The other day, I was scrolling through my Facebook News Feed when I saw a picture that sickened me.
A friend of a friend had posted a make-up free image of herself, captioned #nomakeupselfie. Let’s call her Mary, for the sake of convenience and privacy.
There was a round, scabbed cut on her nose and a dark bruise on her left cheek, which matched the color of her black eye. In a description under the photo, Mary explained that she had gotten into an altercation with a stranger at a club in London after she told him that he was not allowed to touch her without her consent. Outraged at this, he had battered her — because she had upset him by telling him that it was inappropriate to touch her like that. He used physical force to prove to her that he had agency over her body, even without her permission.
He hit Mary because he believed that he had a right to touch her.
When I saw the image, I had already been thinking about situations like these — when physical contact occurs without consent, a form of sexual assault.
Earlier this past weekend, I went out with some friends. We went to a venue that I frequent so often I’ve become friendly with the bouncers and servers who work there; I have always felt safe there — usually, the crowd comprises current students or alums from my university, and I know a good enough number of them to feel in my element. As I pushed my way through the crowd — which always doubles in size during the busy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night grinds — I felt someone bump into me from behind. Moments later, I felt a hand — seemingly out of nowhere — reach under my skirt and grab at me.
I turned around immediately, shocked. There was a cluster of three or four older men behind me. They weren’t students, and I wasn’t sure which one had stuck his hand up my skirt. All of them looked away as soon as I made eye contact — though one of them smirked with such a self-congratulatory expression on his face that all I wanted was to dump my drink over his head and tell him exactly how much of a creep he was. I didn’t. I grabbed one of the bouncers, who was circulating the crowd, and told him what had just happened. “I’ll take care of them, sweetheart,” he said forebodingly. Minutes later, I watched as he and another bouncer marched the group of men out of the venue. Then, on the verge of tears, I found the person I’d come with and asked if he’d be willing to take me home.
People grope me so often when I go out that I have come to accept it as a disgusting cultural norm — these instances just happen, I tell myself, and I try to forget them each time they transpire. Many of my female friends feel similarly. We’re all used to it. We are young. We like to go out. We are attractive. We wear clothing that is sometimes tight, short, backless, sheer, or low-cut. Shouldn’t we, then, expect this to come with the territory?
That night, I had worn a black bodysuit — sheer down the middle — tucked into a skirt that covered just a few inches of thigh. I’d felt good, confident, and ready to have fun with friends and classmates I hadn’t seen in a long time. When I got home later, I peeled off my clothes and crawled into bed, wearing the baggiest set of sweats that I could find. I felt uncomfortable — disgusting, dirty — in my own skin. I want to believe that I’m a strong person, unnerved by few situations, but I was shaken.
The incident this weekend was worse than usual for two reasons. First, I had only ever been groped over the clothing before — a brush here or there that lasted a few seconds, each time. Second, it had occurred in a familiar place — my “turf,” where I knew almost everyone and never expected anyone to do anything to hurt me.
What spurs sexualized physical contact without consent? What kind of twisted logic precipitates incidents like what happened to me or what happened to Mary? (The brutality she also suffered opens up an entirely different dialogue altogether)
I can’t imagine that someone who gropes another person in a club, bar, or party setting actually believes that that is at all an enticing means of seduction. How can he or she reasonably expect that grabbing someone’s chest, butt, or what-have-you, without permission, could be a turn-on? Like, hello! People have personal boundaries that we should respect! At best, this kind of groping leaves the victim feeling annoyed or uncomfortable. At worst, it causes them to feel violated, powerless over his or her own body. Usually unsexy, in either scenario.
Then, what is sexualized physical contact like this all about? It becomes less a question of seduction and more about exerting (insecurity-driven) dominance — like, look at me, ra-ra-ra, I am so big and powerful because I can touch people whenever I please, even if they don’t want me to do so! When people grope, it is not because they necessarily derive any physical pleasure from touching someone for a few seconds or because they expect him or her to fall to his or her knees — ready to jump into bed with them at the first word. No, no, no, their sticky fingers result from a desire to demonstrate their power — they grope men, women, other people just because they can. And who’s to stop them? Surely not the people they grope — if these victims voice resistance, they’ll just use violence to silence them, if they want!
How do we deal with this? How can we react if we fear (very real, as in Mary’s case) consequences from speaking up against the people who touch us without our permission? How do we teach people to respect one another? How do we make sure that they keep their hands to themselves?