Something has been bothering me for a long time – I have been accused of “leading guys on.” When this happened in college and grad school, I shrugged it off because the guys who would accuse me of this were always ones that took any female attention as romantic interest in them or they had a crush on me, but I had told them, usually several times, that I was not interested in them romantically, only as friends.
I am a friendly, smiley person who is easy to talk to/confide in (which is good since I am a healthcare provider now), so I am guessing that helps lend to their idea that I am romantically interested in them. But if they paid attention, they would see that I am like that with everyone! However, I do make a point of not flirting at all, not touching them in any way, and only meeting with them in groups to avoid any accidental messages going through to guys that I suspect have interest in me.
But I feel like it keeps happening! And it is really starting to make me angry because I am trying to make professional connections (and hopefully friends!) and I am so tired of guys coming onto me out of nowhere or when it is clearly inappropriate.
For example, I went to a business lunch with two professionals. The second person never showed up, so we had some drinks and chatted. We talked about our relationships a bit (me = my boyfriend is awesome, him = having a child completely changed his life and marriage). We went back to his office to talk more (business, I thought), when he said, “if I was younger, I would have thought that you coming back to my office meant you wanted to sleep with me.” I was shocked. I wrapped up the conversation and ran.
Something similar happened with another healthcare provider. We were exchanging treatments, and because he was so easy to talk to, I ended up confiding much more in him than I usually would with someone. He ended up confiding his marriage problems to me and a few sessions later, he stated that he “could not be alone with me” because he was “afraid something he would regret would happen.” I assured him that I would never cheat on my boyfriend, so he had nothing to worry about from me, but I respected his wish to stop our exchanges. I was upset about this for a few weeks because I thought I had finally found a new friend to talk about our practices and daydreamed about double dates with him and his wife.
There is a third guy with the same basic thing of us hanging out, him coming onto me when I thought we were just friends, me having to leave ASAP, and then never talking to him again AND actively avoiding seeing him (which means I have to skip professional events I would like to attend but not enough to risk seeing him).
Both times, these guys were married AND we had talked about my wonderful boyfriend. I know they are unhappy with their marriages, but I am clearly happy with my relationship, and even if I wasn’t, I would never cheat and I really resent the implied accusation that I would do so. With the unmarried third guy, the same still stands because he knew about my boyfriend.
My boyfriend only knows about what happened with the third guy because I was so distraught over it (it was actually the first event). He said that I am too nice and naive. I know I can be pretty oblivious when reading signals that are related to me (it’s so much easier to observe what’s happening with other people!), but I am actively doing everything I can think of to avoid sending misleading signals and avoiding “compromising” situations.
What am I doing wrong? I can’t possibly be leading every guy on, can I?
Thank you for reading (and thank you for all of your previous posts!),
Not Leading Them On (On Purpose Anyway)
Dear Not Leading Them:
“You just like to lead guys on” is something pushy assholes say when their boners of wishful thinking meet the fact that you are an actual person who is separate from them, a person with choices and boundaries. They want to transfer their embarrassment and disappointment at being rejected to you and make you think that everything is your fault somehow.
That’s it. That’s what it means. If someone says that to you (or anyone reading this), I want you to stop and think, “What is this person trying to get from me? Why is this person trying to manipulate me?” and tread very carefully, like, check where you are for exits, get out of the same room as them as quickly as possible, and start psyching yourself up to possibly have to make a scene. Get in touch with your anger, let the Dark Side of the Force fill you. I am not saying anything bad will happen, necessarily, or that you should be afraid of all men. But this phrase and the concept of women leading men on (by ignoring and/or rejecting them? How? What?) is SUCH a Shibboleth for me for identifying a sexist and manipulative person that you don’t want in your life.
You have a “series of pushy assholes” problem and not a “anything you are doing wrong” problem. You are friendly, and young, and probably very likely nice to look at, and above all female, and they are choosing to take that to mean something that it does not.
Your “wonderful, awesome” boyfriend is being a douche about this also, by making it a “you are too nice and naive” problem rather than a “gross dudes be creepin'” problem. It is not your fault, and by implying that it is, he is tacitly endorsing how these men see and treat you.
It sucks, I am so sorry. Next time someone says “If I was younger, I would have thought that you coming back to my office meant you wanted to sleep with me,” you are cleared to say “Ew. Why would you think that, and why would you say that out loud?” And next time your boyfriend says the thing about being naive, say “Wow, that is insulting, and not helpful at all.”
See also: “That’s inappropriate.” “Your wishful thinking does not make it so.” “I have no interest in that.” “That makes me very uncomfortable.”
You are not responsible for these dudes or their feelings. You did not cause these interactions and you are handling them just fine by shutting it down getting out of there.
Unfortunately, solving the “Too Nice” problem just replaces it with the old “Women Who Don’t Love Being Objects Are Mean Bitches” double-bind, because assertiveness from women is punished – you become “abrasive,” “touchy,” “no sense of humor,” etc. Sexist men will put friction and social costs around you not playing the role they wanted you to play to try to get you to stay in that role. Sometimes they put violent costs around it (harrowing stuff at that link, so dive in only if you are in the right headspace).
