Dear Captain Awkward:
I have a friend who makes rape jokes and other sexual jokes that make me uncomfortable. I’ve repeatedly asked him to stop, and he still says this kind of stuff. Also, he touches my arm when we talk and I don’t like it. What I like about our friendship is that he lives across the hall from me, and he’s there to help me when I need stuff, like putting together furniture, or carrying things when I injured my leg. I’m shy, and my social life has been really slow lately because I injured my leg and was stuck at home a lot. I also really enjoy having a friend who is close by and easy to hang out with and see. He works in the same field as me (I’m a programmer) so it’s also nice to be able to discuss work-related things. But he makes these horrible jokes, some of them about rape, that make me really upset and uncomfortable. I’ve tried telling him and he continues.
To give you an example of jokes he makes, I was telling him about how I had the staff at my gym tell a guy to stop following me around. At first, they said, “oh, it’s just a harmless crush”, but I told them, crush or not, he’s gotta stop following me around the gym, and then they put an end to the problem. My friend joked “you should have put some white liquid on your face and went up to them “just a little crush?” and I was like, wtf? why in the world are you saying something like that, that’s so out of line?
Should I just ditch this friend? Or is there a way to impress on him that I enjoy his company and a lot of our conversations, but these kinds of jokes have got stop? Or should I even be concerned that he could be dangerous?
If the “white liquid” joke means what I think it means, GROSS.
The problem here is that you’re probably already communicating what you need just fine! “Don’t make rape jokes or sexual comments around me” is pretty clear, right? It’s not a mysterious cryptogram. So if he’s not hearing or believing you, he’s deliberately deciding that acting like an asshole is more important than complying with a basic request. That’s not a problem that’s solved with a script, though a sharp “Dude. SERIOUSLY. What would get you to stop telling rape jokes? TELL ME WHAT” is not a bad idea.
First, the obvious: You can just decide you don’t like him and don’t want him around anymore if you want. You don’t need an actual reason or our permission. If he’s making you uncomfortable, even if he’s done nice stuff for you before and is conveniently located, you can decide to cool the friendship if it’s not working for you.
We talk about breaking off relationships and friendships that aren’t working here a lot, to the point that people wonder “Does Captain Awkward think we should just never talk to people who aren’t perfectly awesome and emotionally aware all the time? I’m not perfect, so does that mean all my friends should just break it off with me forever?”
When someone rejects you, it is PAINFUL AS FUCK. No getting around it. The knowledge that people get to reject you at any time for any reason is not always comfortable knowledge, and if you’re a depressed, anxious sort or have temporarily misplaced your Awesome I understand why that’s a hard message to hear. Love, affection, attraction, friendship, acceptance aren’t really about fairness. Sometimes it’s just fucking unfair and there is nothing you can do to fix it. But it’s not like I’m gleefully cheering on the cavalier rejection of sad or imperfect folks, so let me try to explain a bit where I’m coming from with that.
I think it’s important to be reminded that you don’t have to be friends with someone if you don’t want to. You are allowed to just not like people and not want them in your life. Sometimes the right answer really is “stop trying so hard to make this work” or “This friendship that made you feel good at one time didn’t evolve into something that makes you feel good now, so it’s okay to let it go” or “You need to knock that off forever if you want us to stay friends.” I think that’s an important message because of the way women are socialized to be nice, to smooth things over, to not make waves, and to put up with all kinds of bullshit in the name of preserving relationships as if Relationships in the abstract have a greater inherent value than the feelings or well-being of the individual people in them. How many times in your life has someone told you “Boys will be boys” or “That’s just how people are” or “You’re being unrealistic” or “You’re just being too sensitive!” in order to argue you into putting up with bad behavior? Lower your expectations, ladies! Suck it up, take all the negative interactions inside yourself, agonize forever about what you did wrong and how you could have prevented it, because the smooth running of everyone’s relationships is your job! If you assert yourself, that’s called “being mean” and everyone will hate you! And don’t forget to smile and look pretty!
The above paragraph contains sarcasm.
It was personally a revelation to me to understand the power of goodbye and the usefulness of the Rageasaurus. “Wait, I can just decide not to hang out with people who make my shoulders go up around my ears, even if my other friends are friends with them?” “Wait, that person can not like me and I can not like them but we can coolly avoid each other at parties and not throw the whole friend-group into dramaville?” “Wait, I get to just say ‘that hurts my feelings, please don’t do that anymore’ instead of quietly putting up with it and seething?” “Wait, going home for Christmas is bankrupting me and stressing me out, so I get to just not go if I don’t want to and it won’t be the end of the world?” “Wait, my feelings are important and don’t need to be instantly negated or reasoned away? Holy shit!”
