Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with my male friends about them being called “safe,” or in one case, a “safety blanket.” Don’t know what I’m talking about? Celebrate.
This is the phenomenon in which a (generally young) woman dismisses her behavior around a guy as “Oh, that’s just so-and-so. He’s safe.” It always sounds like it’s meant to be a compliment, but there’s very little like it to bring out the bitter in a guy even decades after the fact. It took explaining the concept of “safe” to the wife of one of these friends for me to really figure out why.
Safe is better than not safe, right?
Well, of course none of my guy friends want to threaten any women, so being very not safe is right out of the question. However, being this sort of safe is far beyond not being a rapist in potentia, far more than just what’s left when that worry is removed. This safe means out of the running for any kind of sexual consideration whatsoever. This is gay-best-friend safe without the gay or necessarily the best friend. There are more options to be found in the real world than just this kind of safe and not safe.
So no sex. But that’s okay, isn’t it?
No sex is okay. No sex is always okay, if sometimes frustrating. What isn’t okay is the complete denial of someone else’s sexuality.
None of the “safe” guys I’ve been talking to are asexual. None of them are even close. They are, in fact, all attractive guys with fairly strong libidos. I doubt they’d be as desirable as “safe” friends if they were anything else. And being declared safe is going beyond saying there will be no sex in the relationship. What it has done is put them in situations in which they were flirted with, snuggled up to, asked for advice on what is sexy and what is acceptable sexual behavior, regaled with details of sexual exploits and problems–all without any permission to respond in kind.
Is it bad that the women flirted without wanting more?
Absolutely not. Flirting in safe situations is learning without risk. It’s testing sexuality and figuring out what’s fun in a low-pressure environment. More people, men and women, should have the option of doing this without feeling that they’re making promises.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the women are designating the men as safe without any input from the men. The men aren’t being asked whether they have any sexual interest and whether they’re okay with it being put on hold. They aren’t being asked where the limits of their comfort with the women’s behavior are. They don’t have an option to say, “No,” except by walking away from the situation. These guys might still choose to engage in flirtatious relationships for the fun, but the choice should be theirs every bit as much as it is the women’s. With the unilateral declaration of “safe”-hood, it isn’t.
It’s also a problem that the word “safe” is being used to deny men these options. Safe and convenient are very different things, and “safe” brings a level of emotional manipulation to the table (by contrast with “not safe”) that “convenient” doesn’t. We want women, in particular, to feel safe because we’re aware they often don’t. We have a right to an expectation of interpersonal safety. We don’t have the same right to an expectation of convenience, which is what these relationships boil down to.
One more problem was illuminated by the same woman with whom a modified version of the conversation above took place. Shortly after the conversation, she went shopping in a mixed group.
When XXX went with me to Victoria’s Secret, it was, well, a little awkward. It was only yesterday, however, that I started thinking about it enough to figure out why. I do not really think of XXX as “safe” (intimidating was actually the first word I would have ascribed to him), but I found myself in a situation where an attractive man who was not my husband was watching me pick out frilly panties. I found this awkward, again because those old taboos told me that you don’t show other men your panties, and “Oh, noes! I might induce him to have unclean thoughts about me.”
So what did my brain do? It tried to convince me of something along the lines of “It’s XXX. He wouldn’t be thinking those things” as a comforting strategy. The equivalent of “He’s safe,” even though I don’t actually think of him that way.
The problem here is that “safe” is (or would be, if my friend weren’t thoughtful and honest) being used to make a decision about privacy and sexuality not “count.” Every one of these decisions count. Every one of them affects someone, even if it’s only the woman making the decision. Of course, in cases of “safe” men, it’s not just the women.
Now, it may sound as though I’m adding to the chorus of voices telling women that they are responsible for the world’s sexual decision-making. No. Women are not responsible for men’s decisions, even those decisions made in response to women’s decisions, but neither does freeing women from that particular unfair responsibility free them from all responsibility. And that’s what declaring a man safe does; it abdicates a woman’s responsibility for her sexual choices with respect to that man. It says that her decisions and her behavior don’t matter. More than that, it says that they don’t matter because a particular quality of the man in question–his safeness.
Maybe that’s progress of a sort, but only if you consider flipping an unequal situation upside down to be progress. I don’t. Women don’t make progress by moving from not being allowed to make decisions to pretending there are no decisions to be made. We get where we want to go by accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions and acting like the adults we’ve demanded we be allowed to be.
No wonder these guys are bitter. I would be too. A lot of time and attention has gone into teaching me from the time I was a small child that I have every right to have my sexual and romantic life decided by me. Shouldn’t we extend the same right to these guys?
This piece was originally published at Quiche Moraine. Click here to read the original post and its comments.
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