THE BLOG
10/27/2014 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

What I Learned From Talking Back to Men

Tommaso Tuzj via Getty Images

GRMLN put out one of my favorite releases of 2013. They're a sunny blast of classic pop-punk, a convincing throwback to the teenage years I filled with local bands and records endorsed by my local college radio DJs near San Jose. So when I saw they were coming to a venue near me earlier this year, I marked my calendar.

My boyfriend came with me. We got there a little early and ordered dinner, and were lucky enough to find a spot at a long, shared table in the back. We soon spotted our friend, a local promoter I've known since those aforementioned teen years. Still at it 17 years later, he had organized the show that night. He sat with us for a little while, but soon had to get back to work, so he got up and went about his business.

It's about this time that Boyfriend said, "Be right back, I gotta go to the bathroom," and got up.

The moment said Boyfriend rounded the corner to the bathrooms, I started hearing,

"Hey."

"Hey."

"Hey girl!"

"HEY!" coming not-so-vaguely from my left.

After the first couple heys, I cautiously thought, "Uh-oh. Is he talking to me? I hope not." After a few more, it became clear that he was, in fact, talking to me, and that I also couldn't get away with ignoring him much longer. Judging from past experience, I knew ignoring him would probably only make it worse. I looked up from my phone and turned to face the hey-source.

There were two men sitting to my left, and the one farthest from me was the one trying to get my attention. We made eye contact, and he reached across his friend, bracing himself on the table with his other arm, and jutted his hand towards me for a shake. "I just wanted to say hi."

I didn't know what to do. After that rude, forced introduction, I really wasn't interested in getting to know him (they had also been loudly mocking the opening band, which told me a lot about their character). But I also, strangely, didn't want to be unnecessarily mean to him. So I just gave a weak smile and waved back.

There was silence for a second. He sat back down.

I'm sure it won't surprise you in the least when I tell you the silence was followed by a torrent of verbal abuse.

"Oh, come on, what the hell? What the f*ck, I was just trying to be nice. I wasn't trying to hit on you! God, why do women always think we're flirting with them?" he turned to his friend, but was shouting loud enough so that I could hear. "Women are always like that. Always assume we're flirting."

Now he was leaning over his friend and getting as close as he could to me, shouting in my ear. "I WASN'T FLIRTING WITH YOU."

I sat there, my heart pounding, trying to ignore him and hoping he'd feel stupid enough to stop. But the fact that he was talking about me as if I wasn't there suddenly flipped a switch in me. There was a surge of adrenaline, and all of a sudden I felt myself turn to him and say:

"Then what were you trying to do?"

Oh my god, the SILENCE that followed. She dared to speak back to us!

"...What?" his friend finally eked out.

"Tell me what you were trying to do then."

"I... I was just trying to say hi!" he sputtered. "I wasn't flirting with you. Believe me, I wasn't flirting with you. Don't flatter yourself, girl. Don't flatter yourself."

(Which, looking back, is amusing for a couple of reasons: 1. He was no prize and 2. I'm f*cking beautiful thankyouverymuch.)

It was about this time that Boyfriend came back from the bathroom. Thank god, I thought. Knowing the way it usually goes for women, these guys would see that I was there with someone, conclude that I was someone else's "property," and, adhering to Bro Code, sheepishly exit the scene.

***

Yeah, that's not what happened.

Boyfriend sat back down and I'm pretty sure I had a shaken look in my eyes. I didn't say anything; I just smiled. I was all prepared to just put the mad ramblings of a drunk asshole behind me and try to enjoy the rest of my night.

Drunk Asshole, however, was not.

"Hey," I hear again from my left as he leans across the table at Boyfriend. Boyfriend, thinking he's just a friendly stranger who was -- oh, the irony! -- just trying to say hi, says, "Hey man, what's up?" or something to that effect.

"Can you tell your girl that I was just trying to say hi?"

This is a good time to remind you that this is a downtown bar on a Friday night, and it was loud. Boyfriend couldn't hear him. "What?" Boyfriend shouts.

"Can you tell your girl that..."

By this time, I'm motioning to Boyfriend to get up and go over to the stage before this gets bad. "Let's be classy about this," I shouted back at the guy. We got up and left.

