You want sex? So stop asking for coffee

If you weren’t aware by now that arguments about 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 the issue in general terms, in principle, for reasons I hope are obvious.

The one event I will name is the one to which these spats always return.

Reliably, at least one person will say a version 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 before, by cutting all contextual detail.

This post though isn’t about Elevator Guy or any other individual. Revisiting that incident just crystallised a feeling that’s played on my mind 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 found him in an online student group. The sender, having seen his comments, 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 was ‘a coffee’ in this case? What invitation had been made? Was this coffee and socialising, as in German Kaffeeklatsch? Was it a coffee date? 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?

‘Coffee’ is popular, I think, due to this ambiguity. It works both as euphemism and get-out clause, putting sex or romance 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 assurances you ‘didn’t mean it like that’. (Ewan McGregor, in the film Brassed Off, walks Tara Fitzgerald home after a night out. ‘D’you want to come up for a coffee?’ she asks. 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 to a meetup, but to something that could plausibly be either puts on them the burden of interpretation – of negotiating properly an advance chosen for its ambiguity. My friend didn’t want to hurt a stranger’s feelings, but returning their message was a minefield. Guess wrong – that a sexual or romantic invitation was a purely social one, or vice versa – and he faced huge chances of creating awkwardness. He’d no doubt have felt bad if that had happened, but the deck was stacked against him. To avoid taking a social risk themselves, the other person put his feelings at risk by making him guess what they meant.

We’re all somewhat culpable for how what we say will likely be construed; part of communicating well is being hard to misinterpret. It doesn’t matter, in the end, what Elevator Guy meant to say; his job, especially where and when he said it, was to think about how it would sound. When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.

It’s not just about coffee. That’s a prime offender, but the attitude behind it – indirectness about what we want, expecting others to divine it magically and blaming them for guessing wrong – has implications for our wider sexual culture. I don’t think it’s by chance behaviour reported as harassment – unwelcome touching, inappropriate comments, furtive photographs – can often be presented as benign. Central to solid sex-positivity is stating clearly what we want or like. Not doing so means if and when we breach someone’s boundaries (as can happen with the best intentions), the message they get is that their feelings don’t count, and they’ve just ‘misunderstood’.

If it’s sex you want, ask – appropriately, in appropriate contexts – for sex. If it’s a casual date, then ask for that. If it’s fine-ground aromatic Italian espresso, well, all right then – ask for coffee. The rest of the time, steer clear, and say what it is you’re after.




  1. says

    I dunno, man. I think the beauty of the coffee date is that it offers *both* parties lots of room to decide and negotiate as they go along. I also think the meaning of “coffee” isn’t that ambiguous–much is clear, according to context:

    “Coffee” in a purely social context means: a casual date that could turn into more. Whoever is asking wants to hedge their bets–they think one or both of you might point the thing towards friendship–but they want to give it a try.

    “Coffee at the end of the night, in someone’s sleeping-place where the rest of the evening has not been spent” means: some degree of sexual interest.

    “Coffee” in a business or professional context means: either you want to talk to someone over a non-mealtime meeting, perhaps with overtones of developing a friendship, or you’re being skeezy. As such, if you don’t intend to be hitting on your professional associates, you should clarify–“I just want a chance to hear about your work on x project,” in you least flirtatious tone of voice, whenever asking a professional associate for coffee.

    This is not that complicated.

  2. Vicki says

    P.S. And if you mean “a cup of coffee and some casual conversation,” say “would you like to go to Peets/Starbucks/Cool local place and get a cup of coffee?” Because that’s making it clear that you mean coffee or similar beverage and a brief conversation in a public place, with no expectation of more.

  3. says

    If it’s fine-ground aromatic Italian latte, well, all right then – ask for coffee.

    In Dublin? Now you’re just being ridiculous.


  4. maudell says

    What is mystifying about this is that, as far as I know, the people who made a huge deal about this were almost exclusively the ‘pro-elevator guy’ people. Apparently, creep shaming is the worse offense possible to a merry portion of atheists. Of course, their offense is legitimate, so only other people are ‘professional victims’.

