“Public spaces are not girlfriend vending machines.”  I can’t remember where I read that piece of advice, but it has stayed with me.  (If anyone recognises the quotation, could you remind me of its origin?)  It gets neatly to the strangeness of something which is all too often taken as natural and inevitable: that many men see everyday interactions as potentially leading to romantic involvement.  I was reminded of it by the discussions under this post, particularly the suggestion that feminists are inadvertently trying to create a world in which men and women could never end up in a couple together.

Leaving aside the glee with which Malory Ortberg and others might greet this prospect, I think it’s worth tackling this idea.  Rather like the notion that women can’t expect men to stand up for them if they don’t behave properly, it’s a trope I often come across online.  Anyone used to discussing street harassment or sexualised dynamics in the workplace will no doubt be familiar with the reduction ad absurdum of “If we all thought like you, the human race would die out!”  A similar argument often appears in response to articles on sexual consent: “Oh, should we all sign a form in triplicate before we ever go to bed, ha ha?!”

The “why do you want to stop me chatting women up, it’ll mean no-one ever gets together” line is essentially a milder version of this attitude.  Though striking up a conversation with a woman is hardly the same as sexually harassing her in an office, or shouting a suggestive remark at her in the street, the defence of it harps on a similar theme.  And I think men could afford to think seriously about whether seeing every woman in public as a potential – if only potential – romantic partner displays a rather sexist and entitled attitude.  I’ve nothing against relationships which start from chance meeting in a bus terminal, or in a coffee shop, or at a sports game.  But assuming that every woman you see should be regarded as a possible girlfriend is an odd way to view the world.

For a start, it doesn’t take seriously whatever else they’re doing.  To quote a commenter on that previous post, “some of us are just trying to get to work.”  By starting a conversation you are offering a friendly gesture to a stranger, which is surely laudable.  But you are also interrupting their walk to work, their daydream, their novel, or simply their train of thought.  That may not seem particularly bad to me or to my male readers.  But I suspect that’s because we don’t tend to get interrupted very much.

If young women are continually having whatever they’re doing put on pause whilst they’re expected to give their attention to a man who has appeared out of nowhere, it may seem irksome.  So an action which was kindly meant and which isn’t in itself a bad thing may feel like an imposition for the woman involved.  Especially if it’s a twentieth time that week.  Objecting that I didn’t mean it that way is simply insisting that my view of the situation matters more than the person I’m speaking to.  And given that we’re talking about a conversation here, the other person’s view is surely at least half the point.  It may not be necessary for us to have harassed a woman for her to feel harassed by a series of interactions with other men which have ended in our offer of a chat with her morning coffee.  It’s surely not up to women to fix the effects of a sexist society by extending extra consideration and understanding to the man who didn’t mean to come across as creepy.  It’s up to men to make sure they’re not coming across that way, even accidentally.

Part of that making sure involves looking at how gendered our behaviour is.  To use a trivial example: how often do men randomly strike up conversations with other men in bookshops, coffee houses, bus queues, etc?  I spend a lot of time hanging around places that sell books, and I don’t think another man has ever stopped me and remarked on what I’m buying, or exclaimed that we’ve picked the same volume, or any similarly casual interaction.  From various casual remarks by female friends, I gather being a woman in a bookshop may lead to exactly this sort of conversation.  And there’s nothing wrong with talking about books (a view I definitely have to hold in order to justify collecting my salary every month…!)  But if only women are addressed in this way, then it’s reflecting a gendered dynamic.  Probably an assumption that women in public are available for men’s purposes, even if that purpose if only to while away some time and maybe end up with a phone number.  And that’s a pretty sexist assumption.

The individual outcome may not be awful – being interrupted and having your time wasted is not the end of the world (if it only happens once) – but the underlying principle is more troubling than I think we often recognise.  Our tendency to see women as romantically and sexually available is a pervading part of the way a patriarchal society has encouraged us to see them as less than us.  Assuming that it’s unreasonable for a woman to find it irritating that you see her trip to the bookshop, or the art gallery, or the laundry, as an opportunity for you to find a girlfriend, involves taking her life less seriously than yours.

Seeing women exclusively through the lens of sexuality – specifically our sexuality, and how they might contribute to our pleasure – isn’t simply a question of sexual harassment and more obvious forms of sexualisation.  It can express itself in milder ways, like expecting that girl you’ve just seen in the canteen to pause whatever she’s doing whilst you decide whether she fits in your life narrative as The One.  So no, feminism doesn’t want to make sure heterosexual men never find a girlfriend.  But it asks us some fairly searching questions about why we think we’re owed a girlfriend by society.  And why it’s women’s job to pay up, in attention, time, or sex.