When a situation is making you feel dread, but you think of yourself as a nice person so you are on the verge of forcing yourself to, say, meet up with someone you don’t actually want to ever see again or go to the world’s most ill-advised dinner party or sit through another “hilarious” joke that literally makes the world worse for the telling of it, it helps to take a step back and ask “Wait, do I even want to fix things with this person? No? Okay then. That’s more important than ‘nice’.” This culture will try to get a woman to deny, apologize for, second-guess, or override every single one of her desires in the name of a performance of compliance and niceness. We need to fight that; sometimes with methods that feel “mean” and “selfish” because they are subverting a lifetime of training. Sometimes respecting your own desire to NOT be friends (to not engage, to not repair or try, and to not apologize), or respecting your needs enough to advocate fiercely for them lands on some well-intentioned person like a ton of bricks, and it’s painful and unfair. But guilt and the fear of feeling that pain keeps people engaged in relationships that aren’t working for way too long. Life is too short for home Ethan Frome reeactments*.
If you know that you get to bail on relationships that aren’t working for you, it immediately gives you some power back in figuring out how you want to negotiate the relationship so that it can work better. When you ask someone to respect a boundary, like, “please don’t touch me” or “please don’t joke about rape,” you’re not trying to punish the person – the hope is that good fences will make good neighbors and that = (You) – (That Thing You Were Doing That I Hated) = Happiness! But boundaries, once stated, need to be enforced or they become meaningless. One way to enforce them is to preserve the option to limit or end interactions with people if they don’t respect them.
So, I have definitely had to terminate some relationships that were draining and toxic. I have never done so lightly, without at least some attempts to make things better & without guilt, second-guessing, and worry about whether I was being fair and doing the right thing. Sometimes the only way I know I’ve done the right thing comes after the fact, in the form of extreme relief and freedom from guilt, second-guessing, and worry. I have definitely spoken up in other relationships to ask for better treatment, most often receiving the response of “Of course! I’m so glad you said something!” or “Sure, I’ll do my best. Remind me if I mess up, though, ok?” And sometimes, reminding myself that participating in a given relationship ( or social event) is a choice gives me instant clarity about what I’m willing to accept and also helps me put up with the imperfect parts with better grace and patience. “You want to be here, Self, so enjoy the good parts, and let the bad parts go.”
There is a difference between “sometimes annoying & awkward” and “doesn’t get certain things” and “makes me feel unsafe” as a Price of Admission. Letter Writer, I think the question about whether this guy can be converted into a small-doses friend is about UNSAFE vs. ANNOYED. If he’s tickling your “creepy” or “possibly dangerous” spidey-sense, and he laughs off your concerns, the touching escalates or continues when you ask him to stop, you feel like he’s making rape jokes deliberately to provoke and annoy you, or pushing your boundaries to groom you to be compliant, then listen to that instinct and definitely don’t invite him into your space anymore. Does it make you feel unsafe to have him there in your house, especially now when you are injured and vulnerable? Listen to that feeling, even at the risk of being “mean” or “unfair.”
But also, there are plenty of people who are fun to talk to for an hour or two about shared interests who aren’t trusted friends, or where you just know that certain subjects are off-limits or that you’ll end up cutting the conversation short in the hopes of getting out while it’s still fun. Sometimes you can keep expectations low, enjoy what there is to enjoy (like having work in common, or his kindness to you while you’ve been injured), form a private opinion of “I will limit our conversations to x topic” and move on with the day. Think of it as hiding the Facebook feed of someone before the last election: You’re doing it so that you can choose when and how you engage with people that you’d still like to like despite your differences.
For a possibly-less-loaded example than “Do I seriously have to tolerate rape jokes?“, I have a friend who is deeply religious and who would dearly like to see me accept Jesus** into my profoundly agnostic heart. We can talk about all sorts of stuff, but when Jesus-time happens, I have to end the conversation. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like the other 90% of the time we talk, because I do. But I know that eventually in every conversation it will be Jeez-o’clock and I will need to bail. I could decide that repeatedly bringing up Jesus when s/he knows I’m really not into Him is disrespectful and violates my boundaries and use it as a reason to end the friendship, but I LIKE this person. I want to keep hanging out with them, and I’m looking for reasons to keep the friendship rather for reasons to end it, it’s nothing I can’t handle, so I accept the status quo because it’s worth it to me.
Replace “The Lord” with “shiny New Year’s weight loss regime!” and you’ve got a recipe for even more boundary-crossing evangelism. Diet-talk and body-shaming are so common in our culture that plenty of people engage in it without thinking about it or questioning it or meaning to do any harm, and I am seen as the strident or abnormal one if I want to change the subject. I for sure want to redirect those conversations when they happen to me, but I also for sure don’t want to permanently cut off every nice person in my life who is trying to lose a couple of pounds or turn every conversation where they drone on about Magical! Slimming! Points! into HAES Lecture Time. So sometimes I say “Well, you look really pretty today” and move on.
