In societies of gender inequality, men and women may have different views about what is appropriate stranger interaction in public places. Thus men may not know (or care) how to interact with women in ways that will be the least offensive or threatening.
For men who do care and do not want to offend or threaten women, the following tips can guide their interactions (and if this sounds too dumbed down, I agree but it seems to be necessary given some men’s attitudes about commenting on and harassing women in public):
Treat women like human beings, with respect and dignity.
If you want to say hello to a woman, just smile and nod or say hello. Do not whistle, honk, or make kissy noises at her. Do not say, “Hey baby,” or “Hi cutie.” Those are disrespectful and inappropriate actions and terms to use with a complete stranger.
The way a woman is dressed does not tell you if she wants to be commented on. If she looks dressed up, do not assume it is to gain the admiration of all men she sees and that you should say something to her. She may enjoy dressing up, she may be dressed up for an event, or she may be dressed up to gain the admiration of a specific person or persons. Unless she has a sign on that says, “Please comment on my looks,” do not do it.
Stranger rape and harassment are real threats for women. If you find yourself alone with a woman in a deserted parking garage, road, or park, especially at night., keep a respectful distance and do not approach her.
Unless the comments or actions of men who want to flirt or meet a woman in public to date or “hook up” with are welcome by the woman, they constitute harassment. Here are several things people can keep in mind to avoid being a harasser:
Do not assume all women are single, heterosexual or bisexual, or interested in male attention or in forming a relationship.
Differences or similarities in race, class, and age between you and the woman and the woman’s sexual orientation can cause her to interpret attention a certain way.
Women deserve the same right to privacy in public that most men enjoy, and many women will view a man who approaches her for any reason other than a gender-neutral one, such as asking for directions, the time, or to offer assistance, as violating their privacy, and they may be rude or hostile.
Most of the time, women do not want to be approached for a date by a man in public places like the street or at a bus stop. Women are usually in public for a reason: to commute to school or work, to run errands, or to get exercise, not to meet men. There are times when a woman may be open to meeting someone in public, but they are rare, so keep in mind that chances are great that if you approach a woman, she will not want to meet you to form a relationship.
If you do approach a woman, try not to do so if it is dark out, if it is a deserted area, if there are no other people around, or if you are with your friends while she is alone. All of these factors can make women feel threatened by any man approaching them.
Never follow a woman without a good reason, like she dropped her wallet and you are trying to return it. Aside from assault, men following women is the behavior women feel the most threatened by when they are alone in public.
Only approach a woman when she does not appear to be in a hurry or preoccupied. Initiate the interaction by smiling at her and/or saying hello. If, and only if, she smiles and/or says hello back and then does not hurry away, look away, or otherwise try to ignore you, then you can say something else to her that is respectful and polite, including flirtatious remarks.
If you say hello and/or smile and the woman hurries away, ignores you or responds rudely, leave her alone. She may not have the time or desire to talk, so be respectful of her schedule and feelings. She may have had a bad harassment or assault experience and now is wary of all men who approach her. You may be the third or fourth person to approach her that day and even if done politely, it can become wearisome and annoying.
If a woman initiates a conversation with you, be respectful in your responses. If at any point during a conversation a woman looks uncomfortable, gives you one word answers, looks away, or tries to leave, follow her cues and stop talking. If she does not resume the conversation, leave her alone.
If in any doubt about your behavior, ask yourself the following questions, adopted from Dr. Bernice Sandler’s guide “How Men (and Women) Can Tell if Their Behavior is Sexual Harassment”:
Would I mind if someone treated my spouse, partner, girlfriend, mother, sister, or daughter this way?
Would I mind if this person told my spouse, partner, girlfriend, mother, sister, or daughter what I was saying and doing?
Would I do this if I was with my spouse, partner, girlfriend, mother, sister, or daughter?
When a person objects to my behavior do I apologize and stop, or do I get angry instead?
Is my behavior reciprocated? Are there specific indications of pleasure and not “she didn’t object”?
Shapely Prose blog post, “Schrodinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced“
Whatever Your Only Rivers Run Cold, “An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping“
Guardian article, “Rules for a Happy Valentine’s Day“
The Globe and Mail, “Guys, Catcalls are Never Cool“
Stop Street Harassment blog entry “Is it harassment?“
Hot city Blues, “How to Talk to Women and Not Be Creepy”
Baltimore Sun article “Flirtation or harassment?“
The Consensual Project video, “Consent on the Street with Holly Kearl“