The four words all women have used to get rid of unwanted advances

Article by Imi Timms / /
March 25, 2021 /
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The day after the historic March 4 Justice rallies, a man I didn’t know approached me in the CBD, pleading for me to stop in my tracks to chat to him. I had stopped briefly outside the train station, with my headphones in, in order to scramble through my bag to find my mask.

When I tried to walk away, he followed up with, “Just two minutes.”

I didn’t want to give this stranger the time of day as I rushed to make my train, but I was faced with a conundrum: Either I deal with him now, or he potentially follows me into the station.

Deal with it now, then.

The eventual line that pushed him away – after he told me I was “f***ing gorgeous” – was “No, sorry, I have a boyfriend.”

Claiming to be ‘taken’ by someone else is the line that so many of us have employed to escape unwanted advances. Or, it’s a form of prevention. Tell the driver you’re being dropped to your partner’s house at the end of the night. Ask your male friends to pretend to be your boyfriend to escape lecherous eyes.

For so many women, being approached by a stranger on the street or at a bar is the norm. What is not normal though, is how we have to quell their advances. We can’t reject outright for fear, so we apologise. We soften the blow with thanks and a feigned flattered appearance. When that doesn’t work, we pull gender rank.

“I’ve got a boyfriend.”

It’s the line that finally demands personal sovereignty, as if possession by another person is the only worthy reason we can decline someone’s approaches.

A similar incident happened on the train a few years ago, where an overly friendly bloke tried to strike up a conversation, sitting far too close for my liking.

“Where are you off to?” he inquired, as we sat surrounded by business people making their way home after a long Thursday.

I made up some story about crossing town to go see my imaginary ‘boyfriend’. The conversation and friendliness halted.

I checked that other people were getting off at the same station as I was and looked over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t going to be joined by unwelcome guests on the walk home. Headphones in, no music playing.

I’ve often wondered if the illusive ‘boyfriend’ conjures up the image of a hulking, six-foot-something man made of pure muscle that deters potential suitors.

Or, perhaps, saying, “I’m not interested,” allows the bandwidth to be convinced, in the minds of some, whereas the notion of being ‘taken’ draws a firm enough boundary to quit the pursuit.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, of the School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne, presented an alternative theory as to why we opt for the boyfriend excuse instead of other means of rejection.

Dr Rosewarne suggests that this form of rejection is not connected to the idea of possession, but rather, tied to the notion of letting someone down easy.

“Women have been socialised to be nice. Even in situations that are thoroughly not nice, we’re still expected to smile,” Dr Rosewarne says.

On telling someone that we’re taken even if we’re not, Dr Rosewarne says that we do it “because it’s still polite, it doesn’t make the man feel as if he’s been rejected.

She says: “It’s not a slight against him … He gets let down gently, and therefore doesn’t feel the need to respond in an aggressive way.”

It presents a more palatable narrative, one which suggests that the woman would be interested, had she not been preoccupied with someone else already, Dr Rosewarne contends.

“Because if she gives another answer, almost any other answer, [it] will encourage a further conversation about this where the man tries to argue it. Whereas, the idea of ‘I’ve got a boyfriend’ is ‘I’ve got an established partner, and therefore can’t consider you as an option. But if not for him, I would have,’” Dr Rosewarne says.

There’s certainly something to be said for pop culture and how it dictates our expectations of interactions with strangers. Rom-coms are saturated with James Blunt ‘saw-your-face-in-a-crowded-place’ moments, where the man vehemently chases his love interest.

“Pop culture normalises the idea that men pursue women. It also normalises the idea that men don’t have to take no for an answer, because ‘wooing’ is part of the sexual courtship … and therefore, you can kind of wear them down,” Dr Rosewarne says, though she notes that pop culture is generally improving in this realm.She also pointed out that problematic behaviour of male leads can be translated by the audience as romantic, because of their apparently good intentions.

While we grapple with this moment of reckoning and rage, glimpses of hope continue to emerge.

“We’re going to be more mindful about settings,” Dr Rosewarne says. She believes we’ll still see these interactions happening in spaces where it’s more normalised and socially acceptable, such as nightclubs, but Dr Rosewarne predicts a decline of this behaviour within spaces that “should be separate from sex, like on the street or in the workplace”.

As Australia wades its way through the torrents of social change, may our voices be heard.