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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

My Body Is Not Your Property

I knit on the bus. It’s a great way to use what would otherwise be pretty dead time; I’m busy enough that the idea of wasting any usable time makes me twitchy. Plus, knitting isn’t just a productive thing for me; I find it very pleasant in a tactile way. I could rhapsodize about merino/bamboo/silk blends for paragraphs, but that’s not really the point. The point is that I do something slightly unusual in public. Also, I am a petite and approachable-seeming woman. This will be relevant.

When you knit on the bus, you get a lot of looks; they range from amused and nostalgic (“oh, my grandmother did that!”) to skeptical (“she better not infringe on her seatmates’ space”/“can she really do that without dropping a stitch?”) to the fellow-knitter nod. You also get a lot of people starting conversations. Most of those begin with the aforementioned “My grandma used to knit” or “What are you making?” I don’t mind those so much when I don’t have my earbuds in; when I do have my earbuds in, there begins a complicated process of marking my place, turning off my music, unplugging my ears, and saying “I’m sorry, what?”, answering the question or comment, then figuring out where I left off and beginning again. Which can be a bit annoying, but okay.

Which brings us to yesterday. I didn’t have my iPod on or earbuds in, so I looked more approachable already; when the (older) woman who sat next to me asked what I was making, I smiled and said “a baby blanket.” She moved on to a variation of the above line: “My mother used to knit.” I nodded and gave a noncommittal “Oh, nice.” She said, “She held the yarn differently.”

And grabbed my hands to demonstrate how her mother held the yarn.

Now, thankfully, the blanket in question is in a really basic pattern, so it’s hard for me to screw up; I call it my idiot knitting. I can deconstruct rape culture for you while knitting this blanket. In detail. And still be knitting on autopilot. The idea that she could’ve screwed up my entire knitting project had I been working on a delicate lace shawl is worthy of note, but is again not entirely the point.

The point is that my body is not public property. The point is that grabbing a stranger’s hands is really not okay.

The point is that this happens all the time.

Not usually with the knitting; many people see that hey, there’s something complicated going on with those hands and sticks and yarn and maybe I shouldn’t step in there. But very often, in the course of my everyday life, I find total strangers getting handsy with me, and I am really not okay with that.

It’s the waiter who pats me on the shoulder as he’s taking my order. It’s the patron in the yarn store who casually puts her hand on my waist as she navigates around me. It’s the person in CVS who just loves my hair so much she has to stick her hands in it.

All. The. Time.

I have found, also, that many of the men in my life have been skeptical that this happens with the frequency I say it does. So I’ve started making them aware of it. I’ll shoot them a look when someone directs me with a hand on the small of my back or my waist; I’ll say “that” with an eyebrow lift after some stranger has wound a curl around their finger or squeezed my upper arm. And slowly but surely, they are realizing how prevalent it is.

And how screwed up it is.

And we are socialized, as women, to not speak up. We are told repeatedly that we should save our ire for things that Matter. That if we object to the small things, our objection to the large things will bear less weight, have less value; that we’ll be painting ourselves as petty complainers.

But the thing is that rape culture exists on a continuum. Is it sexual assault when a stranger grabs my hands or my waist or my hair? In these instances, I do not feel sexually violated, so I’d say no. (It’s important to note that other people may feel differently, and this sort of touch can feel very invasive and triggery.) So the conditioning is to let it slide.

The problem with letting it slide is that small things lead to big things - not necessarily for the people getting handsy with strangers (though in the case of actual bus gropings, for example, absolutely), but for our culture as a whole. These small things are not really that small when you consider the message that they send - and that message is that female bodies are public property.

Because when female bodies are public property, it’s okay to touch them - not just hair, but to grab someone’s butt. When female bodies are public property, it’s okay to take upskirt pictures of random women on the bus. When female bodies are public property, it doesn’t matter what you do to them. They are there to be grabbed, to be ogled; they are there to have things done to them, and how dare the woman object? She left the house in that skirt. She left the house with her hair all pretty.

She left the house, period.

That’s not what the woman on the bus was thinking. Or the waiter, or the yarn store patron, or probably any of the random strangers I’ve been randomly touched by. But it’s there. It is a subconscious thing in our society - that if you are female, everyone has access to your body. That offering access to your body is opt-out, not opt-in. And, like Facebook’s privacy controls, even if you opt out, your choices are disregarded anyway.

