It is Absolutely Unnecessary for Men to Touch the Small of My Back

To make these points, I am going to have to rein in my disgust and fury at the very thought of men grazing, slithering, or pawing their hands against the region of my back below my shoulder blades and above my behind. This is because I really do think most men (or at least the men I can bother to try educating) have no idea just how bad it is when they do this to me and other women.

The usual disclaimer applies — a behavior that is gross/scary when it is unwelcome can be comfortable or even exciting when it is welcome (e.g. touching each other’s bits!). And in frequent-enough cases, all that it takes for a behavior to be “welcome” to a woman is for her to think you’re hot. It’s still non-consensual to touch someone out of the blue and you still shouldn’t do it (’cause you can’t be certain she thinks you’re hot) but I’m sure you can come up with a handful of exceptions when a girl has been totally down for you to touch the small of her back (your girlfriend, your prom date, your mutual crush). I’m not talking about these exceptions — except to say, don’t assume you’re an exception, hot stuff.

If I’m being honest with myself, this is what probably actually goes through a guy’s mind when he touches the small of my back (as he passes by me at a party or the club):

blank-mind-dude-has-no-idea-he-is-being-super-creepy

He thinks nothing at all

Regardless of his intent, this is what goes through my mind:

Meanwhile my mind is like: SPIDERS

Meanwhile my mind is like: SPIDERS

Yes, spiders. All I feel are spiders.

  1. Men who do this never make eye contact first and often approach from an angle where I don’t see it coming. Therefore I tend to be caught by surprise and it’s startling. Like with spiders.
  2. Men who do this also tend to use a very light touch (except the occasional drunken paw-ers). I’ll get into why this may be so and why it’s upsetting, but the effect is also: spiders.
  3. I happen to not like being touched by men I don’t know well (‘cuz I’m pretty gay yo, and also rape culture), which reminds me of how sometimes there are freaky little intruders in my personal space, a.k.a spiders.
  4. A lot of men who do this linger like they just wish their hands could hang out on my back for as long as possible and it feels like that slow-mo moment of discovering something is crawling across your body oh holy f– IS THAT A SPIDER?

Look, while some guys are just plain creeps, I’m pretty sure even the most decent of guys (e.g. you) have done or still do this behavior. I think that guys, usually at a preteen or otherwise sexually-awakening age, witness other men doing this to women. They see that and think, gosh, I’d like to touch women, too (I mean, come on, touching women is awesome). So then they try it. And nothing bad happens to them. So they keep doing it.

i-wish-i-could-be-all-the-bad-that-happens-to-guys-that-do-this

I wish I could be all the bad that happens to guys that do this in order to deter them from inflicting back-spiders on myself or anyone else ever again, but there are a couple of things going on which prevent that.

1. It is usually difficult to react due to practical reasons. Guys tend to do this as they are passing by me in a crowded room. It may be too loud to effectively shout my dismay, I might need to focus on getting through a people bottleneck and not getting trampled, and/or I might be carrying a very full drink that would spill if I leapt away in horror.

2. I am not socialized to immediately react to this particular offense and neither are bystanders. If a strange man were to touch my butt it would be “understandable” for me to make a “big deal” out of this, hunt him down, scold him, slap him in the face, and/or sic a boyfriend or security on him, depending on the severity of the butt-touching. The back, however, is not as protected as a “sacred” place and I will neither get sympathy for or even fully understand why it so bothers me when dudes touch it like that.

Ok, but let’s break down why this is so screwy.  A man blatantly touching my butt knows he’s being a perv and knows I know he’s being a perv. A man ever-so-softly touching my back, whether or not he realizes this, is communicating to me that he knows he should not touch my butt (or even my back, really, hence the soft touch), yet wants to get as close as possible anyway. That is scary dude!! You know better but you’re still going to try to get away with something??

I am socialized to think the small of my back is not supposed to be a big deal, but I’m picking up on all these subtle undercurrents and I’m going to feel weird about it anyway. Violated, even.

This is key: whether or not you realize this, you are communicating certain things to me. Look, other men just don’t touch other men on the small of their back like this. Don’t pretend they do. They don’t. Maybe you’ve never thought of it like this, but it is totally a gendered behavior. By that, I mean gender difference is totally involved, and for this behavior, sexual intentions (conscious or not) are totally implied. Whether or not he realizes this, a man touching the small of my back is communicating to me that he has (even the fleeting-iest) sexualized energy for me as a woman, and he feels entitled to act it out in a small way by actually touching me.

