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.