Watching Porn at Starbucks, Polluting a Party with Strangers, and Other Questionable Advice [UPDATE]S

Welcome to Thatz Not Okay, a regular column in which I school inquiring readers on what is and is not okay. Please send your questions (max: 200 words) to caity@gawker.com with the subject "Thatz Not Okay."

I'm a graduate student who works from coffee shops once or twice a week. Yesterday I was at Starbucks when I noticed that the guy next to me was looking at porn. There was somebody else sitting on the other side of him, which meant that he didn't have the option of angling his screen away from either of us (a friend who lives in the same neighborhood has also seen this dude look at porn at Starbucks; apparently he sometimes tries to be more sly/polite by angling the screen away from the person next to him if he's in a corner seat). Anyway, he was NOT in a corner seat, and I couldn't un-see the photos of big vein-y penises going into things (vaginas, mostly, I think...maybe also some anuses). He was probably three or four feet away from me—the seating is pretty close together—and I could see his screen VERY CLEARLY.

He was doing, or pretending to do, some sort of other work, but he pulled up the porn every few minutes for a little while, kind of like a normal person would do with Facebook.

I find it kind of gross that he views porn in a public place, and I don't really want to look at him looking at porn. Plus, there are only a couple of outlets, which means that if I take one of them that there's a high chance that he'll sit next to me when he arrives. I kind of want to approach him and say something like, "Um, could you put your porn away while you're at Starbucks? Thanks." Is that okay?

Thatz not okay.

There are some situations in which it would be considered cowardly or, at the very least, bizarre, to ask a manager to intervene on your behalf; for instance, if he were stepping on your power cord. This is not one of those situations. Awkward encounters like this are the reasons Starbucks hires managers in the first place. Someone's got to prevent drunk people from having sex in the bathroom. Someone's got to inform the gentleman enjoying pornography that he's making other customers uncomfortable. It's not your job to run the Starbucks rodeo.

It's important to note that he might not be breaking any Starbucks rules by watching porn on their free wifi. If he starts discreetly masturbating, scone in one hand, bone in the other, in the middle of Starbucks, that's illegal. If he starts tapping kids on the shoulder and ramming porn down their throats, that's illegal. If he threatens the manager with violence after being asked to get his rocks back on (as this man did to a fellow patron who asked him to stop watching porn in Starbucks), that's illegal. Politely declining to stop watching porn while he works might not be. (It's legal, if frowned upon, to watch porn in New York public libraries. As a private business, Starbucks probably has its own guidelines.*)

Maybe he's a fellow grad student writing a dissertation on human sexuality. Maybe he's a pornographic film editor, watching these clips with as much emotion as you would watching this video of NYC street signs being manufactured. (Or less because that video is pretty neat.) Maybe he simply enjoys porn and always burns the beans when he tried to brew coffee at home.

To be fair to the freak-a-leek watching pornography in a public coffee shop, you are in a public coffee shop. You're not at your home; you're not your office; you're not in your grad student carrel in the university library. Perhaps he will be so embarrassed upon learning that other people have noticed him watching pornography that he will stop (or at least find a new Starbucks). If he doesn't care who sees him, there's not much you can do.

You are the one actively invading his privacy by looking at his computer screen. He's the one passively watching a video on his computer.

If you find the contents of this gentleman's computer screen too distracting (good thing he's not viewing anything sensitive like his bank account information), switch to another coffee shop. If you live in a college town, there are bound to be several dozen.

*UPDATE: Before answering this letter, I sent a query to Starbucks' customer service department to learn the chain's policy on viewing porn over its free wifi network. Just heard back from a spokesperson:

"We do not tolerate obscene or lewd behavior in our stores, including viewing pornography. We trust our customers to use good judgment and respect other customers using the space."

Guess we're back to watching our porn at McDonald's.

To celebrate my birthday in a few weeks, I rented a (kind of pricey) party bus for a night of debauchery. I thought pretty carefully about who I invited because I wanted to include my closest friends but seating was limited. I also invited the significant others of those friends who have them, even those significant others that I'm not that close to independently. This morning, one of those significant others, the girlfriend of a friend, cheerfully informed me that her boyfriend (the target of my invitation) had to bail out, but that not only was she still planning to attend, but that she would be bringing along another friend of hers in my friend's place. I would be fine with her attending on her own (after all she was invited), but I'm annoyed that she unilaterally decided to invite a stranger to an intimate event (for which I'm also footing the bill). Is it okay for me to politely explain that I'd rather offer that spot to one of my other friends?

Thatz okay.

If this guest would feel uncomfortable attending your birthday party alone, that's not a sign she should invite another guest to make her feel more at ease; that's a sign she should not attend your party.

The reason you don't print "non-transferable" on birthday invitations isn't because they're transferable, it's because they're so obviously non-transferable that there's no need for you to explicitly state it. HALE NO you cannot invite a stranger to someone else's birthday without their permission. You can't do it if you're not close friends with the birthday gal. You can't do it if you are close friends with the birthday gal. Not in a box, not with a fox, nuh-uh, can't do it.

Let's construct a scenario in which it would be alright for this person to invite her friends to your birthday:

  • She throws you a birthday party.

It was generous of you to include friends' significant others in the first place. You are under no obligation to include insignificant others. (I wonder if the friend she invited is even aware of the circumstances? In college, a guy once invited me "to a party," that, I learned too late, was actually an intimate birthday gathering. I didn't know anyone there except this guy with no decorum and one girl who'd been in my French class, like, two semesters before? And then, at the end of the dinner, he asked if I wanted to go to his house and get in a hot tub? I was like BYE.)

Having said all that, there's no reason to be rude when you inform your friend's girlfriend that this shit is not how we roll in BirthdayTown.

Obviously, she has never been invited to a birthday party before and therefore has no idea how they work. Don't turn your interaction with her into a lecture on manners; leave that to your friend Professor Higgins, the gentleman who has elected to civilize this feral child.

Keep your tone light but make sure it's clear you are informing her of the new plan, rather than proposing an alternative to hers. No "I would rather…" or "I was hoping…" I'd go with something like:

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear Henry can't make it, but I'm glad you can still come! Since the bus can only hold 20 people, I made a list of friends to invite in case any of my original guests dropped out. I'm going to invite my friend Jess in Henry's place. She's really funny – you'll love her! Can't wait to see you, byeeeeeee!"

The key is to get in there, lay down the law, and get out quick.

Have fun at your birthday, byeeeeeee!

Submit your "Thatz Not Okay" questions (max: 200 words) here. Image by Jim Cooke.