I've been thinking about the complicated nature of relationships. And for a moment forget the "relationship = partner / girlfriend / boyfriend" thing. I mean relationships as in the way to define how we relate to anyone we're aware of. We have 'relationships' with everyone from our local cafe's barista to our parents to our sexual partners.
There are unspoken boundaries in all relationships. (Well, if you're lucky, they're clearly spoken and defined - but in most relationships we'll ever have they're definitely unspoken.)
We usually don't recognise them formally until someone crosses a line, and even then it may make us pause and go, "Hey, uh... is this weird?" to a friend. "Am I over-reacting?"
This wasn't a thing that happened often at ALL before I transitioned. It was very rare I saw men talking with other men about the appropriateness of something they had experienced.
I sometimes saw men discussing, "Hey, would it be weird if I said [x] to [female friend]?", but I now realise more often than not men tend to ask female friends this.
Those are the good men, I guess. But it's interesting that it's almost THAT way for men - asking if a specific action is okay.
For women, it's the other way - if we're "right" to find somebody else's behaviour uncomfortable.
The number of times I've had female friends post in safe spaces, or ask in small women-only groups, "Hey, uhm... can I check something with you? Something happened the other day..." is pretty big.
The other month a pizza delivery guy I'd seen once or twice arrived, and when I came out to get the pizza he looked me up and down and said, "You're looking really good tonight."
That was it.
I paused just a moment to process what he'd said then, "Thank you."
Another time, I went in to my local cafe and the manager/barista smiled as usual. "Hi, Elissa. How're you this morning?"
I hadn't told him my name.
He had learned it, as it turned out, when my housemate came in and somehow that came up in conversation, that he was "Elissa's housemate". Connections were made from there. "The redhead that always comes in here."
If you're a cis guy, I suspect these two tiny anecdotes sound like nothing.
But each one made me slightly uncomfortable, despite that in isolation and without the context of body language and situation neither one was overtly unpleasant. This wasn't abuse or catcalling or something very clearly about social power over someone.
Each time, I asked my girlfriends, "Hey, uh... so, am I overreacting? Because this thing that happened made me uncomfortable."
The thing is, the answer to all these is always "your feelings are valid".
As I thought more about it, here's what the outcomes of those two anecdotes were:
The pizza guy knows where I live. He'd been there maybe 2 times before. Not enough for me to be a regular, or enough to be social with me. But just enough that what he said, the tone of it, the precise wording, him staring me up and down and judging what I look like... it made me uncomfortable.
I haven't ordered from that place since.
My barista, I realised, I would gladly tell my name to. He never asks things outside the usual "waiting for him to make my coffee" smalltalk, and has never made even slightly inappropriate or sexual comments. Not even simple compliments.
So I still go there, and he still greets me by name - which I now find quite comfortable.
The thing is this: the actions of these two men are not, in themselves, creepy. What gave me pause in each case were specific aspects of their context, and my relationships with the people. Boundaries they crossed.
Often, it's hard to tell where these lines exist, and even now I second-guess what was clearly not intended to be anything other than a nice compliment from the pizza guy.
I am not saying that my feelings and my decisions in each case were somehow 'right', either. There's no 'right' or 'wrong' in a clear sense - just "do I feel comfortable continuing to interact with this person, or not?"
Depending on your relationship, this may be something you can simply raise with the person (friends taking liberties re: hugging or touching or talking about your body is a common thing here), or it may, as in the case of the pizza guy for me, be something where the only real choice is to stop ordering from that same place.
And the latter isn't always an option.
Power dynamics are a factor in all relationships. It isn't simply a male/female thing, either, but that's primarily the lens through which I'm discussing it, and the aspect of relationships I tend to notice most clearly, being that my gender presentation and the way people react to me has so clearly changed in the past few years.
Years ago, I read some advice for men that made sense. But now, being in that situation where instead of applying to me it affects me in the inverse way, it makes even more sense:
The advice was, essentially, this: let the person in the least powerful position take the lead. Always. Not sure if she would be okay with you hugging her? Wait until she does. It may seem easier to ask, and maybe that's fine, but essentially, you can't go wrong by just following her lead.
There are a ton of other little guidelines I'm sure that could be raised, but that one makes more sense to me than ever before, and is, generally, the one I'd probably dish out the quickest when men ask me about their interactions with another woman.
It'll be useful if more people do this, of course, but in the interim... I'm sure there'll be many, many more "can I run this by you?" conversations in the future, either by me or with me.