Guys, why are you trying to hit on us on the street?

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Still from Still from a video: how to hit on girls in the street?

Men often address women on the street using pointless pickup lines. Anouk van Kampen is wondering why. Guys, can you tell us?

It’s Sunday night and I’m waiting for my tram. On the tracks in front of me, a man gets off his bike and seems to address me. I can see his lips move, but I can’t hear him. After I take out my earplugs, he repeats his question. “Are you familiar around here? I am looking for the way to…” He looks around hesitantly. “…your heart.” He smiles and his golden teeth glisten in the light of a lantern post. “Oh, it’s already taken?” he asks. I just nod. He’s on his way again already. He doesn’t seem to feel disappointed or ashamed but rather subdued; it was worth a try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I can’t think of anything witty to shout after him. As usual, words only come to me long after he’s out of sight.

Laugh at flashers

Meeting the man on the tram tracks reminded me of the first time I came across a flasher. Not because I felt equally offended as when I was confronted with an opened zipper fly and all that came hanging from it. I did feel the same odd mixture of stupefaction and bewilderment.

For years, my parents told me to laugh. You just laugh at flashers. Seeing you in shock is exactly what they’re after. Of course I was shocked the moment it happened. I didn’t shout at him to go away, but kept walking. I was too surprised to be laughing. And I was standing at the tram stop last Sunday in the exact same way, equally stupefied and bewildered, staring at the tram tracks without seeing the fun of the event and unable to give a quick-witted reaction.

The twilight zone in hitting on people

Naturally, I am not the only one to get approached on the street, and flashers and weird pickup lines are nothing new either. Gangs of hissing men, guys shouting “Why don’t you answer, hore!” if you don’t reply to their “Hi Baby”, a flasher in the park – it happens to every woman. There was some ado about it in 2013 already, when the Belgian Sofie Peeters filmed how she was harassed on the street in Brussels.

Come-ons often are quite subtle, they don’t leave you feeling unsafe, they aren’t offensive or discriminatory. Sometimes they could even be seen as compliments – the whistling construction worker, the beeping of a car horn – and at the most, they could be annoying. These approaches or come-ons – for lack of a better term – exist in the area where I am not yet considered a slut, but my great personality isn’t being valued either. It’s a twilight zone that can’t be deemed harassment.

In a way, I can still understand the gangs of guys who feel the need to whistle, hiss or call out obscene stuff to women. It’s herd behavior. They need to prove themselves or they just think it’s funny.

Hey sexy, wanna have my baby?

The one I don’t understand, is the lone wolf. The semi-flasher. The man who passes me on my way home and whispers something inaudible into my ear. The man who sits down next to me and offers to put his number in my phone without any introduction. The guy who calls out: “Hey sexy, wanna have my baby?” or “Now don’t be looking so angry, baby!”

These men knowingly or unknowingly break the unwritten dating rules by pretending the street is a nice bar. Am I coming home with them already? If I do respond by saying: “I’d rather not”, most of them flinch or react subdued. They don’t seem to be expecting an actual answer.

You know, I don’t mind. I’m not afraid to wait for the tram at an abandoned station, I won’t dress differently because I have to go out at night. He just fascinates me: this man, be it a 16-year-old Dutch-Moroccon boy or a 45-year-old white guy at the grocery store (“Fancy eating those meatballs at my place?”).

When I ask my male friends, they just say they never do this kind of thing. But then who does, and why? Unlike with the beeping horns or the whistling, for the lone wolf I am the only - ungrateful - audience there. There is no peer pressure to prove himself and the woman he approaches will most likely reject him, so he really can’t be flattering his own ego.

Do they even want to score?

Or could these tactics be effective, after all? Are there any ladies out there who actually get off on it? Was the guy I met at the tram stop a hopeless romantic, hoping for a movie scenario? One where this absurd encounter ends with me falling straight into his arms, making a great story for parties in years to come? “Remember how we met, honey?” Or isn’t he after a result at all, and is it just about scaring me, shouting, trying – like a semi-flasher?

Maybe he is about to meet his friends, or he will message them: “Wanna know what I just did?” as some sort of deferred herd behavior? Is he crossing the city on his bike all Sunday nights out of boredom, to make a stop for every lady who is on the street by herself?

Because of my lack of spontaneous response I’ve never succeeded to find an answer to my questions. That’s why I ask you. You might know or be such a guy. Maybe you are reading this article and just maybe it was you who asked for the way to my heart. Street-pickup-men, who are you?

This article previously appeared in NRC Handelsblad and Translation: Welmoed Smith