If you weren’t aware by now that arguments over harassment are burning through the skeptosphere again, you can’t have been paying much attention. I won’t be entering that fray myself just yet, except to say – in general terms, in principle – that reports of abuse or harassment should always be taken seriously and investigated. For the moment, in fact, I’ll stick to discussing this issue and responses to it in general terms, in principle, for reasons I hope are obvious.
The one event I will name is the one to which these arguments always return.
Reliably, at least one person will say a variation of the following whenever “Elevatorgate” comes up:
For goodness’ sake, he only asked her for a coffee! Why would she think that was a sexual advance?! He even said “Don’t take this the wrong way”. What a professional victim – she must just have been desperate to be offended.
There’s a great deal that response ignores: that the proposition was made in the small hours of the night, in an enclosed space; that it followed the part of the average conference schedule most associated with pass-making; that the man in question invited Watson back to his room – that is, his bedroom – rather than somewhere “coffee” could mean nothing else. It’s the kind of conduct most effectively excused, as Stephanie’s pointed out in the past, by removing all contextual details.
This post though isn’t specifically about Elevator Guy, or any other individual. Revisiting that incident just crystallised a feeling that’s played on my mind for a while. That feeling is this:
We need to stop asking people for coffee.
Not that we should stop asking people for sex, in appropriate contexts, at conferences and elsewhere; not that we should stop asking people on dates. We need, specifically, to stop saying “for coffee”. If that sounds prudish or odd, let me explain.
Some months back, a friend got an online message from a stranger, who’d seen him through a university Facebook group to which both belonged. The sender had seen him commenting, and asked if he was “up for a coffee”. It took my friend three days, and hours of advisory IM exchanges, to know how to respond.
Exactly what did “a coffee” denote in this case? What invitation was being made? Was this coffee and socialising, as in the German ritual of Kaffeeklatsch? Was it a coffee date? Was it socialising, with the option of dates to follow? With the option of dates and/or sex? Of no strings attached sex, specifically? A date with the option of staying friends?
The popularity of “coffee” stems, I think, from that ambiguity. It serves as both euphemism and get-out clause, putting dating or sex on the table with plausible deniability – ask to hook up, and your neck is on the line; ask them for coffee, and rejection can be parried with face-saving statements that you “didn’t mean it like that”. (In the film Brassed Off, when Tara Fitzgerald and Ewan McGregor arrive back at Fitzgerald’s flat after a night out, her character asks McGregor to “come up for a coffee“. He doesn’t drink coffee, he says. “I haven’t got any”, she replies.)
The trouble is, that ambiguity puts the other person‘s neck on the line. Inviting someone neither to dating or sex, nor a social event, but to something which could usually mean either places on them the burden of interpretation; of negotiating correctly an advance chosen for its disclarity. My friend didn’t want to hurt a stranger’s feelings, but replying to their message was a minefield: any wrong guess – that a sexual or romantic invitation was purely social, or vice versa – had a huge chance of creating awkwardness. If that had happened, he might well have felt bad, but the deck was stacked against him: to avoid any social risk-taking themselves, the other person risked his feelings by forcing him to guess their intent.
We all bear some culpability for how things we say will be construed. Part of communicating well, in fact, is making what you say hard to misinterpret. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, what Elevator Guy meant to say; especially given when and where he said it, it was his job to think about how it would sound. When you’ve said something used commonly to propose dating or sex, it isn’t fair to blame someone – or otherwise make them feel guilty or awkward – for taking it that way. If you’ve chosen to say it because it’s often so used, it’s especially unfair, and if you made that choice specifically so as to hide behind semantic vagueness, shielding your ego if you’re turned down, it’s extremely unfair.
It isn’t just about “going for coffee”, in the end. Certainly that’s a prime offender, but the underlying attitude – refusal to state desires openly, expecting others to guess at them correctly, then making people feel bad for guessing wrong – has implications for our sexual culture much more widely. I don’t think it’s by chance behaviour cited as harassment – suspicious photography, comments about appearance or unwelcome touching, say – can often be presented as benign: central to solid sex-positive ethics is clear self-expression, taking responsibility for what we want or like; failing to do so means that if and when you end up violating someone’s boundaries (as can happen with the best intentions), the message they get is that their feelings aren’t valid, and they’ve clearly misunderstood.
If it’s sex you want, ask – appropriately, in appropriate contexts – for sex. If it’s a casual date, ask for that. If it’s fine-ground aromatic Italian latte, well, all right then – ask for coffee. The rest of the time, steer clear, and say upfront what it is you’re after.
NB: as a clarification, it’s not specifically the practice of “coffee dates” I’m bashing – it’s the use of “coffee” as an idiomatic phrase, meaning either a date or something else, where it’s unclear which meaning is being deployed. Saying “We should go on a coffee date” or “I’m really into you – do you want to do coffee?”, or otherwise clarifying your intent, I find perfectly fine.