Etiquette for Gentlemen

by | November 26, 2020 | General | 3 comments

Lately, I posted something on Facebook about an episode of the Dr. Phil Show in which a male massage therapist had to answer questions about accusations from 18 women (some clients and some dates) that he had sexually abused them.

As a woman of a certain age, I remember a time when all the focus would have been on the “accusers.” They would have been questioned about why they were reckless enough to have any contact with a male massage therapist, and why they didn’t foresee that a “massage” would include something else. Their private lives would have been scrutinized, and they would have been prompted to admit that they were exaggerating, if not lying outright.

In this case, the focus was on the man who had been accused, and on his evasive responses to Dr. Phil’s questions. Although there is probably no way to determine the absolute truth about what happened between two people in a place where there were no cameras or recording devices, Dr. Phil’s approach seemed to be as objective as possible.

I said I hoped that this is a sign of progress in the way the cultural mainstream deals with sexual harassment and abuse.

A man I know sent me a private message, since he was squeamish about saying it in public. He said that ever since the “Me too” movement of women posting on social media about their experiences of sexual abuse, the men he knows have been nervous about how to interact with women. How on earth can guys avoid doing the wrong thing?

I’ve heard this before, but this time, I was honestly taken aback. The man who sent me this message belongs to two sexually-defined communities, and one that appeals to creative types. He is gay, and belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronism (people who choose medieval identities, from AD 600-1600, and stage banquets, jousts, and other cool cosplay events), as well as the BDSM community in a larger city than the one where he lives. I had always assumed this person was sexually “woke,” not a farm-bred teenager who thinks all sex outside of marriage is kinky and probably illegal. And I wouldn’t expect my friend to hang out with the clueless.

Just as in Freud’s time, men are apparently still saying, “Dear God! What do women want?”

If men are confused, so am I. What parts of consent and context do they not understand?

When I was in my twenties, spending my summers typing, filing, and answering phones in government offices, many a male co-worker would casually squeeze, stroke, or pat various parts of my body in passing. When I tried to squirm out of the way or asked them to stop, they would usually explain that they were just being “friendly,” and that they treated everyone else the same way. They seemed to think I was unreasonably touchy or completely humourless, or both.

Yet as far as I could see, none of the handsy guys tried to grope each other, or their male supervisors. I could imagine the consequences if they did. (“What the hell, man?”) When the highest-ranking person in the office (Deputy Minister of a government department) was a woman, every man Jack managed to avoid touching her, or commenting openly about whether she had sex appeal. (I assume her husband thought so.) Strange how that worked.

If the Deputy Minister had a sex life, and even if it was more colourful than vanilla monogamy, everyone around her seemed to understand that her private life was not relevant to the business of government. All the guys in suits who had contact with her seemed able to do their jobs without being unbearably distracted.

Aha, I thought. If I can’t become a Deputy Minister, I need some other title that says “Hands Off.” In due course, I became an English instructor, and that role has protected me from unwanted groping for many years now. Strange how that works.

Among the many women who have described harrowing experiences in the “Me too” conversation, none have suggested that all women are fragile flowers, or that consensual sex destroys us. If there is a real-world version of the “Anti-Sex League” in the dystopian novel 1984, it doesn’t seem to be led by women—as it isn’t in the novel.

Most employed men show an understanding that work is different from play. If your girlfriend greets you at her door wearing saran wrap, stilettos and a wicked grin, you can assume you can safely treat her differently than you would treat an employee in your favourite coffee shop, or the receptionist in your place of work. Context is important.

What if you would like a more intimate relationship with the barista in the coffee shop, or the receptionist in the office? Invite her to a different location. If she turns down your invitation, or explains that she is already in a relationship, back off gracefully. If she says yes, you can proceed from there.

Can a man strike up a conversation with a strange woman in a public place? That depends. Asking “wanna fuck?” is less likely to get a positive response than “Excuse me, does the Number 10 bus stop here?”

Saying anything to a lone woman you don’t know who is outdoors after dark—and who didn’t approach you first—might make her wonder about your intentions. You can save your compliments for daylight hours.

If you really want to fuck something immediately, there are more appropriate places to seek that experience than outdoor space. Masturbating in your own bedroom, with the door and the curtains closed, isn’t likely to offend anyone who can’t see you.

