"Playing Dumb" In Awkward Sexual Situations—and Why It's Time to Ditch the Defense Mechanism

There’s a thing I do when a guy I’m talking to says something creepy, or is pushing for a physical interaction that's never going to happen: I play dumb. I know I'm not the only one who changes her behavior; a lot of women go numb in situations that are uncomfortable or downright traumatic, unable to move or speak. My instinct is to channel the ingénue, and act as if I am completely oblivious to obvious sexual undertones.

A few months ago I met up with a man whom I considered a mentor, who also happens to be nearly double my age. We took a walk during which he complained about being single and asked me a few questions about my love life—questions I answered without thinking much of them. When we got back to his apartment, he put on a Steely Dan record while we drank some water on the couch. I should have known it was about to get weird when he started singing the lyrics to “Hey 19” while staring straight at me. But I just laughed, angled myself completely away, and tried to start a conversation about how fat his cats were.

After the overture, he told me I had a certain “something” that was hard to shake. My reaction? I did a little upper-body dance, making a silly face and shaking my invisible maracas. I guess the message was supposed to be: “See, not so hard to shake.” But my invisible maracas were apparently not dumb enough, because he proceeded to run a hand through my hair, to which I replied, in my best valley girl accent, “My hair is so greasy right now.” After a few moments of silence, I stood up, excused myself, and bolted.

I’ve talked with other women who say they adopt a similar naïve or ditsy persona when totally freaked out. I’m not sure where the instinct comes from: Do we think our nonsexual reaction to suggestion will indicate we’re not down? Are we trying to fool ourselves into thinking that nothing unpleasant is actually happening?

The logic may not be clear, but the reason is. We’re trying to communicate while avoiding confrontation. Women are raised not to call attention to themselves, not to make a scene. We’re often gas lit into thinking we’re overreacting. We’re encouraged to blame ourselves for “not giving clearer signals.”

The worst part of playing dumb is that the anger you feel towards the man who has forced the situation can boomerang back and bore into you. You hate yourself for not giving him any impression that his advances didn't sit well with you. The truth, though? He knows it they didn't.

Women, can we all agree we won’t be afraid to burn bridges? These guys' feelings aren’t worth saving. And men, if you’re reading this: Women are not clueless about sex. In fact, we are waaaaaaayyy more jaded about it than you, because we face people treating us like that’s all we’re good for on the regular. If a lady is acting oblivious to your advances, she’s not naïve. She’s scared. Back off.