    I like your point about coffee. When I was in my late teens, I traveled often (backpacker-style) and met a lot of people. Men invited me for coffee all the time. I naively thought it was because they were interested in hanging out with me. Sometimes it was just to become friends (or it wasn’t, and I’ll never know because we became friends anyway). Sometimes it wasn’t, and the guy, usually somewhere between 5 and 40 years older than me, would be furious that I reject his advances. Not a good situation.

    Once I figured out that I had to read encrypted codes in people’s invitations, I started to decline invitations for coffee with people I did not know well. Usually, if it was a man, he would insist, and want to know why. If I responded with ‘I’m not interested,’ they would also be furious! Usually, it was a lecture on how deluded I was to thing a man would be interested in me, that I was clearly a megalomaniac, etc. A few succeeded in making me apologize, and go for coffee. All of them tried to have sex with me anyway.

    I just wanted this not so distant tidbit of memory (5 years ago or so) to make another point about sexual harassment. Beside the fact that for many people, there is no possible escape if they are not interested if they aren’t interested in sex, a young woman accepting an invitation is a legit excuse for sexual assault to many. The old ‘obviously she wanted it, she went to his apartment alone’ line comes up all the time. Interestingly, I’ve seen it come up from the same individuals who argue ‘it’s just coffee’ about the Rebecca Watson thing.

    I like your proposal. I would even extend it: how about we say what we mean as much as possible? Sure, there’s a way to state your needs with tact, but I’m sick of never knowing the new euphemisms.

  5. great1american1satan says

    I’ve only used this to mean “meet me in a public place to begin conversation and see if anything like a date might be appropriate at a later time,” but the Ob-ewan McGregor context and the elevator context made it clear that wasn’t what was being discussed. I think I’ve been mostly understood correctly, and politely declined. :-(

    ‘sokay though. I ain’t lonely now.

  6. machintelligence says

    All things considered, it would probably be best if I went up to my room and brought my etchings down.

  7. LeftSidePositive says

    It always just kills me when the slymers insist that an invitation to coffee only just means coffee…look, guys, the obviousness of that little cliche/euphemism is so well established that Eddie Izzard was making fun of it more than a DECADE before Elevatorgate even happened:

    Either that or Elevator Guy was actually the president of Burundi…

  8. Corvus Whiteneck says

    It occurs to me as I read this post that I have not adequately considered how an individual/private action of ego-protecting rejection deflection, “coffee” euphemism or otherwise, helps build up a smokescreen within our culture which is exploited by some for plausible deniability purposes to mask their inappropriate propositions or worse.

    Goddammit, trying to be socially responsible is complicated.

    But thank you for yet another lesson.

  9. Maureen Brian says

    Excellent, Alex, and welcome aboard.

    Have you ever thought, tadeina, that you could have all those options still open without putting the other party on the spot? Without leaving them to do all the thinky work? Without losing out entirely because the other person cannot discern your motives and heads rapidly in the other direction?

    “Can you meet me at Caffe Nero in an hour?” still leaves all options open – from casual sex half an hour later to a 50 year marriage and all without playing mind games. If the mind games should be more important – for some people they are – then leave the coffee and the sex out if it!

  10. piegasm says

    Oops my comment at 2.2 got borked because of less than/greater than symbols:

    It should read something like :

    You just said the meaning is not ambiguous and then listed a whole gaggle of possible meanings based on slight variances in the context of the word’s use:

    “Coffee” in a social context could mean ~anything from purely platonic to romantic activities having nothing to do with coffee~
    “Coffee” in someone’s sleeping place means .~some kind of physical contact up to and including rape, having nothing to do with cofee~
    “Coffee” in a professional setting means ~anything from purely professional to friendly to maybe even romantic activities and/or skeeziness but still having nothing to do with coffee~

    See! It’s totes obvious!!

    You’re the latest in a long line of dudes who exemplify the point of feminist writings while trying to disagree with them.

