Monday, September 1, 2014

Offended by Requests

Hitchhiking is a radical practice in living the gift economy. Asking people for a ride without offering anything in return, practicing nonattachment to whether or not someone stops, all while being present to the feelings of despair, impatience, and resentment with compassionate presence--these are the ingredients a gift economy is made of. But there is more to the practice of hitchhiking than shifting our economic transactions.

Many people I encounter while hitchhiking are uncomfortable with this request for a gifted ride. If I ask around at gas stations ("Are you going north?"), I am sometimes asked to leave by the owners, because they think their patrons are bothered. This both conflicts with my sense of entitlement to free speech, and confuses me. Why are people so uncomfortable being asked something when it's not a demand? Is it because they feel obligated?

Sometimes people lie or make up excuses, saying they aren't going a certain way when they are. Most of my fellow citizens aren't self-connected and confident enough to assertively say, "I'm not comfortable bringing you in my car," and leaving it at that. In non-consensual/rape culture it's not OK to have personal boundaries unless you have a good reason, which is why people lie. Compare this to a woman at a bar being asked to dance. If she just says, "I'm not interested," she will likely be harassed as often as not. However, if she makes an excuse, even an untrue one ("I have a boyfriend" or "I'm about to leave") she'll be left alone.

There are many other times when someone making a request stimulates discomfort. I was at a truck stop in Sparks, NV, while hitchhiking this summer. Numerous truckers indicated interest in paying me for sex, one coming up to my traveling companion and current lover and asking if we needed "spending money." We initially thought he was just offering to give us some cash out of generosity or concern, but then he admitted that what he really wanted was for me to "spend some time in [his] truck." I felt disgusted but responded with only a "No, thank you." Even as I feel disgusted still, I also am aware that this man probably has a chronic lack of intimate touch in his life.

Even though he was respectful in the since of leaving us alone as soon as I said no, I still needed a good few minutes to shake off the icky feeling I got from being asked. Why was I so offended? My companion told me to not make it about the man, but to take it as a compliment on my beauty and attractiveness. I was not receptive to this perspective at all. Sure, I'm attractive, but yuck.

Part of my discomfort stemmed from how the question was asked--always indirectly. Other than the guy who asked, most of the truckers who made propositions that night used insinuating comments like, "I'll take her for a ride without the guy." I read this as containing tones of nonconsensuality--they wanted an opportunity to assault me when he wasn't there to interfere/protect. (This also ties in to the idea that women are property of men, and that other men are more concerned about damaging someone's property than respecting any woman as an individual--but I'm trying not to digress too much.)

The man who did ask somewhat directly still did so in a roundabout way, trying to catch our interest with the idea of "spending money." It might have landed differently if he had said, "Please say no if you're uncomfortable, but I am really longing for some sexual expression right now, and am wondering if you'd like to help me with that in exchange for some cash?"  It could certainly be finetuned even more (honestly I think prostitution should be legal and we should do it like in the show Firefly with the Companion's Guild, where people apply through video shorts), but this is a step in the direction of 'speaking plainly,' as the Quakers say.

So, is there a way to hitchhike or solicit for sex that is not offensive, or less so? Assuring people that 'no' is a perfectly acceptable answer is an important component of this. One way to start any sensitive request is a pre-request that goes, "Are you open to being asked for...[a ride] [sex]?" This is hard to convey with a thumb, but could it be consolidated into a short phrase on a cardboard sign? "Stop if you're feeling generous" looks potentally guilt trippy to my eyes. Maybe, "Stop if you want to!"

Although these are uncomfortable subjects to deal with, it is exciting to explore the frontiers of human communication through such humbling experiences as being "stranded" in a truck stop or by the side of a desert highway for hours. I believe that such instances of making myself vulnerable to the forces of social behavior are a rare opportunity for transformation and connection between demographics of people who would never otherwise connect.

Coming soon: The Sequel to this post, "When Asking Is Awkward", an essay focused on the asking side more than the receiving side. What makes it so hard to ask for what we want? What happens when we are too scared or ashamed to do so? Please share any pre-post input on this topic here, as well as your response to the above content. I promise to respond to you!

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