The problem with “I have a boyfriend”

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Many of us have probably met a woman who wears a fake engagement or wedding ring to avoid advances by men. Often times women will offer up “I have a boyfriend” as a magical phrase to get men to leave them alone and stop hitting on them. It’s understandable that women want to avoid a conflict, especially when men often won’t take “no thank you” for an answer.

But there are disturbing undercurrents to this practice. Women are conditioned to be “nice” and not cause problems. While of course we should all employ basic human decency and politeness, when that doesn’t work it’s often hard for women to be firm and unequivocal when they want to be left alone. There’s an assumptive attitude that some of these men have in assuming that a stranger they just decided to talk to owes them some kind of explanation for not being interested in them romantically and sexually.

I’ve suffered from the politeness syndrome like many women, but at this point in my life I’m over it. I’ve often thought about how I’d rather not use or see other people use the boyfriend excuse, even if it’s true, since it reinforces the idea of owing something to a person who hasn’t invested much of anything in you and is being presumptuous about your response. Which is why I endorse Eberhardt Smith’s piece on abandoning “I have a boyfriend” a million times over:

Yes, this may be the easiest and quickest way to get someone to leave you alone, but the problems associated with using this excuse far outweigh the benefits. There is a quotation that I’ve seen floating around Tumblr recently (reblogged by many of my amazing feminist Tumblr-friends) that goes as follows:

Male privilege is “I have a boyfriend” being the only thing that can actually stop someone from hitting on you because they respect another male-bodied person more than they respect your rejection/lack of interest.

This amazingly puts into one sentence what I have been attempting to explain to ex-boyfriends and friends (male and female) for years, mostly unsuccessfully. The idea that a woman should only be left alone if she is “taken” or “spoken for” (terms that make my brain twitch) completely removes the level of respect that should be expected toward that woman. It completely removes the agency of the woman, her ability to speak for herself and make her own decisions regarding when and where the conversation begins or ends. It is basically a real-life example of feminist theory at work–women (along with women’s choices, desires, etc.) being considered supplemental to or secondary to men, be it the man with whom she is interacting or the man to whom she “belongs” (see the theory of Simone de Beauvoir, the story of Adam and Eve, etc.).

Go read the rest here.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

20 thoughts on “The problem with “I have a boyfriend””

  1. This may be true but the more important question is this : “Why are you on the computer and not in the kitchen?”

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  2. Reblogged this on The Noble Scribe and commented:
    With all the senseless violence going on, I thought I would post this in support of my Bahamian sisters. I See you!!!!!
    @ Hollaback! Bahamas
    @ Bahamas Women’s Watch
    @ CHAMPS {Chosen, Honoured, Appointed, Motivated, Positive Sisters}

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  3. Very true. I think it does play into the whole ‘act nice, don’t be confrontational’ ethos we’re socialised in. I suspect even those of us who are aware of the gendered implications fall into the trap of seeing ‘I’m afraid I’m not interested, I’m having a night out with my friends’ as being a hostile bitch, where ‘I’m sorry, I have a boyfriend’ seems like an easy, apologetic way to resolve things. I have less and less time for it too, though – it’s basically the chat-up equivalent of being told to ‘cheer up love’ by strangers on the street who are obviously offended by a non-smiling woman in public…

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  4. Wait, so it’s because a man respects another man’s “belonging” that they leave the woman alone? Haha that’s laughable. It’s simple, we get the hint. Nothing more nothing less. Why do have to try and tie everything into some type of “privilege”?

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    1. The problem is that men don’t get the hint. A “no” from a woman should be sufficient, but often it’s not. Women sometimes find it’s easier to say they have a boyfriend because a man is more likely to leave them alone. If all men took no for an answer, I wouldn’t have had to write this.

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      1. Okay I agree some men cannot take a hint. But what if the woman simply replied “I’m taken.” I’d be curious to see if that would have the same effect. I think most respectful men would stop pursuing at that point because they know that the woman is unavailable. I think it has more to do with the woman being “taken” rather than being a “belonging” of some other man.

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      2. That’s the problem. If a woman isn’t “taken,” she often feels like she needs to lie and say she is because men won’t accept a no from someone who isn’t already in a relationship with someone else. A simple “no” should be enough.

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