Friday, October 5, 2012

The grey area

This is not about rape. This is about every other form of inappropriate touching, harassment, and verbal abuse that women must deal with every damn day. Ladies, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It varies from the slightly annoying placement of a stranger's hand on the small of your back in a bar to genuinely feeling trapped and fearing for your life because of a man's harassment.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the fact that some, if not most, men seem to think that they are entitled to touch women - strangers - in intimate places on their bodies whenever they please. The most common offender is the small of the back touch as a man is trying to get by behind you. This inappropriate touch is so widespread that it deserves its own specific category. When this post came out on Jezebel this summer, it spread like wildfire on Facebook and other social media sites. This blog was so cathartic for all of us who have suffered through the humiliation of being made to feel like our bodies are somehow always in open season for men's probing hands. I've often moved a man's arm off of me in this situation, given a dirty look, or maybe once or twice stuck out a strategic elbow in a crowded bar. But this scourge continues on in every public space across the land.

This form of touching does not physically hurt, but over time accumulates to leave women feeling like we are not safe. If a man is entitled to touch you in an intimate spot 2 inches above your butt whenever he damn well pleases because he's "just trying to get by," where does it end?

One recent blog, aptly titled "I’m a Porn Star, and if You Harass Me I Will Punch You in the Balls," recounts the woman's experiences as a porn actress, trade show model, and average woman on the street. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the harassment she has encountered in her profession is "absolutely nothing, NOTHING, compared to what it's like to be a girl or woman walking around in public in broad daylight. With dirty hair up in a ponytail or bun, no makeup, and baggy clothing on. With headphones in, sitting in a coffee shop or on the subway with your nose in a book, or talking on the phone." It is inescapable. Particularly if you are a woman living in an urban area who has the audacity to walk down the street or ride a subway train alone.

It gets worse than cat calling and short touches. This is my story, and it is just one story in an innumerable list of incidents of harassment.  I was taking my umpteenth trip from Sacramento to San Diego to visit my family. I am a frequent solo traveler and have been for years. It's no big deal. It never made me feel vulnerable...until this day. I was sitting in the window seat in the middle of the plane.  This man came and slid into the middle seat next to me. He was probably in his early 40s and seemed friendly enough. I had a law school book out so he started chatting me up about law school. I don't particularly like "plane buddies" but I've met a few interesting people in the past in this way, so I went with it. He earned my trust with his friendly, harmless demeanor.

Then it happened. He put his hand on the top of my thigh. I naively though at first, maybe he didn't realize and slid over a little. Then he slid his hand over and inward to my inner thigh. We stopped talking. I was frozen. What do I do? I was stuck in the window seat. I crossed my legs. He moved his hand in further. I scooted away. Nothing changed. My inner self was on fire. I need to tell him to stop touching me. I should ring the flight attendant bell and report this creeper. Instead, I did nothing. I looked out the window and scooted away and wanted to crawl out of my skin. Eventually my obvious coldness towards him and a few pointed dirty looks convinced him to slide his hand away. Then I had to sit next to this creep for the rest of the plane ride. And I did nothing.

This story took place last year. Yes, as in my second year of law school as a 27-year old woman. I am a woman who prides herself on being strong and standing up to people. Yet, I did nothing. I was actually ashamed. He had done this to me. He earned my trust and violated me. Yet I was too ashamed to tell anyone because I was ashamed that I did nothing. But today I am putting this in a public forum because it needs to stop.

It is all a spectrum. Women deal with some form of harassment all the time. There were times when I was living in an urban area where I was harassed at least once a day. This includes this summer when I was living in Oakland. It was at least twice a day while walking to and from work, usually multiple times on each trip. It's exhausting, and sometimes scary.

One brave woman recently posted about her experience fending off a stranger hitting on her in a train who, in his rejection, threatened to kill her. She shared her story because "in [her] own way, [she] can (unfortunately) point out exactly what is wrong with men when they don’t realize how hard it is to be a woman. How we do not have equal opportunities and freedoms in everyday life. How most men, even good caring men, have no clue what we go through on a daily basis just trying to live our lives."

She's right. A lot of men don't realize how hard it actually is to be a woman just living her life. This is why they don't realize when they aggressively hit on you verbally from a car while following you, stand too close to you in a public place, or even commit their favorite small of the back move, it is scary. And there is no law in place that we could enforce against them. This is the grey area. The solution is not the law. It's standing up for yourself and making others aware that this is happening and that it's not okay. I know this, but when I had a chance to stand up to a harasser, I did nothing. And the woman on the train did nothing. But we are sharing our stories and others should too. It is not okay. This is the grey area, the in between space we are forced to negotiate.


Sam said...