When I was 22 I worked at a very crunchy non-profit organization for a while. We brought on a new 45+ year old finance manager who had a dorky, Ned Flanders-y aspect. I noticed that whenever I made copies in the copy room he would stare at me from his office or make a reason to come chitchat with me. I mentioned to my coworkers that he was sorta creepy. He hadn’t done anything I could put my finger on, but something was off about our interactions. They laughed and told me I was imagining it, that the dude was nice and just trying to fit in and be friendly. He would often buy everyone lunch, or bring in baked goods from home – he definitely went out of his way to be liked by everyone.
When he started to offer me rides home after work, and I said “No thanks, I like to walk” and he said “I know, I’ve seen you. You’re right on my way, though, are you sure I can’t give you a ride?” I told my other coworkers about it, like wasn’t it kind of weird that he knew where I lived? They made fun of me for being so suspicious of a nice guy and for having a big ego to think that he would be into me. “He processes your paychecks, right? They have your address on it. Stop reading into everything.”
When I started seeing his car following me as I walked home, I told them about it, and they laughed and told me I was imagining it. Plus, didn’t he have a wife? They were pretty sure he had a wife. When I started to have dreams where he was literally Satan, that was also a funny joke, like, hahaha, the nicest person in the world, and Jennifer thinks he’s the Devil!
When he started pulling up alongside me on rainy days, asking me to get into the car, I walked faster. I took weird routes through alleys and yards so he could not follow. One day I screamed at him to leave me the fuck alone and took off running. When I got home his car was parked across the way, watching, waiting, wanting me to know that he knew where I lived. When I looked out the window to see if he was still there, he smiled and gave me a jaunty wave. My coworkers found this all very hard to believe. Surely he was just trying to be nice? It was raining! He wanted to make sure I got home okay!
I avoided him at work and started changing the times I arrived and left to make them not match up with his patterns.
Then my direct deposits started failing, due to some “bank error,” so, surprise!, I would have to come pick up my checks from him, personally, which always meant a bout of leering or him asking me what he’d done to make me not like him, but with authority behind it, like, “Jennifer, don’t you think it’s unprofessional to treat me so rudely, sit down, let’s talk through this like reasonable people.” He’d force me, in the office, into the position of looking cold and rude when he would try to make a bunch of small talk and I would say “Can I have my check please? Can I have it now, thanks? My check, give it to me.” Poor dude, he’s so professional and nice, and that crazy bitch we hired is so rude to him! I guess they never taught her professional behavior at Georgetown, what do you want, hiring kids right out of college, etc. etc.
Some coworkers made fun of me for my “crush” on this dude. After all, wasn’t I always in his office chatting? He was always so smooth and unruffled, and yet whenever I had to interact with him I was hostile and “crazy.” In a romantic comedy isn’t “violent hate” always a sign of “secret lust”? Hilarious, right? He would join right in on this, “Aw, everyone knows Jennifer has a little crush on me, but let’s not embarrass her, she’s so young.”
Then I got another job and left, THANKFULLY. After I left, he embezzled a ton of money from the organization and disappeared. That was a problem that they could wrap their minds around. But months of leering and following me? All in my head, I was leading him on, I was the one with the crush, etc. He was so good at keeping everything he did at work on just this side of the line of plausible deniability, and the following, and weird stuff he did was carefully orchestrated to make me sound unreasonable and crazy. I don’t know if he would have assaulted me, but I do know that he got off on making me uncomfortable and getting away with it and making it seem like it was all in my head.
I’m friends with one person from that job to this day, the one person who, after things escalated to the point where he was following me in his car, believed me. Fuck the rest of them, and fuck that entire place forever.
Letter Writer, find some other women where you work, and hang out with them, and find a place (a journal, trusted friends, etc.) where you can get really angry about the way these dudes are treating you. Look out for opportunities to professionally network with women in your field, and if you can, find a fellow woman to go to those professional events with – it’s not fair that you should have to give those up just because your rejected suitor is sulking. It’s great to be a kind, friendly person, but you do not have to be nice to people who disrespect you at work and then try to make it your fault for being female. If a networking bridge gets burned by someone expressing attraction to you and you saying “No thank you!,” it’s not you who burned it.
If I could offer you one slightly more concrete piece of advice, it seems that some of these recent stories have one element in common, in that the dudes start discussing their marriage with you as a prelude to hitting on you. If you started treating “older dude at work starts telling me his marital stuff,” as a red flag, and change the subject back to work stuff as soon as possible, it *might* unfairly cut you off from deepening a good friendship, but also you *might* be able to derail some of the hitting on stuff a bit sooner. To be clear, you didn’t cause anything that happened by not doing this in the past, you weren’t leading them on by not shutting this down, and it’s not a guarantee of anything. But when I hear an older man open up about his marital problems to a younger woman that he knows from work, my suspicious & humorless bitch-senses start tingling because in my experience he is spinning a justification for himself and for you about why it won’t be wrong when he propositions you later. You think you’re getting to know each other as friends, he thinks he’s laying the groundwork. See what happens if you NOPE-out of these conversations, like, interrupt him with “Well, that’s sad to hear, so, about WORK TOPIC OF WORK-WORK-WORK-Y-NESS” and DON’T share anything about your own relationship in return. The man who goes with the work-y subject change with the least amount of resistance is the person who in the long run is most likely to be good friend and colleague material, because he understands boundaries.
TL;dr Sexism: It sucks.
Comments closed on Feb. 8.