While all women are subject to a certain degree of sexual harassment, some women are often treated to inappropriate behaviour from men they know at a much higher frequency. These men will often tell you that you are “open-minded” and therefore sending them signals, but what do they mean when they call you that? Why do men think they can be as inappropriate as they like with “open-minded” women? In our latest piece, I detail my personal experiences to figure out what an “open-minded” woman means to a man.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
Shortly after I started working my first job as a journalist, a much-older (and married) producer in our office asked me to accompany him for coffee after work so that he we could discuss my “career plans”. I thought we were going to a cafe or the press club as colleagues but instead he took me to a rather secluded, completely shady establishment. The kind that has blackout curtains that reek of tobacco and round tables with white tablecloths that haven’t been washed since they were bought. I was immediately uncomfortable and told him I couldn’t stay long since I was meeting someone for dinner later. He brushed that off and began discussing my work with me, telling me that I was “different” and amazing but this field of work is so competitive that you can’t get ahead on brilliance alone.
“You’re ambitious,” he said to me touching my hand that was gripping the cup, “I can help you get ahead, you want to work at a news agency? I can help you.”
I was shocked. No matter how many times this happens to you, I think it always continues to be shocking. I wasn’t sure how to react either. In the past I had done all the things: complained, not complained, punched, reasoned, gotten the police involved, gotten the community involved, spoken up and not spoken up. I had done all of them and there is only one thing that all those methods had in common was that after the fact, I was always the one who was questioned/talked about/doubted.
“I don’t need help,” I told him, “And when I do, I know who to ask for it.”
“Don’t be like that,” he said coming closer to me and gripping my other hand, “You’re an open-minded woman, don’t take this the wrong way.”
I excused myself to the bathroom and asked a friend to call me pretending to have an emergency. I called a cab and left, even as he insisted that he would drop me off. As I began the hour-long journey home, I began to think about a word he had used to describe me: Open-minded. I am open-minded but to me that means that I am interested in information-based decision making that is open to change as and when more reliable information is added. That’s not what open-minded means to many, many people though. I’ve learnt that when most men say open-minded they mean a very specific thing and it’s not necessarily a compliment. To him, I was open-minded because I drank alcohol, I wore dresses and skirts, I swore, I lived alone, I spoke openly about dating, (even though we never had a conversation about it) I’d clearly had sex before, I smoked cigarettes, I advocated for women’s sexual liberty, I worked in a “cool” profession, I’m openly bisexual. To him those things meant that I was “immoral” and would therefore sleep with anyone.
I remember once a very long time ago, I could not have been over twelve, and my mother was fuming about something. I don’t remember what it was exactly but some man said or did something inappropriate with her. I asked her what was wrong and while she did not share the entirety of the incident, she did tell me something that stayed with forever.
“When men see a woman they called “bindass” (translation: wild, free) they cross limits,” she said to me, “Just because I like to have fun and I drink and make merry with everyone, doesn’t mean men should cross limits with me.”
My mother’s extremely astute observation is true even today. While there is no “one-type” of woman who is more prone to sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, predatory men of a certain kind tend to seek-out women of a particular nature. This is not at all to say that women should not persist in being whoever we want, but it does indicate that men have been taught certain behaviours are immoral for a woman (drinking, wearing revealing clothing, swearing, having sex) and if a woman engages in them, that must mean she’ll let you have sex with her. This is the story of my entire life (and I imagine the lives of women like me). Men take liberties with me and they have since I was very young. Men you would never think would do things like that. While dancing in a group of women, men who barely know me will touch me and no other woman there. Married men have touched and said the most inappropriate things you can imagine to me. Men have insinuated and outrightly assumed that a “woman like me” would definitely cheat on her partner because “one man cannot satisfy me”. Men have assumed they can kiss me just because I am in a room with them (and done it). Men who were my bosses and teachers have “wanted something more” and tried to leverage their position to get it. Men I’ve hired will still sometimes call me drunk in the middle of the night to tell me they “feel something special for me”. Men have hidden outside my window watching me as I sleep. To say nothing of the outright criminal offences that have been committed against my body. My autobiography would essentially be a chargesheet.
