Sex & Relationships

Why Ghosting Is a Form of Self-Protection for Women

With the rise of the incel movement, saying “no” can be more dangerous than saying nothing at all

A woman looking down on her phone with red hair

(Photo: Upsplash)

Jeff* and I had been seeing each other casually for about a month. We met at a mutual friend’s party and hit it off immediately. He was cute, funny, well-read, and smart. We went to a museum together and held hands while we looked at the exhibits. He invited me to his company’s holiday party. We drank champagne and kissed on the rooftop patio of a bar downtown. On paper, everything was perfect.

There was only one problem: I didn’t want to date him. I was still reeling from a messy breakup, and I wasn’t in a place to be serious with someone else romantically.

I invited Jeff out to coffee with the intention of breaking things off.

“Hey,” I said awkwardly, fiddling with my coffee cup to avoid eye contact. “I’ve had a lot of fun hanging out with you, but I just don’t see this going any further.”

He looked at me, slack jawed.

“Why not?”

I tried to explain, stumbling on the words. I’m busy. I’m not looking for a relationship. I’m just not interested. But every statement I made was met with a rebuttal. I’m busy too. I’m happy to keep things casual. But I’m a nice guy. What was supposed to be a casual breakup turned into a heated debate for which I was unprepared. And after a while, he wore me down. I started doubting myself. Maybe he was right—he seemed like a nice guy, after all. Why wouldn’t I want to date him?

A few days after our botched breakup, Jeff texted me to hang out, and I realized that I just didn’t want to. I declined. He sent me another text message inviting me out for drinks. “No thanks,” I replied. And then he sent me another text message. And another.

And so I just didn’t text him back. Ever again.

We all know about “ghosting,” a popular (and controversial) breakup tactic where one party suddenly ceases communication with the other. There’s no question that this can be a hurtful way to end a relationship. But something that’s been missed in the cultural conversation about ghosting is that it can feel like the safer option for women dealing with men who won’t take “no” for an answer. Sometimes, we have to trust our instincts: if someone has made us feel unsafe by crossing our boundaries or refusing to accept our rejections, ghosting is our only choice.

When I ghosted Jeff, it was actually because I was concerned about his emotions. I’d tried to tell Jeff I wasn’t interested, but when he wouldn’t accept that, I worried that he would get mad and that his behaviour would escalate.

This is not paranoia. For many women, saying “no” can be more dangerous than saying nothing at all.

Why ghosting is a defense mechanism

On May 21, sci-fi author Elizabeth May tweeted “RT if you’ve have had a frightening response from a man when you’ve rebuffed, rejected, or otherwise ignored his advances.” The tweet has over 16,000 retweets. Hundreds of women responded to May’s post, sharing their experiences ranging from verbal abuse to physical assault.

Last December, The New Yorker published “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, a short fictional story that quickly went viral. The story follows a 20-year-old college student named Margot who starts casually dating—and later ghosts—an older, awkward man named Robert. In her encounters with him, Margot is again and again reminded of potential danger at Robert’s hands; she is struck with the chilling realization that he could murder her if he wanted to. The story ends when an unresponsive Margot receives a series of increasingly violent text messages from Robert that culminate with him calling her a “whore” for rejecting him.

Although “Cat Person” is a work of fiction, the story struck a chord with women of all ages who felt that it uncannily mirrored their experiences of dating.

Women live and date in a climate of misogynistic violence that can escalate quickly. And it’s difficult to predict how a man will react to rejection: while some men may accept rejection gracefully, others may spew verbal abuse or refuse to accept that you aren’t interested. Some may even go to extremes of stalking or violently acting-out.

“There is a lot of pressure for women to please others,” says Farrah Khan, a community activist and manager of Ryerson University’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education. “We are shamed [and] called sluts when we say yes, bitches when we say no to a date, or prudes if we don’t want to do certain sexual activities.”

Reactions to rejection can escalate—quickly

Alana was 19 and had just started university when she met Sean,* another student who lived in her dorm.

“He was a little strange, but in a good way,” she explains. “He did seem fixated on me, but I thought he was attracted to another girl in our friend group.”

Sean’s behaviour escalated. He started calling her cell phone up to 10 times a day. Sometimes, he would borrow friend’s phones or call from payphones to try and get her to pick up. Sean started appealing to Alana’s friends for help getting her to like him, asking them about her likes, dislikes and interests.

Mutual friends misconstrued his behaviour as romantic, Alana says, because they didn’t understand how intense Sean’s obsession had become.

“I kept hearing things from friends like, ‘He’s so kind,’ ‘He’s so sweet,’ ‘He would be so good for you.’”

Alana explains that as a gay woman who was closeted at the time, she didn’t feel comfortable discussing her sexuality with Sean while turning him down. She refused to be pressured into outing herself publicly before she was ready.