  11. The Mellow Monkey says

    Great blog post. This one is going to be saved in my Brilliant bookmarks folder, in fact.

    This is something I’ve had inflicted on me many times in many ways. When people try to mask their intentions, they may be trying to protect themselves from rejection…but they basically put the other person in a position where they can’t confront those intentions as unwanted.

  12. says

    Well. . . to start with, I’m not a dude. Secondly, what feminist writings am I disagreeing with? I am really, really all about sexual communication–but I also think the coffee date is an honorable institution. I think that the practice of asking someone for a coffee date, enacted in a way that respects boundaries and doesn’t blame anyone for choosing to have them, has got nothing to do with sexual coercion.

    Thirdly, those variances in context aren’t slight; they are large and obvious.

    “Anything from platonic to romantic activities having nothing to do with coffee” is almost right. The “almost” is that “coffee” as a cultural construct here means: any small item of food or drink, to be consumed slowly, usually in a cafe and primarily as an excuse for conversation. That’s pretty specific. Yes, that conversation can go in a flirtatious direction–but both parties have the easy exit of making it just-friendly. It’s way less of a commitment than going to dinner or a play–and an ideal time to figure out whether you’d want to try dinner or a play with this person. Or, it’s a great way to make time for a conversation with someone who you want to get to know better, but are very sure you have no romantic interest in. What coffee means for sure is that you want to sit down and talk, to spend time getting to know that person in particular.

    Any invitation to someone’s room at the end of the night is going to have sexual overtones, unless there’s something that explicitly makes it otherwise. That isn’t complicated. That doesn’t mean that going to someone’s room at night constitutes consent for anything other than going to someone’s room at night. It just means that choosing to invite someone to one’s room at night, or to accept such an invitation, is usually an indicator that one is thinking about the possibility of sexual contact, however slight.

    And coffee in a professional context–well, professional contexts aren’t supposed to be romantic, so it should automatically revert, hard, to the platonic end of the “social coffee” spectrum. And if you think there’s any chance someone might take “I want to spend some time just talking to you” in an other than professional way, it’s your responsibility to make sure they know you’re not doing that.

  13. says

    To clarify, my issue is not with “the coffee date” as an activity. It’s not with saying, for example, “Hey, let’s go on a coffee date”. It’s specifically with saying “for coffee”, in such a way as to make your intentions opaque.

    Obviously, there are times when context will make the meaning more clear than at others. But I think in general, there’s a case for not propping up communication rituals which a) tell us we should be euphemistic about dating or sex, and b) contribute to “deniability culture” around pass-making.

  14. says

    That’s incredibly gross. . . I’m so sorry. On reading the rest of this thread, I have to walk back some of my previous statement, or at least offer clarifying context.

    I’m in favor of “Want to have coffee” = “Want to have somewhere between .5 and 3 hours of conversation, in a public place, which may or may not involve lots of flirting or an invitation for more than coffee.”

    I’m not in favor of “want to have coffee” = “you should have sex with me.” That’s disgusting. Although, demanding justification for sexual rejection in any context is disgusting.

    What I’m hearing is that people routinely abuse the ambiguity “coffee” offers, and treat it as a delivery mechanism for their assholery. I have been fortunate enough not to experience much of that, in the form of coffee dates. I often ask people for coffee, and I like the coffee date a lot as a respectful interaction with helpful, limited ambiguity built in.

  15. says

    I always assumed both parties are doing thinky work when it comes to coffee? I also assumed that heading rapidly in a sexual direction without paying attention to the other person’s cues–and giving them time to sort out their feelings–is a gross thing to do in any context.

    I responded more up at comment 5, which I think was the wrong place for it.

  16. says

    Fair points. I’m in favor of “deniability culture” around {mild romantic interest that gives all parties plenty of space to make up their minds}.