Some of my own privilege is speaking, for sure – when dealing with “the terrible bargain we have regretfully struck,” if I’m in a position of consciously deciding whether to engage someone on a social justice topic and possibly “ruin the afternoon” vs. just having my afternoon ruined by their comments or jokes and tears or messy feelings that come unbidden, then I’m in a privileged position relative to a survivor or PTSD sufferer who is genuinely triggered by someone’s rape joke. I do my best to say “Wow” or “Whoa, not cool,” or “I do not think that having to wait in a long post office line is like rape” in a flat, Daria-like tone if they say something egregious, and I definitely won’t laugh or give them approval, but sometimes I truly don’t have the energy (or the person is in a position of professional power and I don’t want to antagonize them, or we’re in a group that I don’t know well and I don’t trust that people will necessarily have my back, or I can’t think of a way to explain it that will get the point across, or I’m worried about getting flustered and trying to keep my cool, or I’m a guest and don’t want to make a scene, or, or, or…cowardice wears many costumes!) and I have to forgive myself for not fighting every single battle every single time and do what I can when I can.
“Relationships are a choice” will always be in tension with the other great axiom of being human, “No man is an island.” We are imperfect, and we need other imperfect people, and sometimes our circumstances or our hearts don’t support a desire to optimize every fucking interaction. It’s good to live your principles, for sure, but principles don’t hug you and sometimes really imperfect people (like my extremely racist Yia-Yia, rest her soul) give the best hugs. As soon as you say “I could never be friends with someone who _________” someone you REALLY like will do _______ and you’ll have a terrible choice to make.
We’re known by the company we keep! How will the culture ever change if we just let awful stuff go in the name of friendship or faaaamily or keeping the peace? But are we obligated to always make ourselves lonely in the service of what’s right? I don’t know, you guys. I don’t know. Sometimes the line is really clear, and sometimes it is not clear. Sometimes I am brave and sometimes I am not so brave. Seeing other people be brave helps me to be brave, so sometimes that motivates me to be brave. Maybe by speaking up, I gave the relationship its best chance to change into something that can survive. Maybe by speaking up I helped someone feel less alone, and then they spoke up too and now the racist/sexist person isn’t dominating the conversation anymore and they have to question whether they are really in the majority here and whether it’s worth it to keep saying offensive stuff. Fighting evil is lonely work; it’s better as a group project.
So, Letter Writer, your safety & comfort is the most important thing. It comes ahead of “nice.” But if what you’re feeling about this guy is mostly Occasional Annoyance, and you do want to try to preserve the friendship in some form, there is some stuff you can try.
When he touches you, say “Please don’t touch me, I don’t like it” and physically move away. Don’t qualify that statement or apologize for it or worry about being nice or smooth it over, just say it as bluntly as possible and let the subsequent pause get really awkward. More on that here. If he apologizes and stops touching you, does not touch you anymore, AND asks permission before touching you in any way, then possibly he will get it. If he apologizes but keeps touching you, that’s not okay. If he makes fun of you for being “too sensitive” and overreacting then it’s definitely time to shun.
When he makes a joke you don’t like, say bluntly: “I don’t like jokes like that. I’ve asked you not to make them around me before. Please change the subject now.” If he apologizes, and most importantly, stops making the jokes, maybe there is hope he will get it. If he argues for why he should get to keep making the jokes or keeps “forgetting,” he is pretty much deliberately acting like an asshole. Do you want to be friends with deliberate assholes? Probably not.
Remember, you can’t control how people behave, but you can decide how they get to behave around you. He might not understand why rape jokes are bad, and it’s not necessarily your problem to make sure he does. What you conveyed in your letter is: “You may not realize this, but when you make jokes about rape you make me question whether I am really safe around you” but saying that might derail you guys into “Holy shit, are you saying you think I’m a rapist?/Now I am the real victim here because of your FALSE and UNFAIR ASSUMPTIONS” MRA territory where you REALLY don’t want to spend your precious valuable time on the earth (though such a conversation would be an instant litmus test of whether to remain in contact, right?).
Try “I value your friendship, but I am dead serious that I will not tolerate rape jokes. The fact that you keep making them when I’ve asked you not to is really upsetting to me, and I’d like you to leave now,” or “I don’t need you to agree with me or even understand why, but I definitely need you to stop making sexual jokes around me. Let’s talk about something else, and if you can’t, then I’d like you to go and we’ll try this again another time.”
For sure, if you’ve had to ask him to stop doing something that bothers you, I suggest that you cut the hangout short. You can say, “All right then. Let’s cut this short and try again another time” to make it clear that you are reacting to what he did or said, but you don’t have to give a lecture as to why, if you don’t want to – a simple “All right. Thanks for stopping by, let’s pick this up sometime next week” or “I need to work on X project, let’s hang out again another time” and then standing up to leave his place or standing up and waiting until he leaves yours can get it done- whatever gets him out of your space or you out of his.
When you’re feeling more able to be out and about, I strongly suggest putting some effort into making other friends, so this guy won’t loom so large in your social whirl. There are cooler people who are handy with an allen wrench! I also suggest that you look into some kind of self-defense and/or assertiveness training. Sometimes it’s hard to stand up to people without getting flustered, and if you’re shy it might help you to practice saying “Nope!” in a bunch of different ways in a structured, safe environment.
*Ethan Frome Home Re-Enactment Kit! Contains: One sled, one cherry-red scarf, one lifetime of unspoken desire and grudging obligation. Chilly New England Winter sold separately, may not be available in all locations.
**Alas, not the Sexy Gay Jesus.