Seriously, I don’t know why herds of men are supposedly wandering in circles, wracking their brains to figure out how to communicate with women now that “the rules have changed.” As far as I know, the basic rules that my parents used to call “common courtesy” have always worked for those who apply them. I never “accepted” being groped at work and catcalled on the street. I just didn’t know how to stop guys in general from treating me this way. If I can believe what I’ve been told, many other women of my generation also knew we would be labelled and ridiculed no matter how we responded.

By now, there are at least two generations of adult women who are younger than I am. Based on the “Me too” posts, their experiences in the 1980s, 90s, early 2000s and post-2010 haven’t been much different from mine in the 1970s.

If any of my friend’s male friends are really worried about offending women they don’t know well, their training in courtly manners should help. Throwing a cloak into a mud-puddle for a lady to step on probably wouldn’t be taken amiss, as long as the gentleman doesn’t follow that up by complaining loudly about being trapped in the “friend zone.”

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Rikki de la Vega

    J.R., I have to say that I have a very mixed reaction to your post. Overall, I agree that most men can & do understand that there’s a way to behave at work vs a way to behave in venues where flirting & openly sexual language are okay. I agree that serial offenders of sexual harassment & sexual assault need to be held to account.

    But I also have misgivings about how far some devotees of #MeToo have taken this. Specifically, framing things in absolutes, like “believe all women” & “there are no false accusations” is a recipe for disaster. Before #MeToo, studies show that the rate of false accusations of sexual harassment & assault was around 4-10 percent. I can only imagine how saying that all accusations must be believed (not just taken seriously) would actually encourage even more unscrupulous individuals to do that. I’ve known some men who were, without a doubt, falsely accused of actions they couldn’t have done bcoz the claims didn’t fit with the facts … but too many #MeToo devotees continue to insist that we have to “believe all women” no matter what.

    Then there’s seeing this as all about “men abusing women” when there are women who harass & abuse men, not to mention same-gender cases. I actually witnessed a woman in a position of authority harassing a male coworker, not to mention a woman in Human Resources refusing to believe him until her male supervisor came in & set her straight. Do we sweep those cases under the rug bcoz they don’t conform to the accepted paradigm??

    Ultimately, it’s about respect – both treating other human beings with respect, and having respect for the facts over dogmatic beliefs. I agree that more men need to know how to respect women, but it doesn’t & shouldn’t stop there.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Excellent post, Jean – but I do think men have some justification for their confusion. It’s not just inappropriate touching or more extreme physical harassment that evokes accusations. Sexually charged innuendo and other conversational gambits have also become suspect. And honestly, how can you draw a clear line between honest flirting and verbal harassment?

    Obviously if the woman involved tells the man to back off, he should be clued in enough to do so. But what if his overtures would be welcomed… but he’s too worried about breaking the rules to make any sort of move?

    My younger brother has always considered himself a feminist (not surprising considering my mom’s beliefs and behavior). And I remember him castigating himself when he was attracted to a woman, because he figured he was viewing her as a “sex object”. I told him that was ridiculous… but he considers my perspective suspect since I write BDSM and condone “abuse” of women…. sigh.

    Taken to extremes, these concerns can seriously erode male-female relations.

  3. Jean Roberta

    Thank you for commenting, Rikki and Lisabet. As a volunteer counsellor on the local sexual assault line, I’ve heard from many women who feel a need to tell someone what was done to them, but they want a very private conversation because they don’t want their family, closest friends, coworkers or classmates to know. The “Me too” posts in social media gave the general public a peek into what some people had been hearing for decades. (Beyond sexual assault lines, there have always been “whisper networks” of women friends who warn each other not to be alone with certain men.) I can’t see any evidence that “me too” really changed the dating landscape, especially for people in communities in which sexual negotiations are fairly standard. The more that is generally known about sexual abuse, the more likely it seems that institutional policies will be fair, and based on an awareness that abuse is usually rooted in an inequality of power, not in biological gender. Yet I was told that “men” as a category are now afraid to speak to “women” (people who appear to be female, which probably includes some transwomen). I wasn’t sure what response I was expected to give. Was I supposed to agree that “me too” has gone “too far?” People who reveal the details of sexual abuse without naming names are clearly not running a vendetta on any individual. I realize that miscommunication between any two (or 3 or more) people is always possible, but I don’t think that started with “me too!” When I’m told that some men are now afraid to speak to women, all I can say is that they should probably avoid women as much as possible.

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