I’m going to take a moment here and drift off into my ideal world, the “if things were perfect” world I like to build in my head. In that world, an attractive young woman, a featured speaker at a large conference, gets on an elevator at 4 am to head to her hotel room. A man gets on with her, and on the way up he says, “Hey, I really enjoyed your talk and I’d love to spend some time with you — would you be interested in coming back to my room?” And she, being exhausted, would say “No thanks,” and if she finds him at all attractive might add, “I’m really tired, but maybe we could meet up tomorrow?” And he, whether receiving the flat “no” or the “no maybe later,” accepts it graciously and they each go to their respective rooms. And nobody feels uncomfortable or unhappy about the encounter, because hey, he asked, she said no, it happens, nobody’s harmed or troubled.
But we don’t live in the ideal world; we live in a world where such an encounter would be rare at best, and impossible for many people. Instead we live in a world where these things are true:
– Most women have been the recipients of unwelcome and intrusive sexual overtures, not once but many times; many women have been the victims of hostile or violent sexually-charged behavior, ranging from groping or stalking to rape; nearly all women have been trained to be alert to signs that a strange man might be a sexual predator.
– Because of the above, being trapped and isolated with a strange man who is displaying sexual interest, however mildly, makes most women slightly nervous or uncomfortable.
– Most women have been socialized with a certain taboo around saying “no,” been trained to say it indirectly at most, and to go along with the wishes of their companions (whether male or female.) This training takes place through intense, often cruel social punishment in the formative years, learning that if you are direct and assertive about your wants and boundaries you will be rejected, shunned, and insulted. Because of this, even women who reject the taboo as silly and understand the value of clear, direct communication and boundary-setting often feel uncomfortable or anxious when put in a situation where they have to say no.
– Some men, consciously or unconsciously, take advantage of this reluctance and discomfort to push women into sexual interactions they’d prefer to avoid.
– Women and men alike are trained that women are the “gatekeepers” of sexuality; that men ask and women grant or withhold. This puts both sexes in an unpleasant situation. Men face repeated rejection, but they have no choice but to keep asking women they find attractive, because if she is interested nothing will happen if he doesn’t act. Meanwhile women feel bombarded with sexual attention, and the above-mentioned taboo against saying “no” makes each request-and-rejection stressful, even if the man was perfectly polite about it.
All of the above are truths about the culture that we currently live in, which means that if you are a reasonably considerate man who wants to avoid causing discomfort to women, you will not hit on a lone woman in an elevator at 4 am. You will especially not do so after she’s given a talk about how she dislikes sexual attention from strange men (something I left out of my ideal-world scenario, because in my ideal world such a talk would have been unnecessary and the woman in question would have talked about Bigfoot instead.) And if you are a woman who assumes good faith in most of the men you interact with, you will point out in a friendly way how uncomfortable such a situation makes you.
(Unfortunately another truth about the world we live in is that there are deep, deep misunderstandings and resentments between men and women, and that the internet gives a voice to a lot of crazy people, and so what we have is a tempest that has spilled out of the teapot it was brewed in and is raging across the atheist blogosphere. My advice to you, if the term “Elevatorgate” means nothing to you, is not to google it, and if you do google it by no means read the comments on relevant posts. They will not, on the whole, give you a sanguine view of humanity.)
Now I do think that we ought to be working to build a bridge from the currently-real world to the ideal one, and so I don’t think the answer here is “Men should walk on eggshells around women because they don’t realize what kinds of situations might make them feel uncomfortable or threatened.” It’s more… well, take a look at all my “real-world-truths” bullet points, and think about what you could do to make them less true.
Men, respect women’s boundaries, and don’t harass them or push yourself on them, and don’t let your friends get away with doing so either. Women, practice saying no and being comfortable with the idea that a “Would you like to…?” “No thanks,” “Okay” interaction is just fine and does not reflect badly on the asker or the denier.
Men, listen to what women tell you about how different interactions make them feel, and if it seems weird or nonsensical at first, listen a little harder. (If it seems weird or nonsensical several layers down, or if the majority of women you ask agree that it’s batshit insane, feel free to disregard it as that one person’s idiosyncrasy.) Women, remember that most men, even the ones who display sexual interest in you, are not predators or stalkers or rapists — most of them are looking for a mutually enjoyable experience, and have battled through a lot of rejection to get to you, so think kindly of them even as you say no.
Educators of all genders, stop framing rape as something it’s the woman’s responsibility to prevent. Stop perpetuating the myth of the female gatekeeper — teach young men and women alike that it’s normal to want sex sometimes and normal to not want sex sometimes. Stop punishing little girls more harshly for assertive or “rude” behavior.
Men and women and everybody: choose understanding over resentment, thoughtfulness over defensiveness, and good-faith dialogue over vitriolic spite.