All these men, well not all because some of them would have preyed on literally any woman, but many of them took these liberties with me because they believed I am “open-minded”. I speak my mind. I advocate for and engage in causes like polyamory and homosexuality so that must mean I am a pervert who will let anyone have me. I will use the term ex-girlfriend with as much ease as ex-boyfriend so that just means I am a whore. I will ask a male colleague to step out for a smoke with me so that just means I am a slut. I will wear a low-cut dress and black lipstick to a party so that just means anyone can touch me. I will loudly and with confidence be who I am at all times so that means I am more “open to” sexual harassment than others. We tell women that what we wear is never the cause for rape, and it isn’t, the criminal intent in the mind of the rapist is always the cause, but predatory men do actually take cues about their chances of getting away with it from women’s behaviour. While that’s still on them, it does make for an interesting insight on how men choose their victims. In a country where you have the option to blame the skirt and vodka for your criminal behaviour, it’s best to pick someone drinking vodka in a skirt.
And that is often exactly what happens. When I talk about these incidents, especially when I spoke about them in the aftermath when the vulnerability was still fresh in my mind too, I have mostly gotten the same responses. The same questions. Questions like: What were you wearing? Why did you go there with him? Why are you always being so “pally” with men? What did you drink? Are you sure that’s actually what happened or are you misunderstanding? Maybe he was just being friendly? Did you touch him first? Maybe you sent him signals that you were open to it? Why do you have so many piercings? Why did you let yourself be alone with him? The same damn questions. Everytime. The questions too came mostly from people you wouldn’t expect, people who loved me and allegedly cared for me. People who were just “looking out for me”. People who thought it was their job to give me advice on how to “protect myself”. Ultimately though, it was only in rare instances that people shared my my outrage, and even in some of those incidents, there was a question that put the onus of responsibility on me.
Why didn’t you do anything?
Well, I used to. I used to rage each and every time. Complain. Take action. Call them out right there. I’m fucking tired now. I am not exaggerating when I say how permanant a fixture of my life being inappropriately hit on by men is, and if at this point you find youself wondering quietly that maybe it’s me, maybe I am actually asking for it, let me tell you, you are part of the reason why I am tired of bringing it up again and again. I know what happens when you bring it up, you get a reputation for being “difficult” and the men get to walk away having cast aspersions on you. Almost everyone leaves the situation wondering what it is that you did that made the man think he could fuck you. Even as you complain, even to the police, you are not allowed to be angry. People constantly tell you to “calm down” and reassess the situation when you are calm. As if sexual harassment becomes less sexually harassment the morning after. And that is just what happens socially, what happens emotionally is much bigger and much more invisible problem.
When people tell you to “let it go and be careful next time” what they are saying is that you should just erase your trauma and clad yourself in body armour against it for the future but trauma is a serious thing. Due to certain incidents in my life, I already carry a lot of trauma borne out of sexual violence and abuse, when you add all of this (and it’s a lifetime of it, mind you) to that it contributes to re-traumatizing the victim. I’m just telling my story here, but the number of women who suffer from this is extraordinary. Trauma has a way of showing itself in all factions of your life, and when you already know what it is like to have your consent violated and your body breached, every single incident that follows feels like it may lead to the same path. You live with fear. You re-live the most fearful parts of your life with regularity. Then one day when you’re running on the sidewalk and someone walks too close behind you, you panic and punch them before they can do something terrible to you even though they were just stopping to cross the road. Your reflexes learn a very different world than the one that exists out there. That’s the impact of trauma. That’s the real impact of men thinking they can get away with harassing “open-minded” women.
Will I stop being open-minded?
That’s extremely unlikely, I am who I am and I intend to never let anything get in the way of that, but that didn’t come without a steep cost. And everyday there are young girls and older women being subject to casual sexual harassment that is causing them to re-evaluate their behaviour and choices. We’re destroying women’s liberty and authenticity by allowing men to be creeps around them based on how the women behave. We’re convincing women high neck sweaters and seven-layers of clothing are better. Speaking softly is better. Never letting themselves be free is better. Drinking in secret is better. We’re telling women not to be the “open-minded” girl because open-minded girls get raped, and the worst part of that is that there’s some fucking truth to that. Not because of the “open-minded” girls, but the way we are seen in society. We’re never going to fix rape culture by reacting to the incidents after the fact, we’re never going to fix it at all unless we start here, at what happens every day.
Disclaimer: Please understand this piece is about a certain type of sexual harassment and does not mean at all to insinuate that only “open-minded” women are victimized by men. I do not in any way wish to minimize the experiences of other women, only to discuss the esoteric and niche factions of the rape culture.