Polyamorous blogger Ginny tells a horror story about how a woman she didn’t know had the temerity to presume that it would be okay to move her tank-top strap over an inch so that she could see the rest of the tattoo on her shoulder. The back of her shoulder.
They were brought to my active attention when I heard a woman’s voice directly over my left ear say, “Can I look at your tattoo?” I made some sort of uninvolved affirmative answer like “Sure,” or “Uh huh,”…
Mind you, I still haven’t turned around, so I have no idea who the woman is who’s asked me to look at my tattoo, except I think maybe she’s a waitress? The next thing I know she’s pulling the strap of my wide-strapped tank top to the side, then lifting it away from my shoulder so she can peer underneath. I sort of freeze at that point, thinking, “Whoa, this lady is manhandling my shoulder and my clothing in a way I was not prepared for and am not really happy about.”
The unmitigated audacity, I tell ya! And apparently some dude behind Ginny agreed, and mildly rebuked the hapless tattoo admirer.
Then one of the other people in the cluster, a man, said, “Dude, she didn’t say you could look down her shirt.” And she responded, “It’s just the shoulder, it’s not like I’m looking down the front of her shirt,” and then she added, “I just really like tattoos,” and maybe he said something else, I’m not sure, because I was just sitting there staring fixedly at the menu and thinking, “Why is this person touching me what is going on i don’t even know.” But something the guy said, or maybe just the way I was sitting there rigidly instead of turning around to engage in friendly conversation made the woman realize she was maybe being a tad inappropriate, so she let go of my clothes and patted me soothingly on the arm and said some half-apologetic patter. To which I didn’t really respond because I was still in my “I am so weirded out right now and your soothing pat is STILL YOU TOUCHING ME” frozen zone. And I think by this point she got that I was really uncomfortable, so she broke out the magic words to make it all better: “It’s okay honey, I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean, I like men, ha ha.”
Ginny then articulates what she would have liked to have said to the personal-space invader, if doing so would not have required prolonged interaction:
If I was the kind of person who addressed near-strangers with frankness and a desire to improve the world, I’d have stopped her at some point and said, “Listen, lady, I wasn’t weirded out because I thought you were hitting on me. I date women. I was weirded out because you were tugging my clothes around and peering underneath them, and even in such an innocuous area as the shoulder that’s not really okay to do to someone you don’t know. Keep that in mind for future reference, and also keep in mind that just because someone has a tattoo doesn’t mean it’s okay to touch them or put your face right up close to their body unless they invite you to. And also don’t touch pregnant women’s bellies unless they invite you to, because I’m 90% sure you probably do that too. In fact, in general don’t go around touching strangers and very casual acquaintances without their consent. Some of us really don’t like that, but we’re conditioned by social norms not to say anything about it and just to let it happen. And by the way, have you heard of rape culture?” [Emphasis mine – KR]
Of course, she realizes that the rape culture line is a bit drastic:
Okay, I probably would have ended my PSA somewhere before “rape culture.” But of course I didn’t give her any kind of PSA, because when someone is invasive and makes me uncomfortable the last thing I want to do is prolong my interaction with them by carefully explaining why what they did was wrong. [Emphasis mine – KR]
FTB Blogger Miri, also commenting on this story, offered her thoughts on the act of physically touching someone without their consent.
There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with being touched, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person touching them. Some people have triggers as a result of past trauma. Some people just don’t know your intentions because they don’t know you or your sexual orientation, so they don’t know if you’re a friendly stranger expressing physical affection because…I don’t know, you like to do that? or if you’re someone who intends to harass and/or assault them. And, most importantly, some people–many people, I’m sure–just want to be left the hell alone by strangers. Sometimes being touched by someone you don’t know is just unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable. [Emphasis in article]
Of course, women are not the only victims of this. [Emphasis mine – KR]
Reading over this, I found myself feeling a bit ill-at-ease about the synopsis here. I fully agree that people have the right not to be touched if they don’t want to be, by anyone at all. I’m pretty serious about autonomy and the ownership of our own bodies (to wit: I support abortion rights, the right to terminate one’s own life, drug law repeal, etc.) I repudiate any suggestion that one person has the right or “privilege” to lay a hand on another.
What bugged me about these posts is the aspect of moral condemnation, the automatic projection of sinister motives, and even the suggestion that such behavior somehow perpetuates “rape culture”.
Recently, we were getting ready to stop at a port, and a “cultural awareness” power point presentation made the rounds in our inboxes. In one of the slides, we were advised that if any of us men – specifically men – were engaged in conversation with one of the local men, and the local were to take hold of our hand and hold it while talking to us, that we should not yank our hands away. The right thing to do is deal with it as long as you can until you can find a way to politely remove it. The reason for this is that in the Middle East, this is perfectly normal – actually expected – behavior. They have a very different sense of personal space than we have in the west (“different” meaning… none exists).
Would I let a Mid-Eastern dude hold my hand? No, I wouldn’t. But would I condemn him for presuming to be able to do so? Absolutely not. It’s how the men were raised. It is as natural to hold each others hands there as it is for us to hold the hands of our spouses here.