    I wish the need to address the former didn’t make it hard (and maybe, sometimes, unethical) to cultivate the latter. :/

  17. eigenperson says

    I think some people — maybe a majority of people — love ambiguity in social situations. They ask others for coffee instead of a date, not because they want to conceal their intentions, but because they would rather be asked for coffee than a date themselves. They want to have the pleasurable excitement of “discovering” that the other person is interested in more than just coffee. They want to have suspense. They want to have seduction. They assume others want those things too.

    I don’t.

  18. says

    Yeah. A dilemma I had was that I wanted to provide alternatives/equally nonthreatening but more clear phrases to use – but being a guy who pretty much exclusively pursues guys, the whole ‘dating’ thing isn’t really something I’m familiar with, and I don’t especially feel able to speak to that.

  19. RFW says

    Visiting from Pharyngula.

    Actually, some invitations to coffee are exactly that, nothing more. Scenario in support of this assertion: A meets B and both A and B get little twinges and tickles “down there”. [That’s another euphemism for your collection, btw.] A asks B to go for coffee because A is rather fussy about who she/he has sex with and prefers to first get to know his/her sex partners as people, not as walking, talking, self-activated sex toys. ¿What better way to do that than to slither over to the nearest Starbucks and see if, besides the sex urge, there is the potential for some kind of friendship?

    In real life, I’m one of these fussy people, and I detest euphemism to boot. By the time I say “let’s go for coffee or a meal before we go any further”, I’ve already said “I’d love to have sex with you until both of our brains fall out, but…”

    Incidentally, there’s a fairly good potted history of sexual euphemisms in “Mrs. Grundy: Studies in English Prudery” by Peter Fryer.

  20. says

    I’m starting to think I should add a clarification to this post: it’s not the precise use of coffee itself as a dating genre I find faulty, it’s the way “let’s go for coffee” is often used devoid of context or qualification, because it’s unclear. Saying, “I’m interesting in you romantically – would you like to go for coffee?” or “Let’s go on a date” (admittedly, more stylishly than that) – I’m good with that. The problem is the ambiguity’s exploitation.

  21. Kevin Schelley says

    I’m lucky in that since I don’t actually like coffee I always ask clarifying questions, or when I mention coffee we end up talking about why I don’t like coffee. I’m really not fond of ambiguity, but being rather shy I have difficulty asking clarifying questions a lot of the time. I try to be straightforward about things, though I don’t always succeed, just to help get rid of any misconceptions.

  22. says

    No, nor I! In fact, I generally lose respect for someone (and therefore attraction to them) if they can’t say what they want straightforwardly.

  23. piegasm says

    First, beginning your post with “I dunno man” certainly doesn’t imply agreement. The rest of your reply and the ensuing comments from Alex simply demonstrates that you completely missed the point of Alex’s post since he wasn’t talking about actually going out for coffee. He was talking about using “coffee” as a euphemism for your real intentions. My reply to you was based on the assumption that you understood that “coffee” was being used that way. Now that you do understand, feel free to disregard my comment.

    However, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if some dude had wandered in here and made the same arguments you did, with the full understanding that “coffee” was being used euphemistically. I’ve seen much the same thing happen more times than I can count elsewhere: guys exemplifying exactly what feminist writers were objecting to while attempting to claim it doesn’t happen or isn’t a big deal.

    Finally, I apologize for misgendering you. You happened to inadvertently sound like those guys I just described. That doesn’t make it OK though so, again, I’m sorry.

  24. Gen, Uppity Ingrate. says

    Great post and point, Alex. I don’t understand why people (both men AND women) are not just upfront about what they want. “I’m just looking to hook up tonight”, I’m looking for a possibility of something semi-serious”, “I’m hoping to meet The One”, these things are not hard to say and then everyone knows where everyone’s at.

    The objection to “just ask for sex if it’s sex you want” that I hear most often is “but then she’ll just say no without giving me a chance”, which to me reads like “without giving me a chance to manipulate/guilt/”convince” her into saying yes“. Which, I’m sure I don’t need to point out how creepy that is.

    So thanks again!

