opinion pubs

Where’s Your Boyfriend?

Ladies sign in a pub.

by Boak

As a woman, I’ve become careful in choosing which pubs I go into on my own.

Unlike the other half, I’m an extrovert — I get antsy if I’m on my own and tend to seek out company when I’m away on business. A pub is the perfect place for this, right?

Unfortunately, when I was younger, I had a few too many encounters like this:

I enter a pub, realise there are no other women there, but approach the bar and order a drink anyway, all the time aware that conversation has stopped and the blokes round the bar are staring at me.

“Here on business, are you?”

[As coldly as possible] “Yes.”

I retreat to a table with my beer, get out a book or a newspaper, and read it with intense concentration. By this point, I’m already feeling uncomfortable. Not terrified or angry — uncomfortable.

Then someone calls out, or, worse, comes over: “Where’s your boyfriend?” or “Why don’t you come and sit with us?” or “What’s a girl like you doing all on your own?”

Feeling rather intimidated by the attention of the pack, I have to decide as quickly as possible how to respond:

  1. “I’m trying to read my book.”
  2. “Go away.” (Or words to that effect.)
  3. “He’s joining me in a minute.” (A fib.)

Some blokes will probably be thinking, so what? Big deal. After all, he hasn’t said anything obscene and he hasn’t touched me, and I’ve only had to say a few words to get rid of him.

I don’t know how to convey how it feels to be cornered by a half-drunk bloke several inches taller than you, several stone heavier, in a strange pub, in a strange town, while his mates egg him on and/or observe from the bar. In the particular instances I have in mind, it wasn’t a polite, tentative approach — it was an entitled, arrogant swagger. Suffice to say, it’s not much fun.

The problem for pubs is that, even if I was capable of shrugging it off, it’s still more trouble than I can be bothered with when all I want is somewhere to sit. I love pubs — proper pubs — but because of this kind of thing, they lose my custom to places such as Pizza Express or Costa Coffee, where I’ve never been harassed while eating or drinking on my own.

When I do go to pubs on my own, I’ve got good at selecting places which are (groan) female-friendly. I don’t especially like tea-lights, cushions and soft rock, but they seem to be off-putting to the kind of bloke I’ve been bothered by in the past. It’s also helpful to be able to see in before I walk through the door — if there are other women drinking there, I’ll probably be OK. If it’s all male, I walk on by.

But, going back to the situation described above, what would actually help is if one of his mates, the publicans or their bar staff had the sensitivity and/or nerve to say, when they see Casanova working up to make his move: “Oi, Bert — leave the lady alone!”

On Twitter, a few women told us they were comfortable in pubs on their own, while others said it depended where: London is fine, but rural areas less so. Others talked about using a book as a shield and hiding out of sight in the hope of avoiding attention. Again, I wonder if the lounge was such a bad idea after all…

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20 replies on “Where’s Your Boyfriend?”

I ran pubs for several years, and I know what you mean. There’s usually one or two regulars in most nights who still have the outdated idea that women only go to pubs to be picked up by blokes, and more bizarrely they believe that it’s them women go to pubs to find. It must be the alcohol or something.

There are good pubs out there, usually ones that either cater to the younger drinkers, or the beer aficionados. Or those that have women behind the bar, not just as barmaids but as landladies or managers, people that have a say in how the place is run and the authority and ability to tell the idiots to get out.

The problem is though, finding them.

I’ve found in the past when I used to travel around a bit, that using the GBG was useless. Often I’d walk into a pub and find it uncomfortable, and I’m an extrovert. While the descriptions are written by the people who drink in there all the time, the regulars that may or may not be part of the problem, then it’s always going to be difficult to know before hand what the place is actually like.

As for a solution? I’m afraid I don’t have one. CAMRA could, and possibly should take more of an active role to encourage pubs to deal with it, and maybe also highlight those where an issue has been identified. But to first know of the issue occurring, people have to speak out about it.

Thanks for this, Boak.

Maybe you can settle an argument between me and my friend (and py). Because my friend said that it’s OK if you’re nice about it (“hello, are you on your own, can I sit here, you’d rather I didn’t sit there? OK, I’ll leave you to it”) whereas I said that that could get to be a pain as well, especially if it was happening two or three times. Then he said it would never happen three times in one place, and I said it might do, and he said it wouldn’t, and I said it would too, and – well, I won’t bore you with the intricacies of the argument.