Moreover, would I feel victimized? Not in the least. I might feel a bit violated. Maybe awkward and uncomfortable. But I would not feel like a victim. I’d feel like I was exactly what I was – a visitor in the paradigm of a person whose cultural context was different than mine.
And that is the glaring omission in Ms. Miri’s blog post, in Ginny’s blog post, and in the minds of gender feminists in general. It’s the obliviousness to, or refusal to acknowledge, the fact that not every action which you find personally invasive, intrusive, or objectionable is a morally reprehensible act on the part of the actor. Not all of these acts are the product of a culture that feels it has the right to grab your ass whenever it wants. Nor does it perpetuate such a culture. Some times good people are simply brought up in an environment different from yours, and some actions that seem perfectly natural and appropriate to them seem invasive to you. Sometimes that’s just how it is.
But these gender feminists use terms like “victim”, “rape culture”, and “wrong” to describe aspects of actions that clearly had no malicious intent. To characterize benevolent, innocent, or ethically neutral actions using such sinister terms is a disservice to victims of actual sinister acts, and only serves to create ambiguity to otherwise clear moral assessments. This is a specific case of a larger moral principle – to claim to have been victimized when you have not been victimized is a disservice to true victims.
It’s a perfect example of what those of us who reject gender feminism refer to as “professional victimhood”. It is the tendency of gender feminists to view any and all affronts to their own personal senses as a literal assault – just another expression of male privilege. And that such assaults, if accepted by society, can only lead to one place – a culture where rape is accepted and encouraged.
This is the how the logic works, see? If you do not have a problem with a women (who actually did ask permission to see the tattoo, by the way) pulling a piece of fabric over a couple inches so that she could view the whole tattoo on another woman’s shoulder, then you must not have a problem with aggression. This means that you must support rape culture. And since only a sexist misogynist would support rape culture, you must be one of those.
Miri pointed out that men sometimes have to endure this aggression from time to time, and shared the anecdote of a black man being touched by a strange white woman:
Of course, women are not the only victims of this. On the June 14 episode of Citizen Radio, Jamie Kilstein recounts a scene he witnessed on the subway in which two white women–clearly tourists–sat next to a Black man who had headphones on. They tried to talk to him, but he either didn’t hear or ignored them (reasonable in New York City). So one of the women put her hand on his knee and made a comment about it being a “tight squeeze” on the subway, and he immediately responded, “Don’t touch me.” There didn’t seem to be anything sexual about the situation, but that doesn’t make the woman’s behavior any less inappropriate. (While I don’t want to read too much into this, it definitely makes me think about the entitlement that many white people feel to touch Black people, especially their hair.)
I want to emphasize – I support people’s autonomy and their right to be touched only by those they personally approve of. It seems clear that there are people who have no concept of personal space and touching is not something they even notice, there are people who do not like to be touched by anyone (I personally know a few people like this), and there is an entire of spectrum in between those extremes.
As for me, I recognize that the spectrum exists. I recognize that not every breach of my own personal boundaries is a malicious manifestation of some sinister aspect of the culture in which we live. Sometimes these violations of personal space damn well are aggressive and malicious. Often times they are not. When they are, they are to be condemned.
Gender feminists don’t seem to recognize this. To them, all violations are a moral failure. To them, all are aggressive manifestations of privilege. To them, all are to be condemned.
I feel very fortunate not to such a malevolent sense of life. I don’t particularly like being touched by men I don’t know, but unless it’s clearly aggressive or inappropriate (which did happen to me recently), I shrug it off and deal with it.
(Note: I have no problem being touched by women, and I cannot relate to any feeling of revulsion associated with being touched by a member of the sex to which I am attracted [unless the woman herself is particularly repulsive]. But this has no bearing on my assessment – I realize that not everyone is just like me.)
Your desire to touch someone sexually or nonsexually for whatever reason does not outweigh their desire not to be touched. It doesn’t matter why they don’t want to be touched; that’s their business. Just like you wouldn’t touch a bag or a purse that belongs to someone else, don’t touch a body that belongs to someone else–which, by definition, is every body except your own.
To be fair, gender feminists aren’t the only subculture that maintains the delusion that the world ought to conform to their own personal tastes and proclivities. Far from it. But can you imagine how unrealistic this goal is? How small must one’s view of the world be when one believes one ought to be able to dictate one’s own preferences onto all of society – as a moral imperative, no less?
I recognize that society isn’t going to conform to my own personal tastes. I’m going to hear people say things I don’t like to hear. I am going to see people do things I don’t like to see. I’m going to smell things things people do that I don’t like to smell. And from time to time, some dude I don’t particularly like is going to grab my shoulders thinking that he’s being all chummy and cool.
These things happen. Your choice is to accept it and negotiate it as best as you can (as I will do if I ever find my hand being taken by some mid-eastern dude) or rage against it and view yourself as a helpless victim in a malevolent world.