  25. says

    I’m sorry. I guess I’m just not used to thinking of some guy on an atheist blog as being the feminist one in a comparison between him and me–no offense to Alex, who seems great. (I identify as a radical feminist, and have been a committed activist on feminist issues for nearly a decade. Though, I’m not a “radfem,” especially in it’s currently, transphobic incarnation.) If you ever see me disagree with bell hooks or Angela Davis, I’ll give you that one.

    I did mistake how much the ambiguity of “coffee” gets used as a cover for abusive behavior, and I apologize for that.

    However, I think I have a legitimate point when in saying that having *some* ambiguity in the definition of a social outing can be helpful and healthy. The unhealthy thing is abuse, including the choice to use that ambiguity to cover inappropriate actions.

    Also, nothing that was actually in that first post implied that I thought it was OK for people to rape people.

  26. says

    I guess I should also say that being here is switching gears a bit for me, and I think that with my original comment I lost track what sort of readership/commentorship has been usual here. I’ve only just entered the atheist blogosphere now that there are corners of it where blatant misogyny is definitely unacceptable.

    If you approached my comment with the assumption that nobody on the thread was going to be advocating rape, or suggesting that the abusive and manipulative behavior “coffee” gives cover to is ok–then I think you’d see that I was trying to head for nuance.

    Sadly, it seems–to some extent, that isn’t the conversation we’re having here. We’re still beating people off with sticks. And I’m sorry about that, too. :/

  27. says

    Put differently, I don’t think it’s the ambiguity that puts someone “on the line”–I think it’s the asker’s willingness to be a manipulative ass that does that. If everyone is expected to have boundaries, respect boundaries, and be kind, a little ambiguity in the definition of an outing is not, in itself, treacherous.

  28. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    I have decided that I like your blog and will be making a point of reading it in the future, because this was a great post and you are completely right.

    Good job.

  29. says

    I’d like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this blog.
    I really hope to view the same high-grade content from you in the future as well.
    In truth, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to
    get my own, personal site now 😉

  30. says

    Well put tadeina! Grown ups! Boundaries! Communication! Even….gasp…Amibiguity (when there is no shitty intent on one side is a perfectly fine thing.) YAY.

  31. says

    ….having coffee (or a movie or a few meals) a few times is the way grown ups sort out their intentions in a non-threatening low consequence public context….I probably don’t know if I am ACTUALLY interested in anyone until we’ve had a few substantive face to face interactions… So no coffee does not = intent to have sex. Coffee indicates you *might* be on a list of potential partners…and it depends entirely on how you behave, if we click and if the conversation is at all interesting.

    Coffee is actually to my mind….FOR ambiguous circumstances IF the context is dating (not work, or politics or other things not related).

    my 2 cents…

    That said…if I just want to have sex with you…you will get a more direct invitation.

  32. says

    When it’s exploited in bad faith it IS a problem…when it’s understood as a limnal potential space by both parties who are happy with that limnality it’s fine…

  33. says

    Besides the problems you pointed out, I don’t like coffee. I have probably turned down a lot of people I would have been happy to have sex with, just not coffee.

  34. cartomancer says

    The important thing about plausible deniability, it seems to me, is not that it’s for ameliorating the pain of rejection per se, but rather for protecting one’s reputation from accusations that one is sexually rapacious. Or, indeed, that one is interested much in sex at all. Polite society tends to frown very harshly on such things in a lot of places.

    A lot of us really don’t want to be seen as sexually proactive. We simply couldn’t just come out and say that we want sex, even though we do, because we are mortally afraid of being branded as the sort of uncouth, lecherous, selfish cads who… well, who aren’t ashamed to just come out and say that we want sex. There is a huge stigma attached to suggesting something as base and invasive as sex, in general terms and especially in specific ones. “I want to have sex with you” is, I imagine, a very awkward thing to have said even when the response is positive. In the vast majority of cases where he says “no” the resulting shame would be nigh-unbearable. We are taught from an early age that unwanted sexual attention is a type of stalking, a close cousin to rape, and that’s a brush we absolutely do not want to be tarred with. So if we do pluck up the courage to try to initiate sexual relations with another person, we have to dance the tortuous slow-dance of suggestion and confirmation until we are sure that there is little to no chance of our being thought a predatory monster by our intended companion. Only when this blood-freezing possibility is safely discounted will we then consider burning our bridges and saying something that cannot but be construed as an invitation to sex.

