Here’s your heartwarming story about human contact in an age of the machines: a man called Tom decides to get a date offline, and makes a charmingly edited, eminently viral video about it (see below).
Actually he calls this his next date, because apparently at some point in life it’s not enough to get blasted on pints and try for a snog with that person you sort of like the look of and maybe there’s a thing there and well you’ll just press your faces together and see how it goes, but instead you have to go out collecting social interactions with people you don’t know on the off-chance you might find some kind of mutual attraction, and this is understood to be somehow fun and desirable rather than the obvious atrocity against happiness and ease that it actually is.
So a man goes looking for a date and his friend films it and in the end it all tells us something about relationships in the 21st century or about the demise of face-to-face communication in London or whatever, and everyone nods very wisely at the screen about the lesson they’ve learned as they click “like” and “share”.
It is understood that the man has done something brave: “I think you are really brave to try to meet a girl in the old-fashioned way,” says an elegantly grey-haired woman with a continental accent in the video.
The old-fashioned way appears to be something like this: see a girl, approach the girl, ask if the girl would like to go on a date with you. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a lot of rejections. And why shouldn’t it? Would anyone actually trying to establish social contact (rather than making a stunt video about trying to establish social contact) ever launch quite so bluntly into the topic at hand? Even the man who flashed me in a Sheffield underpass led by saying: “Excuse me please, would you like to look at this?” (Alas, by the time I clocked what “this” was, it was all too late and our intimacy had reached a plane I never wished it to reach.)
Anyway, the thing that is interesting in the video is not really Tom’s quest for a “yes” from some woman, any woman – well any woman who’s young and pretty, and whimsically accessorised with maybe a hat or some rollerskates. The thing that’s interesting is what the rejections look like. Because even though the approach is direct, the negative response is almost always softened. It’s a nervous laugh rather than an outright “no”, or “I have a boyfriend” or “I don’t have a boyfriend but I’m into girls” when Tom persists.
When he gets an unambiguous refusal – like when he’s chirpsing a girl through her own window and she finally closes the casement against him – we’re supposed to feel bad for him rather than her. Poor Tom, denied his date, embarrassed on the street. How brave of him to risk hearing “no”. How cold of the woman not to let him down with a smile and a suggestion that she would say yes if only she wasn’t unfortunately otherwise taken.
There’s a kind of social contract in force here, and it’s a gendered one: his bluntness is an admirable bit of risk-taking, hers is a dismaying act of unkindness. The problem isn’t that women are bad at saying “no”, because “no” is very rarely spoken as a simple “no”. But we do have a problem with hearing it from women in a sexual situation.
The delicate circumnavigations that allow for a perfectly clear, perfectly polite “no” in almost all situations become strangely incomprehensible when the context is a man asking a woman about sex; the explicit rejection becomes an affront.
It happens on the street and it happens in the bedroom too. A couple of weeks ago, a leaked video emerged showing Vine star Carter Reynolds pressuring his 16-year-old girlfriend into performing oral sex: “I’m really uncomfortable,” she says as he proffers his penis, and then as he persists, “I don’t think I can… I don’t think I can.” Clearly, this is refusal. But because it’s a woman refusing sex, it is somehow translated to an inaudible register, somewhere beyond notice. Tellingly, when Reynolds made a statement, his defence included “we were in a relationship” and “couples do this all the time”.
This is the norm of sex far, far too much of the time: something that men demand when they want it and women are expected to supply because men want it, not because women feel any desire or pleasure on our own part. Here’s my idea of a heartwarming video: hundreds of women, thousands of us, a massed chorus, all saying “NO”, all being listened to. No I do not wish to talk to you. No, none of my sunny day is at your disposal. No I do not want to go on a date. No I do not want to kiss you, do not want to suck your cock, do not want you in me in any fashion whatsoever. No, no, no, no, no. That would be something worth watching. Because for all the words spilled about the sacred importance of consent, there can be no meaning in our “yes” unless we have our “no” first.