They applauded and cheered when I left.

***

Oh my god, my heart is racing again just writing that. They applauded and cheered when I left the table and I swear to God it still makes me want to take a swing at them to this day.

And you know what the scariest thing about this incident was? In the hours after, all I could think about was how I had brought it upon myself. I mean, he was right -- all he was doing was trying to say hi. He didn't spike my drink. He didn't even touch me. But for some reason, this messed with my head just as much, if not more, than other, more dire incidents of harassment that I have been involved in. I stood there and watched the band, but my mind was elsewhere, thinking that maybe I just should have been nice. For all my talk about women not owing men anything, there I was, thinking thinking to myself that hey, even if he was a little uncouth, at a human level, this man at least deserved some propriety from me. I've lived the last 28 years as a pretty quiet, shy person, a trait that often gets mistaken for anger or bitchiness. Maybe this could have all been prevented if I was just nice for once.

We got home late that night, and I told Boyfriend how I was feeling. I told him how, in retrospect, I still felt like it was my fault. And I knew I shouldn't, but I did.

He sat there in silence. I have no idea what he was thinking. Was he siding with him? Does he still side with him?

Then I remembered that of course, Boyfriend was in the bathroom for the entire exchange. He didn't know any of what had happened. In his eyes, when I frantically beckoned him over to the stage and away from Drunk Asshole, I probably was just being an antisocial asshole, as usual.

I stayed up late that night, wanting to write, but not really knowing what to put down. I thought about how, after a particularly scary incident in which I was followed down the street by two lewd, murmuring strangers and subsequently wrote a scathing post about it, I've sort of become known as the Woman Who Doesn't Take Sh*t From Men within my social media circles. It's gotten to the point now that people will leave me videos and articles about street harassment on my wall or in my Twitter feed, accompanied by comments like, "made me think of you :)"

And I think... Does this reputation precede me? Am I talking about it too much? When people think of me, do they view me as a strong, self-assured woman or just a shrieking, unstable harpy who hates all men everywhere?

I started to reevaluate my entire stance on male attention. Maybe I should just lighten the f*ck up. I mean, for God's sake, it's not like he sexually assaulted me, right?

No, he didn't, but in the days that followed, I realized that everything everyone has ever told me about this kind of behavior is true: This wasn't rape, but this is where it starts. It starts in a culture where I am alarmed, but not at all surprised that this man's immediate reaction to not even rejection, but mild interest, was to boil over with rage. Rage that wasn't even directed at just me, but at every woman on the planet. The fact that I did not instantly acquiesce my attention the moment I met him made him not just angry, but screamingly furious.

And when I actually said something back, it was met with a disgusting, patronizing bemusement. I'll never forget the surprised half-smile, the twinkle of novelty in their eyes. It was the same look the men that followed me down the street gave me when I, safely at my office door, flipped them off and called them sh*t heads. How cute! She thinks she knows better than us!

But now, months and months later, I'm glad I let adrenaline take over. Harnessing the courage within myself -- courage I didn't even know I had -- to coolly, calmly call this guy out has made me a better human being. The very next day I talked back to a woman who got out of her car to confront me over a petty parking lot dispute, something I never would have done in the past (You were on the other level. I can't see through walls; how was I supposed to know you wanted the spot?).

I started speaking up more at work, in situations where I typically would have resigned myself to complete silence, for fear of developing a reputation as -- heaven forbid! -- a bitch. Normally, my reaction to these kinds of situations would be to, well, not react at all; to cower. But after I talked back to that asshole in the bar and came out of it relatively unscathed, I started realizing how powerful simply standing up for myself and speaking my mind can be.

And no, I'm not suggesting we all start fighting hate with more hate, but when it comes to disrespectful, borderline-dangerous dudes, I tell myself that this might be the first time anyone has called this man out on his behavior -- and judging by their complete surprise on my harasser's face when I deigned to speak to him, it likely was. I don't condemn every strange man that tries to talk to me in public, but it's time some of these guys learned that not every woman is going to just shut up and take it when they insult us.

Some of us talk back.

This story by Jody Amable first appeared on Ravishly.com, an alternative news+culture website for women.