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Unwanted Male Attention: Flattering, or a Feminist Issue?

12/05/2014 16:56 BST | Updated 10/07/2014 10:59 BST

It was nearly 8pm and I was at the market hoping to pick up something delicious for my dinner. I stopped by the African stall and was contemplating getting a portion of their tasty curry while talking to the man serving me. As a student and intern, I just wasn't sure if I could afford to treat myself, but the encounter I had (in French) has left me thinking much more about feminism than food...

Me: "Sorry but I think 10€ is a bit too expensive for me." [Why did I feel the need to apologise for that?]

Him: "I could do you a deal. How much do you want to pay?"

Me: "Five euros?"

Him: "I'll do that for you, as a new customer."

Me: "Thanks, that's very kind."

Him: "So, what's your name?"

Me: "Rachel."

Him: [Tells me his name.] "Where are you from?"

Me: "England."

Him: "Do you live round here at the moment?"

Me: "Yeah, not too far."

Him: "What are you doing in Brussels?"

Me: "I'm an intern."

Him: "So how long are you here for?"

Me: "A few more months."

Him: "Do you have a phone number?"

Me: [Quite taken aback at this question.] "Um... Well, no actually. I only have an English one at home." [A lie.]

Him: "Are you married?"

Me: [I was quite shocked at this.] "No."

Him: "Are you engaged?"

Me: "No. But I have a boyfriend at home." [A lie.]

Him: "Is he English or French?"

Me: "English."

Him: "Well I'm still interested..."

[I wasn't sure what to respond to this so didn't say anything.]

Him: "Are you on Facebook?"

Me: "No, actually. It's, um, a question of privacy." [A lie.]

Him: "Do you have an email address?"

Me: "Well only my work one..." [Yet another lie.]

Him: "So you really don't have a phone number?!"

And at that point I paid for my curry, said thank you and left.

...

Afterwards, I felt very shaky, and it wasn't till I'd walked away that I realised how uncomfortable I'd felt. I deliberately made sure not to walk back past his stall, and the ridiculous thing is that I'm now nervous to go back to the market for fear of seeing him again.

Some people will say this is an over-reaction and I just need to "man-up", but it's the truth.

At first, it had seemed like an amusing incident. You know, the sort of thing you'd come away from, roll your eyes and think 'Geez, some men don't know how to take a hint', while chuckling to yourself. In fact, after putting the story on facebook I got 50 likes and lots of comments, the majority of which were people expressing their amusement.

And it kind of is funny. Why didn't the man get the hint that I wasn't interested? Ha ha ha. Why did he ask for my phone number again? Ha ha ha.

Except now let's think about it a bit more.

This is not the first time something like that has happened to me, and I'm certainly not the first girl it's happened to. Is it sexism? Does it ever happen the other way round? It's hard to imagine, isn't it?

I only got one facebook comment that seemed to read the incident in a serious way - one female friend suggested I post the story on Everyday Sexism, which I duly did.

After posting about this on my own blog, someone tweeted me saying "What's the problem? In my day girls liked to get chatted up." The man wasn't joking and I just wanted to facepalm.

However, I think the main thing to take away from this incident is not the way the man acted, but the way I responded.

The day after I posted my facebook status, another friend sent me a link to this blog: Stop Saying "I have a boyfriend" in which the author says women need to stop saying they have boyfriends to fend off unwanted male attention. And I'll admit, it's a line I've used multiple times.

The author says if that's the only line we can use to make men get the hint and back off, then we're essentially saying men "respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest."

I think the article raises a very good point. The thing is, it's easier said than done. And in my case, pretending to have a boyfriend didn't make a difference to the man anyway.

But it made me ask myself, 'Why didn't I feel like I could just say "I'm not interested"'?

In reality, it's not that easy to say that to someone. I wanted to be polite. I hoped that by saying I had a boyfriend the man would stop pushing me and I'd be saved from outright rejecting his advances and making the situation awkward (a very British problem, I'm sure you'll agree.) I should've been confident enough to tell him he was asking far too personal questions. But I wasn't and I didn't.

I may have felt uncomfortable throughout, yet by avoiding bluntly telling him I wasn't interested, I saved him feeling uncomfortable.

Does that seem right?

Is it an ingrained male dominance thing?

Or am I reading too far into this?

You could also say I shouldn't really complain about the way I was spoken to yet still accept the discounted curry. Although he said it was because I was a new customer, I find it hard to believe he'd have been so generous was I an old man. I may be wrong, but I doubt it. More likely is he was trying to butter me up before making his advances. And when I accepted the discount, I - perhaps naively - thought he was just being nice.

I have no problem with a bit of harmless flirting in an appropriate situation and chatting with friendly stallholders is always nice, but the man was uncomfortably persistent and yet I felt unable to merely state I didn't want to give my phone number to a man I'd just met, from whom I was buying a curry.

...

Should I just be flattered, thankful for my curry and accept that things like this happen? I mean, I'm sure it was just a harmless (and very poor) attempt at flirting... Or should I read further into this incident and try and reform how I act the next time something similar occurs?

How would you have acted?