in this place or move back to where I come from, I am grateful for this community. Whether I stay or go, I am grateful for these new friends. Whether I stay or go, I am grateful for this safe space. Whether I stay or go, I am grateful that I have people in my life who, regardless of personality differences, will "stand behind [me], next to [me], or in front of [me] when it comes to matters of safety." Whether I stay or go, I am grateful for the time I have in this community.
I am grateful.