He tells me I sound lovely on the phone. Hmm. I think. Keep it light, make a joke. Don't make it weird. He probably means my sparkling personality really comes through. I text back:
“Glad to hear it, I like to think so.”
He texts, “Love the confidence. Send a selfie [sends photo of himself]”
Shit. Made it worse. I didn't mean for that to sound so...ugh. But I don't want to make a big deal of it. I text back no, we can wait until our meeting for him to see me.
“I want to recognize u”
“Found u [on LinkedIn]”
“U r lovely”
“??” (After I don't reply for awhile)
This isn't a Tinder conversation, by the way. Or a dating site message. This is a text conversation meant to follow up a film festival job-related call I had with a professional acquaintance that took a turn for the creepy in an uncomfortably short amount of messages. Niceties turned to jokes, and jokes turned to things I know would not be texted to me if I were a man. “U r lovely :)” “Send a selfie.” And I'm mad at myself for letting it get to that point, for leading him on.
But only for a second. Then I let myself remember that I didn't lead him on. I'm a woman in her mid-20s making her way in the film festival industry by being friendly and somewhat casual in her interactions with acquaintances. I smile and chatter my way through the anxiety of meeting industry people I don't know. And unfortunately, friendliness between men and women often comes off as flirtatiousness. It's gender dynamics, I get it. But it's also utter bullshit to view an animated conversation about our jobs as an open invitation to see just what you can get away with saying to me (or sending me later via text/email in vague enough terms that if I call you out on it, you “apologize that I took it the wrong way.”)
A few instances like this have happened since I've been in my chosen professional field during the last few years. And they always catch me off guard. They catch me off guard because I refuse to believe “that's just the way it is.” I know that's not the case. Most of the men in my life (personally and professionally) do not treat me like this. They treat me as the valuable peer that I am. I can joke and giggle and be as candid as I like and not receive disrespectful follow-up texts. I am not made to feel that I've led them on or owe them something.
Alas, enough men have taken advantage of/“misread” a situation to justify writing this essay. For these men, there's an unfortunate assumption that must be proved otherwise: the assumption being that as a single woman, it must first be made clear that I'm not a viable romantic option. Then we can talk shop. These reasons can vary- maybe I finally say no to flirty texts. Maybe I act a bit cold to them. My personal favorite is using the fact that they already have a girlfriend as the reason that we can work together as peers. Otherwise, watch out. The sexual tension will be too much, apparently.
At this point, enough instances have happened to make me put some thought into this and why it happens. As a young woman, I know I still have to work on how to assert myself in professional situations. I, like many women, worry about being perceived as a bitch if I react directly to what I read as uncomfortable comments or behavior. But by letting little things slide, a situation can escalate to the point where it's gotten more awkward than it ever needed to be. I recognize this and need to work on it.
There are also societal roots to the problem that are difficult to change. Starting from childhood, it's pretty normal to comment on a girl's appearance as a go-to compliment. This carries over to adulthood, with women often getting different types of compliments than men, even in job settings. I was once greeted as an “adorable creature” in front of colleagues by a venue manager I had just met. How is that considered an appropriate comment to a fellow professional? Even email correspondences can have subtle differences. I'm in the interesting position of having a rather unisex first name, and have definitely had some experiences where the moment of realization that I'm a woman is palpable in the text of our exchanges. They don't become flirty necessarily, but there are more smiley faces and playful language. It's difficult to explain the exact nature of the change; a shift in dynamics, I suppose.
Lastly, it is worth noting that I'm in an industry filled with exciting, creative people who probably become close with acquaintances and peers much more quickly than those in other industries. There's a personal stake in art, whether you make, produce, distribute, or showcase it. Plenty of passionate, heartfelt conversations happen in our offices and gatherings. But I am not “asking for it” by way of an earnest talk; do not assume my professional interest is a romantic one. I'm here to program films and represent my festival, a job that I'm quite good at and would love to tell you about. Don't tell me my website bio photo is cute. Even if you genuinely just mean it as a compliment and nothing more, don't. Compliment me on literally anything else. There are so many things to talk about that are relevant to the job. Say what nice things you've heard about my festival. Hell, if you really want to trade some witty banter back and forth, tell me a movie I programmed that you hated and we'll go from there. Just don't make it weird. It's one of countless things in this world that should be able to go unsaid but can't. Just be professional.