This is tangentially in response to someone’s post about a strange woman touching her tattoo. I’m also still mulling over the article from my last post. I was feeling grateful that I have never been touched like that by a stranger, but then it occurred to me that that wasn’t true.
Sometime last summer, I was bussing home wearing a low-ish cut top and my ubiquitous key necklace. I get a fair number of questions about the necklace, as it is a) part of a stupid hipster trend that some people find mystifying, and b) obviously a real key on a chain, rather than something created specifically as an item of jewelry. I actually rather like talking about it. An older man on the bus asked me about it, and as I was explaining, poked it, and then picked it up off my chest, his hand still touching my skin.
What I would have liked to do was loudly exclaim, “Whoa! Dude! Keep your hands to yourself! You’re nearly touching my boobs!” But I didn’t. I just stood there silently, eyes going glassy and smile turning from genuine to strained, and felt grateful that my stop was next. Why? Partly, I was surprised that he had done that. But mostly, I didn’t want to make him embarrassed, or the other people on the bus uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be a bitch, making a scene out of nothing.
What. The. Fuck? This man had already made me uncomfortable. I don’t think that ‘he did it to me first!’ is an excuse for negative behaviour, but I’m pretty sure the discomfort I felt at having my personal space violated > the discomfort other people might feel from finding out that it had happened. I also think it would be valuable for that man to know that touching me was an inappropriate action, so he can change his behaviour. I would like to give this man the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that he was just very interested in my necklace and didn’t think that touching me might make me uneasy, and that if he was aware, he would have felt bad. What I fear is that he was a creep taking advantage of social strictures, which promote silence and passivity, to perv on a young woman. Why do I fear this? Because this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered stupid shit like this.
You want a list? No? Too bad. Let’s get our uncomfortable on!
- The father of some of the children I babysat often commented on my appearance, talked about inappropriate things like drug use with me, and once asked on behalf of his “friend,” who thought I was very attractive, if I had a boyfriend.
- When my mother got me to show a self portrait to at least two of our male family friends, the first thing out of their mouths related to my breasts. I think “Hey, nice rack!” was the gist of what one of them said.
- My aunt regularly comes out with things like what she said the day after I had been seriously injured at a concert: “Nice bruise! It matches your hair. Hey, it’s like you brought it upon yourself!” (Just to show I don’t think this stuff is exclusive to men and sexuality-it’s just easier to think of concrete examples of that.)
- Multiple (mostly male) friends have ‘accidentally’ touched my breasts, including ‘accidentally’ cupping and stroking it under my shirt.
- A couple of us were at a bar, and some brodouches were hitting on my (thin, model-gorgeous) friends, and then turned to me, my sister, and my bff (who are all lovely, curvaceous hotties, but…) and sarcastically said, “You guys look great, too!”
- Same bar, but different night and different group of brodouches: one of them ‘accidentally’ poured his water down my back. (Although I believe I did eventually go tell the bouncer, not that there was much he could do.)
There is an entire category of human interaction in which we balance vagueness against directness, so that we communicate our actual intentions while still allowing everyone to pretend nothing of the sort was going on. Steven Pinker does a comprehensive job of explaining why this is advantageous here: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Seriously, go watch it. Pinker says this is why we flirt, rather than just say, “Hey, I think you’re hot, let’s bone!” But the same social rules that save us from the embarrassment of hearing the blunt reply, “No, I think you are repulsive, and I’d much rather go home and look at the internet,” also kept me from saying or doing anything in the situations I’ve described. Because if I did, the person could just turn around and claim that that’s not what they meant at all, that I am being oversensitive, that I should take it as a compliment.
This is the problem with Pinker’s “indirect speech acts.” I know and they know what their true intent was, but the words, the closest thing to physical evidence we have here, don’t necessarily reflect that. The only evidence I have is that I felt creeped out, I felt unsafe, I felt hurt. And particularly because I am young and female, it is very easy to discredit my perceptions. Further, we the group don’t want to have to get involved. We know people often don’t involve themselves in other’s problems (go look up ‘bystander effect’), but why?
There’s a pretty self-explanatory survival instinct thing going on, but it’s more than that. I would argue that we resent having to care about strangers, and we even resent acknowledging that bad things happen at all. We like to maintain certain fantasies, about what happens in the world, who it happens to, and under what circumstances. My fear was that, if I spoke up on the bus, resentment would win out over sympathy in people’s minds. ’Clueless, nice old man vs. sensationalizing, overreacting bitch’ would win out over ‘handsy jerk vs. nice young woman’. That people would turn their censure on me for forcing them to recognize something unpleasant about men and women, not in the abstract but in the real world, right in front of their eyes. And things are further complicated when it’s someone we know, not a stranger on the bus, and we may have to integrate the idea that our friend is maybe not always a good person.
I think it would be a shame to completely remove obliqueness from human communication. We’d lose some of the complexity that makes human interaction exciting, as well as a lot of excellent comedy. And yes, I think the man on the bus was probably just clueless; we’ve all done something wrong without realizing it at some point. But we should try to make it okay for people to speak up, and not worry that they will be further attacked. And on the occasions when we do feel the urge to use vagueness to get away with saying or doing something ‘wrong’, maybe we should stop for a moment. Maybe we should consider that if we don’t want to do it directly, if we think there would be negative consequences, maybe it’s not something we should be doing at all.