“One of my biggest pet peeves is the fact that some, if not most, men seem to think that they are entitled to touch women - strangers - in intimate places on their bodies whenever they please.”

I would argue that this is another aspect of rape culture. Men are entitled to women’s bodies. Consent is of very little importance. Two additional factors make this worse. First, in their relationships with women, men are taught to be the aggressors. Second, men fail to understand this kind of touching as a violation, since if a woman were to do the same thing, it would not be seen as threatening, since most men simply don’t experience women as threatening. These three factors lead men to touch women without asking for consent and without realizing how threatening it is.

“A lot of men don't realize how hard it actually is to be a woman just living her life. This is why they don't realize when they aggressively hit on you verbally from a car while following you, stand too close to you in a public place, or even commit their favorite small of the back move, it is scary.”

I agree with you. Being a man, and a rather large man, I simply don’t experience this kind of fear. I’ve never thought twice about walking to the parking lot at midnight or going out running at 1 AM.

However, men are capable of listening to women’s experiences and changing their behavior accordingly. But I would argue that two factors tend to prevent this from happening. First, masculinity prevents men from getting to understand women’s experiences at this level, since doing so undercuts their masculinity. Being able to “think like a woman” makes you a feminine, and since femininity is inferior, this is the ultimate blow to masculinity.

Second, male privilege allows men to privilege their own experiences as the “correct” experiences and women’s experience as “crazy” or “irrational.” This leads to outright dismissal of women’s experiences.

Attisaurus said...

I think an integral part of this post, and this systemic social violation issue, is the male entitlement to SPACE. Women are not socialized like we own the world physically - we are shunned from public favor for being persons of size, called out as "bitches" for taking up political space and speaking out in public spaces for what we believe in [*cough*HILLARY*cough*], and we are penalized for not being "ladylike" by older generations who sometimes follow this archaic, ridiculous norm of "you should smile more, you're such a pretty girl."

This unwanted touching, invasion of privacy and space, and daily harassment is only the consequence of a lifetime of conditioning that we are accessories in society. The girlfriend, the trophy wife, the pretty girl. Keeping our legs crossed, our pubic hair manicured, and our outrage and complaints to ourselves.

MC said...

Two short sentences really stood out to me in this post. You wrote, "Yet, I did nothing. I was actually ashamed." I can think of a handful of times that I've felt shame in response to being inappropriately touched, even when I did something about it. Did you know that shame is a common psychological response to sexual harassment? I wonder if perpetrators ever experience shame?

As you describe, you were a 27-year-old woman reading your law books. In no way did you invite the unsolicited touching of your inner thigh by this stranger. My understanding is that shame stemmed from you not reacting more strongly, but a recoil is something, and this guy had absolutely no right to touch you in the first place! In a similar situation I did nothing because I was so shocked by the man who fastened my seat-belt and lifted my skirt. Although I eventually stood up and moved, I also felt ashamed that I did not do more. It infuriates me that shame is the psychological effect of being sexually harassed.

I agree that it's important to stand up for yourself and make others aware that sexual harassment is not okay. But I also wish that women wouldn't feel shame when they are not able to.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

I am posting here the same comment I made to tzey's post on essentially the same subject:

One of my favorite "early" (relatively speaking--it was 1993) feminist legal theory law review articles was (and is) "Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women" by Cynthia Grant Bowman in the Harvard Law Review. You can read about it here:

A link to the full article is here:

CET said...

Sometime in the last few years I realized I have a skewed sense of personal space. I tend to speak relatively close to other people and sometimes, I will admit, I touch them...even if I don't know them. I am that person who touches the grocery clerk on the shoulder to say "thank you" when they help me find the hot sauce aisle.

Numerous friends have pointed out that it is likely inappropriate for me to do this and probably makes people feel uncomfortable. I have always felt that because my intentions are nowhere near sexual, my behavior is ok. I sometimes feel like, as humans, we are afraid of other people and want to protect our personal space to such an extent that we shut others out. I guess I just want to connect with others and touching a stranger's shoulder to give a quick but hearty "thanks" is one way I do that.

This type of touching is not exactly what the posts is referring to, but regardless it has left me with a couple of questions. Is it ok for me to be touching strangers, men or women? If it's creepy when men do it, it's probably creepy when I do it as well (or maybe not?). Also, if a man touched a woman with the same intentions that I have, is that still creepy? Perhaps it's creepy anytime a man touches a woman he does not know, regardless of his intentions.

KRB said...

A common theme in this post and the posts about street harassment is feeling shame after not “doing more” in response to street harassment or inappropriate touching by strange men. I think part of the problem is that we never know how a stranger is going to react. I think I would take the shame over a threat of violence, but that doesn’t make the shame any less painful. While I don’t have a solution, I think it is helpful for us to share this sentiment.