I approached the bar, cash securely in my hand. The female barkeep was bustling about, deftly juggling glasses that didn’t quite look clean and multiple bottles of bottom-shelf liquor.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” she hollered, without turning to look at me. Bartenders apparently have eyes in the back of their heads.
“Sure thing,” I said. This triggered the attention of a grizzled man appearing to be in his late sixties. I accidentally met his gaze, and his expression immediately changed from bored to lascivious.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” I said, in a terse tone that I hoped he would pick up.
He did not. He started to approach me.
I’d surveyed the room when I came in: one older woman at the bar, three men sitting and smoking. No one young, no couples, no one who didn’t seem a little rough around the edges. All the same, I made a panicked glance around the room. Nope, no one to save me or even pretend that they knew me.
The bartender was still busy.
The old man was now facing me, sitting on a barstool with legs spread suggestively. He looked confident, as though he was certain this was going to go his way.
I desperately wished I hadn’t forgotten my wedding ring, although given his attitude, I wasn’t sure it would matter.
I was performing on the other side of the venue and had promised my husband a beer. His happiness was more important than this old man’s, but I felt like my mere presence was exciting the old man more than it should.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, nearly moaning the words. Holding back my vomit, I muttered out a pathetic “Thanks” and hoped that the bartender would come to my rescue.
“What’ll you have?” She said. An angel.
“The stout, please. Thanks.”
Unswayed by this interruption, the old man continued to leer at me in a way I’d never been stared at. I was baffled; how could someone be so enraptured by me? I’d done absolutely nothing to inspire any of this. I wasn’t much of a looker, either.
I avoided eye contact, instead watching the bartender pour my husband’s beer (“Hurry,” I urged silently), but I felt nervous about continuing to tune out the old man’s chatter, half of which was telling me how gorgeous I was. Perhaps it was the lesson I’d learned years ago that ignoring a man would lead to his violence. Perhaps it was my politeness, socialized into me throughout my childhood.
After all, women and girls are only to speak when spoken to. The flip side of that was that we speak when we’re spoken to.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Oh, perfect,” he exclaimed. “I need someone to tell my story.”
“I don’t do that kind of writing,” I said. “You need a ghostwriter.”
The stout was finally here. I paid hastily.
“Well, I’d better get this to my husband,” I said.
He pretended he hadn’t heard that.
“You could do it, though,” he said. “I believe in you. You can write my book for me.” He continued to leer at me, drool nearly reaching his shirttail.
“Good luck finding a ghostwriter,” I said, taking the beer and turning heel.
“Wait, but I feel like I could talk to you — “
I was gone.
The next day, I replayed this incident over and over in my head. I’d escaped without a scrape, but from past experience, I knew it could have been much worse. I recalled every story my friends, my sisters, had told me about a man in the bar who wouldn’t leave them alone. How we all felt compelled to be polite. How we calculated the risk of rejecting the creep versus making small talk. How we chose to accommodate the hungry, entitled stares rather than risk rape or murder.
I thought about the comments I see when a woman is killed for rejecting a man. “Why couldn’t she give him a chance?” “She could have just been nice to him.”
Maybe I’d saved my skin by being polite. But deep down, I hated myself for being kind. I’d only given the old man an opening to be disgusting. To leer at me as though I was an object. How could he even imagine that a married woman half his age would spend romantic time with him (and write his book for him, likely for free)? Surely he wasn’t serious in his attempts.
Ah but… “He was just lonely.” “He didn’t really want to sleep with you.” Even if those things are true, he was manipulating the situation for his own amusement. Someone licking their lips as they stare at you and tell you you’re beautiful is expressing lust. And no, it’s not a compliment. Not without pretext or prior communication.
I wondered if I was responsible for the treatment. Should I have ignored him? Surely he was too frail to hurt me. Surely the other bar patrons would have intervened.
And I catch myself. There’s no reason that a woman shouldn’t be able to buy a drink at a bar without feeling nervous. A woman, married or not, should be able to conduct her business without unsolicited leering.
Why do we blame ourselves for existing? Perhaps because men older than my father are acting like I’m coming onto them simply for existing. Perhaps because these men don’t see us as real people with agency or feelings. The old man didn’t care about how I felt about being a writer. His only concern was what I could do for him: write his book. Pleasure his body.
And that’s what bothered me most about the encounter. The old man had dehumanized me to nothing more than a walking set of female parts.
I’d been hit on by young men who at least pretended to care about my passions, my hobbies, my family. This man, though, literally cared nothing about my life and was open about it. He was happy to have something to ogle, and he wanted me to know it.
It had finally happened.
I’d been fully objectified.