Then, one night, Sean sent Alana a cryptic message to meet in the courtyard of the dorm around midnight. He’d stood outside her window until he saw her light come on, to make sure she was back. Against her better judgement, she decided to go, hoping that an outright rejection might finally get him to leave her alone. In the courtyard, he asked her to attend a dance with him. Even after she turned him down, he kept calling her. In what is a tragic and all too common form of emotional abuse, he began insinuating that he was going to hurt or even kill himself as a result of her rejection.

“He was really volatile,” Alana says. “He wouldn’t accept that I wasn’t interested in him. The only thing I could do was avoid him until the end of the semester and hope he forgot about me.”

I feel lucky that Jeff’s behaviour didn’t escalate to this point. He eventually stopped texting me, and when I run into him around the city I feel safe—if a little bit awkward. I know that I hurt him by ghosting, but I also know that I did what I needed to do to protect myself.

Women have reason to be concerned—especially with the rise of the incel movement

This feels like a scary time to be a woman. We’re in the midst of the #MeToo reckoning, which makes it painfully clear how often men in all industries abuse their power. And according to a recent report from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (CFOJA), though there has been a 52% decline in homicide rates between 1975 and 2015, women are still at a much higher risk of being killed by a male partner. In fact, in only the first four months of 2018, 57 women were killed in Canada; in 18 of those cases, the accused was a male partner of the victim.

Each day, it becomes more clear to me that we need to prioritize our own safety and well-being, especially in a climate of highly visible misogynistic violence. Especially because misogynistic views are responsible for at least several mass murders in North America. As author Amy Stuart pointed out on Twitter, the three largest mass murders in Canada in the last 30 years—including the tragic Toronto van attack—were committed by men whose motives were revenge against women.

On April 23, Alek Minassian allegedly plowed into pedestrians along a strip of downtown Toronto, killing eight women and two men. Minassian was reportedly inspired by Elliot Rodger, a 22-year old man who killed six people and wounded 14, citing rage over women who had turned him down. Rodger is a celebrated figure in the incel movement, an online subculture which is made up of individuals (primarily heterosexual males) unable to find sexual relationships, despite wanting them.

Right-wing thinkers have suggested that women should stop saying “no” to men altogether, and to date or have sex with volatile men in order to mitigate the chance of these men doing harm to themselves and others. (Controversial author and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has even gone so far to suggest “enforced monogamy” as a solution to society’s misogynistic violence.)

But these suggestions dangerously undermine the fact that women are people, with their own thoughts, desires, and autonomy.

Kelli Korducki, author of Hard to Do: The Surprising Feminist History of Break Up explains that although women are no longer legally defined by our relationship to men, there are still many cultural practices and beliefs that stem from a time when women didn’t have the rights to vote, buy property, or otherwise operate in the world as a single legal entity.

“Historically, a woman’s purpose and value was defined by her relationship to the people she took care of,” Korducki says. “For centuries, the narrative has been that women are natural nurturers who are required to manage the emotions of men. Society expects women to do the emotional heavy lifting—which ultimately does both men and women a deep disservice.”

Women are taught to let men down easy, but we shouldn’t have to

From a young age, women are socialized to be agreeable and kind. When women are flaky or non-committal with men who are romantically pursuing them, it is often to let them down easy, and mitigate the possibility of violence. I felt this way when I left the coffee shop after trying to dump Jeff. I had internalized the idea that if a man was romantically interested in me, I somehow owed him something. In that moment, I felt guilty about exercising my own autonomy and setting boundaries.

“Boundaries are like a force field or invisible fence that surrounds us,” explains Khan, who advocates for survivors of sexual violence. “They can act as an alarm system when our emotional, physical, spiritual, financial or sexual space isn’t being respected.” Khan says boundaries are especially important when it comes to dating, and so is giving yourself permission to say no in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable.

“We are taught to dismiss the messages our body tells us when something doesn’t feel right,” she says. “But we have to push back on that and listen to our bodies—trust the hair standing up on the back of your neck or the cold sweat that breaks out or the knots in your stomach.”

Too often, women are pressured by social norms to prioritize other people’s emotions over their own and to compromise their needs, desires—and even safety—in favour of nurturing others.

But “these norms are harmful to both men and women,” Korducki says. “When women are made responsible for men’s emotions, men don’t have a chance to learn the basic emotional skills they need to cope.”

In pop culture, we regularly see romanticized versions of a relationship in which a woman “fixes” or “saves” a volatile and angry man through her love for him—just take a look at relationships portrayed in Beauty and the Beast, Pride and Prejudice and Gossip Girl. The idea that finding a man and managing his emotions is what women should be looking for in romantic partnerships is a deeply damaging and pervasive cultural myth.

If we as a society do not learn to hold men accountable for managing their own emotions, we won’t be able to end violence against women. And until women can safely exercise their autonomy and communicate with men without fear of violent retaliation, we’ll have to keep doing whatever we can to keep ourselves and others safe—and yes, sometimes that means ghosting.


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