The experiences you describe sound horrible, but they also sound like men behaving badly – using noise, weight & numbers to intimidate you. It seems to me that polite and friendly pickup attempts could also turn women off (some) pubs, particularly if they kept on happening. But maybe most women brush those off; I know I’m an introvert (and so is my wife).

Confession: I once made up somebody I was “waiting for”, to get rid of a pickup attempt. It was a bloke, in a gay pub. Honestly – men!

Phil is singularly unable to distinguish in his mind between a friendly and appropriate greeting and an overt pickup attempt.

I’ve had to stop going to pubs because the barman keeps asking “what I would like” and I have to explain I’m not gay. It just gets tiring after a while.

Telling people what they’re thinking is a nasty, bullying habit. Don’t do it.

If someone I don’t know asks to join me at my table I don’t think “gosh, what a nice, friendly person”; I think they’re probably trying to pick me up. (Or else they’re trying to sell me something, get me to give them some money, convert me to their religion, give me free tickets to their poxy sodding one-man show…) But this may just be me – I’m interested in other people’s experiences, particularly women’s.

Whilst not strictly a pub the Milk Thistle in Bristol has strict rules about men approaching women they didn’t come with so it is possible to run a hugely successful drinking establishment with rules like this in place.

Any of you guys ever sat at one of them big tables in a Munich Beer Garden? People who want to be left alone, get left alone. People who want to talk to others, do so. I talk to others there, including girls. People talk to me there. People of all ages, people of both sexes. Last girl I talked to was disappointed I didn’t want to pick her up what with me being a good boy. I pretend to not understand homosexuality even exists so as not to offend chaps on the pick up.

I talk to strangers there because I am on my own on business and it’s a great way to practice speaking a foreign language in fairly friendly relaxed circumstances. I’ve actually made friends from some of the strangers I met. I never talked to anyone reading a book though someone who is now a good friend began by putting her book down to join a discussion I was having with some other guys. She was on her own as the shifts she worked meant none of her friends were off work that day. We ended up having dinner that night and have since met up for a drink in 4 different countries via the magic of facebook. Nicer than sitting in a hotel room on your own.

Don’t thing I ever disturbed anyone. Eye contact, a nod and a smile seems to be the precursor for strangers talking. Everyone’s at it there. It’s quite normal. It’s abnormal to want to sit on your own and have your own table. I’ve sat on my own with a laptop and people ignore the empty tables and come and sit at yours and talk to you. Weird lot the Germans.

Cookie you’re a disgusting sexual harrasser. Talking to strangers? How rude and inconsiderate of you. Eye contact and nod and a smile at a strange woman? Can you imagine if five different people did this in a single afternoon, the poor woman would be extremely distressed from warding off all these smiling men.

Never make eye contact with hen nights, py. When walking through MarienPlatz I made that mistake. They were collecting the tags from male underwear. Whilst they went away happy to get a marks and sparks tag, unusual for them, I felt dirty and violated and barely escaped with my trousers. No one should have to deal with groups of drunk women. Not when all one wants is a quiet snitzel & weissbier and early night.

Autres pays, autres moeurs, Cookie, old bean. Or maybe not as autre as all that…

Eye contact, a nod and a smile seems to be the precursor for strangers talking.

If you think about it, that’s exactly what I was proposing on the other thread: a man wanting to approach a woman makes non-verbal contact and waits for her to acknowledge it, and if those two boxes don’t get ticked he forgets it and moves on. The great thing about catching someone’s eye is that you can’t do it forcibly (“Oi! I’m glancing at you!”).

I was a little bit disgusted with myself for choosing option 3 (lying about my boyfriend being on his way) but at the time I thought it would be the quickest way to get left alone by someone pestering me.

Much as I’d like to have said, ‘nope, he’s not chaperoning me this evening, I am out by myself for a beer and not interested in the slightest in being chatted up by drunken strangers, thanks’ – experience tells me this would most likely be seen as some kind of challenge.

Though the tea light thing is annoying (especially when they suddenly go out and fill your face with smoke), if they put off a few cock monsters from hassling women then they’re probably worth it. Though as far as I know, the pub I talked about in my original post doesn’t have many incidents of that happening. I’ve certainly never seen it happen myself.

