Feminism: The Goethe Spectrum

This morning on the elevator there was a man who was giving me the total hibbie-jibbies. I can’t tell you why, there was something that made me want to cringe away from him. My stance shifted so I could keep him in the corner of my eye without facing him. He was dressed nice, rolled a briefcase (looked like a sample case really). But there was definitely a piece of my brain running through the reactions I could take if he addressed me/threatened me – because if he addressed me it would be a threat. Even I was wondering what was wrong with me – the level of reaction is pretty unusual to a normal looking dude.  My tension evaporated when the elevator doors closed and he was on the other side of them.

A few years ago, this idea of “Schrödinger’s Rapist” started to circulate the internet. At first I lauded it, it does help to explain when a woman might be nervous around strange men (the first five minutes of meeting someone).  But I feel it is incomplete.  The problem is in the concept of Schrödinger’s cat” – that in an instant both universes exist and thus you must treat them as equally plausible.

This just isn’t true when addressing human interactions. So as the past few years have gone by, I have pondered on how I would adjust the theory. And it’s not really Schrödinger’s rapist as much as it is the Spectrum of Threat. Or the Goethe Spectrum.  Newton was the one credited with breaking apart white light to identify the seven colors “of the rainbow”, but Goethe used the word spectrum – meaning the blending between the colors in between the stark colors Newton identified.

Because that’s the kicker, it’s not a 50/50 sort of thing. There are a million little clues that I filter when assessing threat when I see someone for the first time. Taking a 0-10 scale isn’t a bad start, but it’s really more like a 0-100 when you start considering the nuances.  For the sake of this blog, we’ll simplify this to 0-10:

0: No threat. Dead body or otherwise incapacitated to potentially threaten me in any way.

1: Breathing human. Might be a man? So the possibility of threat still exists in some universe from this person, but not likely this universe. If I haven’t seen a slider’s hole or heard the TARDIS, I’m probably safe.

2: Visibly a man. He’s a man. Probably. Threat so minimal that I can feel safe to continue my normal actions. As long as I’m not 150% stupid, this is a totally manageable interaction.

3: Might be a straight man. So he may or may not be giving indications of interest, but there is nothing to concern me of a threat. This means either a rejection has already been gracefully handled or it is clear he would never pursue action (i.e. he is in a happy relationship he wouldn’t risk even if I hit on him).

4: Definitely straight. This is a guy who might have indicated interest. Or has “that look” (which is almost indescribable in text format) that says he admires what he sees in a female form. There is no sense of danger or threat, but if a lot of cards hit the table in just the wrong way… there is just enough here to keep me wary. It’s unlikely I’m unsafe, but I must be the one making sure the appropriate barriers are retained.

Frankly, this is where most of my male co-workers fall when I meet them the first time. I am infinitely aware that most of them are probably “safe” guys, but if I do not make sure I keep my shit in line – we’ll use the inept phrase “misunderstood signals”…

5: Unknown danger levels. Dead in the middle of the spectrum, this might be someone I can’t get a read on, or getting mixed danger levels (i.e. the guy in the elevator this morning retained a “5” because my gut reaction was more dangerous, but he had all the signs of like a 3 or 4 kind of guy)

6: Small danger. There is something this person is saying, wearing, or doing that makes me edgy. The way their eyes rove. They’ve admitted attraction and when rejected say “Your loss baby.” They are the guy who I have doubts if I was drunk they wouldn’t take advantage… I don’t think they will attack me, but if they got a drunk yes – they would classify it as a yes…

7: Don’t be alone. This is the guy who might have asked more than once – and remember, this is a first meeting, the first time I meet them they can’t take a no. Made advances after rejection. Sometimes there is a space invasion – Probably not actually a threat, just an asshole. Probably.

8: Threat level: high. This is my line for “get me out of here.” because this is when the guy is doing more than talking. He is making it quite clear – if the opportunity presents he believes it’s his right. Sometimes this is not in words, but in body language. This guy holds the door and purposefully stands in so you have to squeeze by and gives a dirty grin. Calls you a bitch if you don’t let him “be a gentleman” and in other ways attempts to assert inappropriate control over me and my body.

9: Danger Zone! This is the guy who is trying to get me to drink from a glass which I did not have control over for a period of time. The guy who called me on my phone when I knew I never gave him my number. There is a physical threat here and it may not be right now but he has made it clear that verbal “no” will not deter him.

10: Rapist: I am being raped right now.

Fortunately, I’ve never had too much exposure above about an 8.5 on this scale and those have been few and far between (and I have gotten damn clear about calling them out). There are still men I will not be alone with because during this initial meeting they pinged as a 7+, and in a group I maintain a discrete three-person-buffer zone. It’s very difficult to come back from a back first impression.

So I don’t even want to talk about Schrödinger’s Rapist anymore with my friends. I get why men might get annoyed by the black-or-white idea. There are a million variables to filter:

  • 40-something man on subway car reading a newspaper, wearing a suit. 3.2
  • 20-something man/boy with his buddies. Possibly drunk. On subway. 9pm Friday night. 7.9
  • Group of any age men talking and staring at me (location matters). 6.8-7.8
  • Man in gay bar flinging a drunk arm over my shoulder. 4.1
  • Car with a male in the driver seat following me home in the dark. Rises from 4.1 to 8.1 when he follows me through a neighborhood that horse-shoed back to the main road.
  • Man I see in the grocery store three times and keeps smiling at me with too much tooth. 7.1

Location, age, appearance, and body language are the major factors. Body language is one I know I rely heavily on with these strangers. How are they choosing to orient to me? (casual, direct, leaning forward or away) What are they doing with their hands? Honestly, I have found the phrase “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” to be all too true. Someone with something in their hands (drumsticks, book, phone, hell-cigarette- etc.) is far less threatening than the man doing nothing with his hands.

The scale once I get to know someone becomes far more complicated. It isn’t two dimensional. What are your friends like? How do they influence your behavior? Are you close to your family or estranged? Why? How do you behave to me on a regular basis? How long have I known you? Have I met any significant other(s)? -The factors beyond first meeting are ten times more complex.

As limited as I believe Schrödinger’s Rapist is to defining the initial impression of threat, the scales to define relationships after I start to know someone… it is the difference between a wheelbarrow and the Enterprise.