I was supposed to laugh: When flirtation crosses the line

Last week, my boyfriend Jon introduced me to an acquaintance. I had been seated at a restaurant during a Troegs event that Jon was hosting, but I quickly swiveled in my chair to extend my handshake. The man before me was over 60 and harmless with twinkly blue eyes and a long white goatee, and my hand touched his as Jon said, “And this is my girlfriend, Sylvia.”

“Not for long,” the man answered.

For a split second, confusion hovered in the air, but it was just long enough. Before I knew it, the man had snuggled his arm tightly around my shoulder as if to take me away.

His great, thundering laughter rang out as he removed his arm, and I found myself chuckling, just a bit. But when he stepped back, he eyed me up and down, and I looked away, doubly uncomfortable.

Later in the evening, the man approached our table to shake Jon’s hand and announce his departure, and he once again turned toward me.

“And you,” he said, pointing, “remember what I said.”

My instinct was again to laugh — a girly, flirtatious laugh — but there was nothing in his statement that I thought was funny.

“And you,” I said, “remember who I arrived with this evening.”

The man laughed again. “You might change your mind,” he said. “Who knows? Women always change their minds.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ve been with this one for a long time. I’ve made my choice.”

The man put up his arms in protest. “I’m just joking,” he said with a small whine, as if I wasn’t getting it. “It’s a compliment.”

“I know,” I said. “But I need you to know. I’ve. Made. My. Choice.”


Flirtation happens. It’s a fact. No matter where I’ve lived, there’s always been a handful of unexpected invitations that range from a stranger’s innocuous “You are gorgeous” to a “hey, baby, why not a smile?” as I streak past, red-faced and frizzy-haired on an afternoon run. The line between accepting a compliment as genuine and feeling threatened or misjudged by one is very thin, and the way I react in such a situation is even more complicated.

Usually, I answer with laughter. I think many women do. I’ve laughed when I’ve been propositioned in shady parts of France, laughed when I’ve been gestured over to a restaurant table to be handed a stranger’s honest compliment, laughed when a man announced the various things we’d do if he could take me to a nearby hotel. Laughter makes me feel pretty and inaccessible; laughter emphasizes my femininity, which I’m somehow glad someone else noticed; and laughter is, at times, just vague enough to cover up a response that I don’t even know how to think or say or give.

But why do I laugh if I don’t find a man’s words to be funny?

Because I’m female, I often feel that I am expected to accept a man’s words, even if the suggested actions the words represent are just that — harmless suggestions. If I am flirted with, whether comfortably or uncomfortably, it is most acceptable to accept the situation lightly and move on, no matter how positively or negatively it makes me feel.

Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh also knows this conflict of expectations well. Her street art project, “Stop Telling Women To Smile,” uses graffiti to affirm that women can and should stand up against words, words that, while not necessarily accompanied by physical assault, can be equally degrading. With captions like, “I’m not your baby,” she asserts that a woman has a right to set her own social boundaries, even if this is the right to refuse the so-called teasing or jokes of someone else.

In the situation above, the double standards were evident. I would never have told the man’s wife that I planned on stealing him, and it is highly unlikely that he would have made the statement if Jon had told him we were married.

But I am woman, and to be beautiful I was supposed to laugh. I felt it instinctively. The giggle had bubbled up my throat, and I had pushed it back down. But I refuse to laugh at words that symbolize a proposition that will not happen, even if the man never intended it to, and I refuse to allow someone else’s words to define me in a way that is contrary to the person I am.

All I had been trying to do was to even the playing field.


7 thoughts on “I was supposed to laugh: When flirtation crosses the line

  1. Sylvia, thank you for your thoughts! Yes, what an awkward situation. The double-bind is, if you were somehow able to predict his tenacity with the joke, you may have been super enthusiastic in reply like, “Hell yes! I’ve been trying to get rid of this one for AGES!” But he could have just as easily backed off like, “Whoa there! Seems like you guys have some things to work out,” and made you look desperate/over-excited/any number of negative labels assigned to the behavior of a woman.

    In a workshop I attended last month, the instructor mentioned naming as an important counter-attack. For example, saying (a little too loudly), “You just put your hands on me and propositioned me.” The point is not that it was in front of Jon, but that he thought it was appropriate at all. He might feel awkward, and offer an explanation (or not), but at least it forces him to recognize his behavior, and the power of your voice.

    1. I like the idea of calling attention to the truth of the actions that someone is doing. It does put another person’s actions in context, or show other people what they are really doing. If the guy (or any person in any situation) felt his own actions were acceptable, framing them differently is good. I did have to laugh about your “thank goodness, I’ve been trying to leave this dude forEVER.” Accompanied by a massive eye roll. But putting the situation back in their lap is even stronger. Thanks, Heather!

  2. None of what he did sounded harmless to me – especially considering that he knew your relationship with Jon right from the start, and you were clear right from the start. That he persisted to the end of the evening is disturbing. I’m glad you were clear and firm with him.

  3. Hopefully, in our society, there are words to qualify such guy: he is an asshole. And there is a procedure to deal with such situation: it is not smile or laugh but harassment report. You never know what he will do to the next victim, especially if she has not a boyfriend like you.

  4. RogueAnthropologist September 1, 2013 — 11:12 am

    Good job, Sylvia! I love your response, not just because you refused to laugh, but also because you defined the situation by YOUR choices and agency–who you’re dating isn’t a question of this guy’s desires or even Jon’s. It’s up to you.

  5. Absolutely, Kara! It felt like a defining moment. And a creepy one. And a good one.

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