I’ve never approached a lone (or otherwise together) woman in a pub. For me, the chances of getting anywhere with any woman in practically any situation are as close to nil as you can imagine, so I’m hardly likely to do it in a pub where the chances of public humiliation are extremely high.

May I commend the following film to you, Mark.

It is not a licence for uncouth behaviour towards the ladies and please leave alone all that wish to be left alone and never shout “where’s your boyfriend, treacle, phoarr”. Be neither a knob nor a yob. But have a watch and learn and improve your gamesmanship. A gentleman is never be short of female company.

I was often the designated boyfriend in taverns back in college days. Meaning the girls in my gang spent the evening in crowded places getting my attention to show me to guys trying to get their attention: “no thanks, I am with him over there.” I was big. After Ontario dabbled with prohibition, with the return of public drinking places in 1931 came different classes of license and one was for women only. It was for exactly the reason of harassment, not based on a sexist idea so much as positive lobbying.

Totally agree with you Boak. I think the role of the publican / staff is really important in creating a welcoming atmosphere, which includes managing behaviour. But even in my brilliant local where the landlord and landlady are totally on the ball and the regulars know my partner, after a few beers one or two have been known to overstep the mark. With them I am quite happy to deal with it myself, but as Emma says in a strange place you never quite know if sticking up for yourself is going to make things worse. I have female friends who will under no circumstances go in any pub on their own (which often means they deliberately turn up 10 mins late to be sure they’re not the first to arrive). On the other hand I’ve had lots of nice, non-worrying chats with blokes in pubs. Ordering a pint of decent beer and talking about it is a great non-sexual ice-breaker which sets the tone for the conversation. I find it hard to believe there are still men who don’t know how to navigate the ‘minefield’. Tip: If a woman in a pub chips in to your conversation or makes eye contact and smiles, then it’s probably fine to chat to her (which is different from chatting her up!). Otherwise leave her alone.

Lorraine has nailed it in my view, but I don’t think what Cookie is describing is that different. If i was interested in the conversation at the bar, I would signal this by listening, making eye contact etc. All the usual social cues.

Going into a corner, not making eye contact and opening a book is a pretty good sign I don’t want company. I don’t know why this is so hard for some people to understand.

Good post. I love pubs and am comfortable going into them on my own, but I have many female friends who aren’t, and I completely understand why.

I look and sound fairly obviously female, but I’m also scruffy, fat, and past my mid-thirties (I hasten to add that I see all three of these as neutral-to-positive qualities), which probably has something to do with why I’m lucky enough to escape much of the harassment that Boak and other women experience.

For those commenters (here and elsewhere) worrying that women asking not to be harrassed is the death knell to conversation, Lorraine’s summed it up very nicely: “If a woman in a pub chips in to your conversation or makes eye contact and smiles, then it’s probably fine to chat to her (which is different from chatting her up!). Otherwise leave her alone.”

I wonder if some of the pushback against sensible advice like Lorraine’s comes from thinking that as an adult man who’s spent a lot of time in pubs, one shouldn’t need advice on interacting with other people — perhaps these men think they know it all already, and have no need of advice. Clearly some of it comes from not noticing or acknowledging the asymmetry between being a man in a pub and being a woman in a pub.

Here’s an interesting article written by a man who decided to mirror a harrasser’s behaviour back at him: Changing The Creepy Guy Narrative.

Thanks for that – it’s such good sense. (When I made a slightly more extreme suggestion on another thread, I got treated as if I was saying that all pubs should have the social codes of a monastery, and a Victorian monastery at that.)

It is obvious when you think about it. It is not a good idea to call out and get someone’s attention, just because you think you’d like to talk to them. It is not a good idea to interrupt somebody who’s reading a book, to say “What are you reading?”. It is not a good idea to talk to somebody who doesn’t want to talk to you, even if you think you can persuade her that she does in fact want to talk to you. This is not all part of getting to know somebody. It might work out fine if you try it, but really, your desire to find a friend doesn’t take precedence over her desire to be left alone. There are plenty of people out there who aren’t reading books, don’t want to be left alone and do want to talk to you – go and find one of them.

At least, that’s what I’d say if I were a woman.

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