I just got back from a totally blissful six-day vacation in Tulum, Mexico, a quiet beach town about two hours from Cancun. I went alone. I’ve traveled solo (i.e. not in the company of a friend, boyfriend, or family member) before, but always as part of an organized group. This trip was the first time I was traveling alone without built-in activities and social opportunities. It was wonderful. I really enjoy my own company and loved having the freedom to do whatever I wanted — including nothing. But as a single woman traveling alone to a foreign country, I also knew I needed to be cautious and mindful of my safety. I took cabs at night if the area I was going to wasn’t well-lit, I locked my cabana door tight at night even though the ocean breeze would have cooled things down, and I kept a watchful eye on my drink at all times.
But there was only one night in Tulum that my otherwise cautious approach was somewhat tested. I was sitting at my hotel’s bar/restaurant, reading a book on my iPad and drinking a beer, when a man who I vaguely recognized as a member of the staff, slithered up to me.
“What is that?” he asked, slurring and gesturing at my iPad. He was quite clearly wasted and by the way his eyes were glazed over, a little stoned as well. He started asking me more questions, remarking on how costly iPads are in Mexico, and sort of flirting with me at the same time. When the food I’d ordered arrived, he asked if he could try it and barely waited for me to say, “Sure,” before helping himself. I was initially annoyed to have been interrupted, especially by an older dude I did not find attractive, and a sloshed one to boot, but he was friendly and kind of entertaining in the way drunk people are to sober people, and I found myself clicking off my iPad in favor of his company. Not that he intended on going anywhere.
Eh, he’s harmless, Amelia, I told myself.
John — that was his name — hung out with me for the rest of the evening while I ate my dinner and he ate what I didn’t finish. We talked as best we could, given that he couldn’t form all that many complete sentences or stick to consistent topic for any length of time. I was stone-cold sober (one beer with dinner is my idea of a cleanse) and found him amusing. He, however, found me very attractive. I know because he kept telling me that I was beautiful and that I reminded him of an ex-girlfriend (uh, thanks?) and that we should hook up. I told him I had a boyfriend (lie) and that he was too old for me anyway (truth). I laughed it off and we moved on to other subjects. He brought up my boyfriend a couple more times and encouraged me to “Have fun!” — with him — “It’s Tulum!” I emphasized that I was very happy and my boyfriend was wonnnnnderful — my imaginary boyfriend always is! — and that I was sure one of the single women at the bar would be more worth his time.
“You are different from these other women,” he said. He then attempted to drink from a glass stuffed with napkins, that’s how drunk he was. “You have a lovely energy. Smart and self-assured.” I thanked him and then suggested a glass of water instead of the napkins. He laughed.
About an hour later, as I was playing my bill and preparing to head back to my cabana to read before bed, I realized that I had completely forgotten to buy more bug spray when I had been out and about that day. Mosquitos had been feasting on me at night and I had spent the previous night scratching myself while I slept. I needed to ward off more bites.
“Do you have any bug spray?” I asked Harmless John. Generally locals are smart enough to douse themselves in the stuff or at least wore pants at night.
“I have some back at my cabana,” he said, gesturing towards the area of the hotel property where some of the staff lived.
I paused. Yes, I needed bug spray. But I also knew that I would never, ever, ever in a million years go back to this guy’s cabana to get it. I declined, signed my bill, bid Harmless John a good night, and headed back to my cabana, where I laid in my hammock, listened to the ocean and swatted away mosquitos.
Then I got to thinking.
I thought about how quickly I had labeled John “harmless.” I thought of the other men I had either labeled “harmless” or heard labeled “harmless” by someone I knew. They all had something in common — a tendency towards inappropriate or boundary-crossing behavior that, for whatever reason, I or someone else didn’t want to “take seriously.” That I/we wanted to laugh off rather than get mad about or offended by. These men were thus labeled “harmless” and what was the point of getting mad/offended by them? Don’t make a big deal! Don’t be so uptight! Don’t take everything so seriously! (And, heaven forbid, don’t creep shame!)
But just as quickly as I had labeled John “harmless,” I had known that I didn’t want to be alone with him either. I didn’t even consider going to his cabana for a second. To do so, I knew without question, would be “stupid.” It would be risky. It would be putting myself in harm’s way. How quickly John went from being “harmless” to a potential threat to my safety. Imagining, for a second, that I had gone with him to his room for bug spray and something had happened and I had gotten hurt in some way — I knew that in retelling that story, more than a few people would have thought, or even remarked, “What were you thinking going with him to his room?”
I was thinking he was harmless.
I didn’t go with John to his cabana and I have no idea what would have happened if I did, but that’s not really the point. The point is that my immediate tendency to label a man I don’t know as “harmless” was way off. Not because he is harmful, but because he could be. If we want to encourage women to be “smart” and “safe” in dating/social scenarios, we have to eradicate that word, “harmless,” and our tendency to use it as a label. I know I’m not alone in leaping to label a lecherous dude as “harmless” — I have heard countless friends use this word, heard it copiously on TV and in movies, and have had people downplay my or others’ skittishness about someone with it. “Oh, just ignore him, he’s harmless!” The speed with which we feel the need to label someone and their behavior as either “harmless” or “harmful” likely results in more being labeled “harmless,” because it, frankly, sucks to feel like you live in a world surrounded by predators. Better to write off some behavior, even behavior that is kind of icky or rude or boundary crossing, as “harmless,” right? But what’s hidden in the fine print? Don’t ever go anywhere alone with someone you’ve labeled “harmless,” because whatever harm that may come as a result will be, in some way, seen as your fault. The pressure to write-off some behavior as “harmless” leads many women to second guess what their guts are telling them. As “harmless” as the dude may or may not be, this pressure and tendency is harmful.
So, I propose we do away with the label altogether. For starters, there’s absolutely no way of accurately describing someone you barely know or don’t know as “harmless.” But what you can be sure of is how someone makes you feel — uncomfortable, grossed out, annoyed, cautious, wary, etc. — and those feelings shouldn’t be swept under the rug because there’s pressure to neatly sort everyone we encounter into two tidy categories: people who will do us harm and people who won’t. After all, how harmful someone has the potential to be — and how accurate your assessment actually was — is often not known until it’s too late.