Symbolic Bodyguards

Perhaps you will recall a somewhat controversial post awhile back delicately titled The Origin of “Puke On His Shoes”. In that post I described the persistent, annoying, unwanted attentions of a male passenger on an Amtrak train, despite my (what should have been obvious) signal that I was completely uninterested in him: I was reading a book, and continued reading it as he yammered away, hitting on me.


Women commenters more or less completely understood my tactic, whereas some male commenters felt this was unfair and I should have been more straightforward. I suppose they were suggesting I should have said something like this: “Excuse me, sir, but I would like to politely inform you that at this time, I am uninterested in the attentions of you or any other male on this train. I would be most appreciative if you would cease talking to me.” My guess is that he would have interpreted this as encouragement to continue his antics, since my monosyllabic grunts and head buried in my book had not so far discouraged him in the least.
Anyway, it turns out, I am far from alone in deploying this kind of tactic. But like everything else in our modern age, print has evolved into electronic media, and the new handheld Unwanted Male Attention Repellent of choice is a cell phone! Or, as the British call it, a mobile:

A Symbolic Bodyguard
It is interesting to note, in this context, that in our fieldwork observation studies we found lone females increasingly using the mobile itself as a form of ‘protection’ from the potentially threatening world around them. Women on their own in cafes and bars and on trains now use their mobiles as ‘barrier’ signals in the way that they used to hold up a newspaper or magazine to indicate to predatory males or other intruders that they were unavailable. Women we have interviewed about this said that they found the mobile even more effective as a symbolic bodyguard.
“If I’m on my own in a café or whatever, I always take my mobile out. If I need to look occupied I’ll listen to my messages, or scroll through my phone book – but sometimes I just hold it while I’m drinking my coffee.”
“You just feel safer if it’s there – just on the table, next to your hand.Actually it’s better than a newspaper because it’s real people – I mean, there are real people in there you could call or text if you wanted, you know? It’s sort of reassuring.”

The idea of one’s social support network of friends and family being somehow ‘in’ the mobile phone means that even just touching or holding the phone gives a sense of being protected – and sends a signal to others that one is not alone and vulnerable.

So all you cruisers out there, be forewarned: A mobile in the hand means Get The Hell Away From Me, I Do Not Want To Talk To You Or Listen To Your Lame-Ass Pickup Line; I Really Mean It, Get Lost. Or Else I’ll Puke On Your Shoes.

  1. Helen
    February 23, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Heh, I do the same thing.
    I’m also not above calling up a friend and saying, “There’s this jackass who keeps trying to interrupt our conversation. Whaddya think? Police or no police? I dunno, he just looks stupid. Then again, it might be better to let the professionals sort out whether he’s just stupid or actually dangerous.”

  2. Helen
    February 23, 2007 at 10:50 am

    some male commenters felt this was unfair and I should have been more straightforward. I suppose they were suggesting I should have said something like this: “Excuse me, sir, but I would like to politely inform you that at this time, I am uninterested in the attentions of you or any other male on this train. I would be most appreciative if you would cease talking to me.”
    And you’re right about this idiot notion, by the way. I’ve tried it a number of times, since I have a boundless naive faith in basic human rationality. It doesn’t work. They just take it as an invitation to argue the point. Usually their argument boils down to endless repetitions of “but I really really want to talk to you” as a counter to every statement of disinterest. Translation: “I don’t give a shit what you want. I want what I want and I consider it my right to harass you as I please to get it.”
    Politeness doesn’t work on these people.

  3. Tinni
    February 24, 2007 at 11:59 am

    I am not above playing tetris in my cell as a back-off signal. If not I just start watching music videos in my ipod, or reading a paper. If I’m hanging out with my best friend we just tell it straight:” We’re watching music videos and your head is blocking our view. Can you MOVE THE F*CK AWAY?!” That one works like a charm ;P They just say “what bitches” and walk away …*sigh* peace!

  4. February 26, 2007 at 2:27 am

    Politeness often doesn’t but if I’m in a decent mood it’s worth a try in as direct a manner as I can muster up. Then I get a lot more firm about it in a public way. If that ends up rude or bitchy, who cares.
    ON the other hand I’ve also just gone 0 to 60 and told some hitting-on-me dude, “Fuck off.” and gone back to my book.
    I found that a nose ring in the middle of my nose worked well as a signal of fuckoffitude, and way less men hit on me in trains, cafes, etc.
    I’ve given flirting workshops and lessons and seen that often men need the difference between hitting-on and flirting outlined clearly. No one ever taught them manners or empathy or how to be nice or how to read body language – only a horrible combination of entitlement to women’s bodies & attention, plus a fear of rejection. The worst hitting on from men is bundled up with resentment — hostility because they are pretty sure of rejection, which they blame women for — so it becomes extra scary for me.
    Anyway – fabulous post, thanks.

  5. March 16, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    I think snapping their pictures is going to be the answer. Whether or not there’s a Holla Back site to post them on, I suspect that just taking a photo of the harrasser is likely to make them back off.
    Maybe someone can get a grant to test it out: strategies for discouraging assberets.

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