    Admittedly, I’ve never even had the courage to go that far myself. Even initiating the innocent, water-testing initial conversation with a stranger is too uncomfortable for me. But those of us who actually are brave enough to ask others for sex do so behind a protective wall of plausible deniability. I guess the “coffee” line used to be that for such people, but is probably falling out of use as the sexual connotations become ever more overt.

  35. piegasm says

    Why would I approach a comment with the assumption that nobody on the thread was going defend the behavior Alex was describing? I’m not as well-traveled in the atheist blogosphere as some here but I’ve been around for over a year and, whenever someone posts in a manner that is pro-feminist (especially if the topic touches on harassment in any way) there are ALWAYS people who saunter in and start defending harassers and rapists and trying to lawyer the definition of consent and so on. It’s ubiquitous and it would be breathtakingly naive to assume it’s not going to happen. And you happened to inadvertently sound just like them.

    Also, nothing that was actually in that first post implied that I thought it was OK for people to rape people.

    Absent the knowledge that you were actually referring to literal coffee dates, the whole post read like you were defending doing exactly what Alex was describing and trying to claim that ambiguity = not ambiguous. And that’s exactly the kind of thing you get from the misogynists who come to these kinds of posts and defend rape by trying to define it out of existence (i.e. it’s not really rape if she was drinking/flirting/wearing sexy clothing/agreed to come back to my hotel room for “coffee”/etc.)

    I have no beef with the point you were making about literal coffee dates or ambiguity in terms of giving everyone involved room to make up their minds.

  36. says

    I think there’s a little wiggle-room with ambiguity, but ONLY A LITTLE. “Out for coffee” implies “casual, clothes on” in nearly every day-to-day permutation, so it is only weird/creepy/troubling when it is used to mean something far removed from that. So I think “coffee” meaning just talk, make friends, and/or see if we want to go on a real date are all within acceptable ambiguity… and if you’re interested in more after coffee, you have to state it and respect whatever answer you get.

  37. Callinectes says

    If you’re interested, I’ll be in my quarters at lunchtime, covered in torama salada.

    Would it make any difference if it was hummus?

  38. Gen, Uppity Ingrate. says

    Absolutely. Whatever it is you want, I’m all for just being upfront about it. That way, you tend to avoid “misunderstandings” and hurt feelings and all that.

  39. nonzero says

    Context matters just as much as semantics. The ElevatorGate ordeal was problematic not because he asked her to join him for some coffee, but that he asked her to come to his room alone, at 4am, in an isolated hotel elevator with no one else around. The people complaining that she blew it out of proportion are focusing on the “coffee” bit and not the “alone in a foreign hotel elevator being asked to go to a strangers room at 4am” bit.

    So your focusing on the semantics is not really getting to the issue. Who cares if he says “coffee” or “coffee date” or whatever, it is the context that matters more. Daytime, amongst a group of friends, asking her to go for some coffee at Starbucks sometime, no problem, he doesn’t have to specify in excruciating detail what his full intentions are if the context and scenario are not inappropriate.

  40. says

    Your first paragraph repeats one of mine almost verbatim; I’m clearly not saying his choice of words was the main problem. (In fact, I link an extended comment of mine about what he should have done if he wanted a platonic meet-up.) But it was part of the problem, in that it gives the other parts – i.e. the sexualised nature of what he said – a potential smokescreen. Again, the post is not specifically about him, it’s about how using needlessly ambiguous propositional language puts unfair social and emotional burdens on other people’s shoulders, and stops us being held accountable if what he say makes them uncomfortable or violates boundaries.