I am, unsurprisingly, not okay with this. And I think it can change - I think it has to change, because I think that the smaller things need to change in order for the big things to change. In order to make it clearer that sexual assault is wrong, we need to make respect for bodily autonomy clearer - when people understand that it feels very invasive to have a stranger touch your hip or your waist, they can extrapolate how invasive other things are.

It’s a small thing, as rape culture goes - and it’s one that people tend to ignore. But I think it needs dealing with.

I disentangled my hands from the woman’s and said, with a pointed smile, “Excuse me - I don’t know you well enough to be holding hands with you!” She didn’t seem to like that, and she didn’t talk to me the rest of the bus ride. I could’ve said “Uh, this is a complicated pattern, please don’t make me lose my place!” or something else that might have been less off-putting to her; I could have made excuses. But no - I wanted to address the actual issue at hand, and do so without the loud “DON’T TOUCH ME” I’d've done if someone had touched me in a sexualized manner. I wanted to get the simple point across that I don’t know you and I don’t want you to grab my hands.

This is my body. I’ll wear tight jeans; I’ll wear short-ish skirts. Sometimes there is some cleavage. Often there are sparkly things in my hair. I’m physically affectionate; I hug my friends, I hold hands on the street. I’m friendly - I smile, I do chat on the bus if I haven’t got the earbuds in, I have random conversations with strangers.

But I don’t want you touching or grabbing me without asking. And I don’t want you doing it to anyone else, either.

 

————————
I want to thank Dave for stepping up and doing basically everything for the blog this past week and a half? Two weeks? I was in Wisconsin for a feminist science fiction convention, which I’ll write about next week (we did an excellent panel on rape and sexual assault in genre fiction), and when I got home I launched straight into a frenzy of preparation for this week’s new volunteer training. We have 28 wonderful and excited trainees in the room down the hall right now, getting ready to learn about evidence collection. I love their energy, I love getting awesome new volunteers, and I should really get back to them! :)

Posted by Shira on 06/09 at 10:04 AM

Comments

When my wife was visibly pregnant (both times), suddenly everyone thought that touching her was allowed. Fortunately, she is a strong-minded individual who had no problem telling everyone where to get off.
Posted by Mark Amidon  on  06/09  at  11:35 AM
This. THIS. THIS-THIS-THIS-THIS! (You can has hugz, when you want 'em!)

This is one of those subjects that most of us don't even think about till someone brings it up, then we can's STOP noticing. Thanks for not just bringing it up, but modeling a great way for dealing with the behavior.
Posted by Lisa  on  06/09  at  03:09 PM
so many good points that even i haven't noticed (maybe i just send off a "don't touch me" vibe because i'm lucky enough not to get touched by strangers much) but i do remember random strangers touching my stomach when i was pregnant, which always struck me as awkward and just generally uncomfortable for me. and then there's my son, who is five and has autism. he is also adorable and people generally want to pat him on the head or tickle him or whatever. most of the time he's fine with it but sometimes if he's having an off day he doesn't want people in his personal space. and personally i get nervous when random strangers touch my son because you never know what their intentions are. they could be innocent but they could also be a kidnapper or pedophile. people just need to start respecting others' personal space, period.
Posted by Jessi  on  06/10  at  06:44 AM
THIS.
Posted by Shawna J.  on  06/11  at  04:03 PM
I have have a long mane that people often comment on, and sometimes touch.

It used to be a problem at one job where I would be standing with my back to the room sorting things. My solution? I SCREAMED like a horror film victim and jumped a foot in the air (on purpose. I'm jumpy, but not that jumpy).

It solved things, though I did get a rep for being a weirdo.
Posted by Noel Lynne Figart  on  06/11  at  04:04 PM
I really get that- I remember how much I disliked being touched by strangers when i was preggers.

But- when i was teaching (metalwork)- a lot of times people (mostly women, but then i taught mostly women) responded really well to a quick touch on the shoulder, etc. I tried to be very quick and very sensitive to individual preferences, and I'm sure that helped- and also, it wasn't really a random-stranger sort of thing.

Would I have liked it? I'm not sure- but some people really did respond well to it (and if I called it wrong, I backed off fast and lightly).
Posted by C  on  06/14  at  12:47 AM

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