  41. says

    I don’t think you can necessarily assume that anyone you might want to have coffee and/or sex with is good with social ambiguity — indeed, half of all people are worse at it than the median, and some of them are kinda hot..

  42. nonzero says

    > “But it was part of the problem, in that it gives the other parts – i.e. the sexualised nature of what he said – a potential smokescreen. Again, the post is not specifically about him, it’s about how using needlessly ambiguous propositional language puts unfair social and emotional burdens on other people’s shoulders, and stops us being held accountable if what he say makes them uncomfortable or violates boundaries.”

    I understand what you’re saying, and appreciate what you’re trying to accomplish, but I think the problem has little to do with what you call needlessly ambiguous propositional language and more to do with the context in which the language is expressed. A certain amount of ambiguity, where one relays their intentions through subtlety instead of total disclosure, is how human social interactions work. There’s a Ricky Gervais movie called “The Invention of Lying” that amusingly covers such issues. Not revealing everything does not imply deception, it is just how social groups function, which is why context and not ambiguous language is where you should be directing your attention. Note, there are instances where ambiguity is not subtle and totally unacceptable, like in the recent case of Colin McGinn, but in that case the language, by any interpretation, was sexually loaded and not the type of subtle language of ‘asking for coffee’ that I’m talking about. Also, in that case, again, the context is what matters the most, he used his privileged position to try and get away with such inappropriateness, he would not have been able to do that were it in a context where they were both on equal ground.

    Finally, for an anecdote of how what you are proposing can still backfire, and how context matters more than ambiguous language, I’ll refer you to the alleged Lawrence Krauss incident where he (or his female partner) propositioned another woman for a threesome while on a skeptic cruise. The language used was totally unambiguous and to the point, something along the lines of “we find you attractive and would like it if you were to join us in a threesome”. They did what you recommend, but the woman being asked felt harassed and put in an uncomfortable position because of context.

  43. says

    An incident like that would support, not undermine, my argument: if it’s possible to determine clearly that what someone said was inappropriate, it’s better for them to have said that than something which gives MRAs and victim-blamers an opportunity to represent it as platonic.

    Again, I don’t disagree with the importance of context in any scenario, and – as you’ll see above – I devote a whole paragraph to why the context of Elevator Guy’s remarks made them inappropriate. I think, however, that a great deal of attention (some of which I link) has been paid to that already, and we also need to consider the rule of plausible-deniability language in making harassment hard to identify, or easy to excuse. Please don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t be focusing on; this is my blog, where I devote time and discussion to whatever I feel deserves more. If you want to blog in your own space about the context of Elevatorgate rather than anything else about it, do.

  44. nonzero says

    I’m sorry, it was the wrong use of words to say you should, you are absolutely right to object to that, I ought to have said something like “I think focusing on context above semantics is more fruitful in my opinion.” Again, apologies, I wasn’t trying to dictate what you write on your blog, it was a poor choice of words. I guess ambiguity in language does cause unneeded problems!

  45. Drager says

    I have a tendency to ask “Would you like to meet up to chat? Maybe at (coffee place)” In a situation where I might otherwise ask about coffee, but then I’m most likely to ask that when in a situation where I want to get to know someone better and don’t yet know if I’m interested in a date/sex/relationship/friendship. Does that seem reasonable to people here? Its still ambiguous, but I think somewhat clearer.

  46. says

    Personally, I would add a qualifying phrase such as “It’d be cool to get to know you better – would you like to meet up and chat over a coffee?”

  47. trazan says

    Is “Hello, wanna fuck?” welcome? Is it effective or acceptable? I have vivid sex fantasies, not fantasies about coffee drinking or romantic strolls in the park however pleasant such activities are. I don’t need to get to know someone better to be able to decide if I’m attracted. I know what I feel. Is it deceptive not to reveal that right away?

  48. Nick Gotts says

    Fine – that’s how you like to do things. But not everyone does; and by no means all those who prefer a less upfront (or to put it differently, in-your-face) approach are manipulative creeps. How about a bit of tolerance for differences in personal style?


Leave a Reply