Of course, some men don’t particularly have “sexualized energy” for me (or even any women; gay guys touch me inappropriately sometimes too) but what they do still have is that sense of entitlement. That’s even more terrifying, because it communicates uneven power: “I’ll do it anyway and you must accept it because ‘society’ says it is my right.”

The “don’t do this because it makes women uncomfortable” part is thus established, now let’s get back to the “Absolutely Unnecessary” aspect of this behavior. You don’t have to do it. Not ever. Not because you need to get past me in a crowded room. Not because you need to alert me to your presence when you think I can’t see you. Not because you’re worried I’m going to topple over in my high heels (this one makes me the most angry — dude, I am fine, I chose to wear these and I CAN walk in them but it’s kind of my problem to live with if I can’t… AND how is lightly touching my back even going to help me if I am actually falling???).

You don’t have to do it #1 because it’s not consensual and you should not, and #2 some acceptable alternatives do exist, in this order:

  1. Stop being in a hurry and just hover nearby until I notice you and get out of your way, like most folks do (jeez).
  2. Use your words. Speak up, shout if you have to. Hearing-abled people like me like this method the best ’cause it means you’re not doing the touching thing :)use-your-words-right-behind-you
  3. If I can’t hear you (due to environment, deafness, or otherwise)…? Just tap me on the shoulder. Tap tap. There’s a reason why the next thing that popped in your mind was a very polite, “Excuse me miss?” — because polite people put shoulder-tapping in the manners rulebook long ago and manners are really just about choosing actions which should make the most people as comfortable as possible.hand-tap-tap-on-the-shoulder-excuse-me-miss
  4. Didn’t react to your tap or there’s just no time for pleasantries? Use the back of your hand or forearm to respectfully push against the region around my shoulder or my arm above my elbow. Use your palm if you MUST but it’s better if you don’t imply that you are going to grab me. In a crowded room, this movement can be like pushing through a dense thicket. Ah yes, I am simply a branch in your path, not a girl you are going to sneakily touch in her sweet little back parts.touch-here-for-minimal-creepiness

In other words, think about how you would touch a dude if you had to and just stick with that. Oh wow, why did I write this whole blog post when I could have just written that last sentence?

TLDR; If you’re about to touch a woman you don’t know well, think about how you would touch a dude if you had to and just stick with that. (Or just, like, don’t touch her.)

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Guide to San Diego Catcalls

La Jolla

Someone will yell “Hey sexy lady” at you in the parking lot outside of Ross, but you won’t be sure if it’s maybe someone you know.

PB (Pacific Beach)

Walking from one house to another, you’ll get an assortment of whistles and a “Yeah party!” You kind of like the “yeah party!” It’s fun.

Old Town

You hear “How’s your day, pretty girl?” from what you thought were a pile of clothes behind the Wells Fargo History Museum. Eh….please don’t.

Midway

The catcalls are louder and more frequent when you’re with other women. You don’t know if you feel comforted because it seems like they know it’s extra creepy to catcall a woman by herself or annoyed because they know it’s extra creepy to catcall a woman by herself.

Downtown

Surprisingly few calls. You are sad that you’re surprised.

North Park

Some guy will yell “How much?” at you from his car when you’re walking with your girlfriend to your car. It kind of ruins your night.

Normal Heights

Alone on El Cajon Boulevard, a guy will whistle at you from his car. You flip him off. You wonder later why you didn’t pound on his window. It was right there. Fuck him.

catcall-im-a-person-not-a-parrot(True stories.)

 

Should I tell my lesbian friend I think she’s sexy?

…If you’re a guy, the answer is: NO.

I have two guy friends who will probably think this blog post is about them, given things they have told me in the last 2-3 weeks. To them, I shrug my shoulders and say, “You inspire me…?” (Also, you know we talked about it and we’re cool.)

Anyway, I often get some variation of, “If you weren’t gay, I would totally have tried to date you.” Half of the time, this is preceded by something like, “I don’t know if I should say this, but…” or some other sign that the guy knows HE SHOULD NOT SAY THIS. And then, there he goes.

Ok, yes, my life is so hard because people think I’m attractive. I know, I’m supposed to take it as a compliment. Yay, I’m hot! “Thank you?” The thing is, it’s unsettling on so many levels to hear something like this.

1. What am I supposed to do with this information? Really? You know me well enough to know my ego doesn’t need boosting. And that I’m categorically not-interested in men. Are you committing emotional seppuku in front of me because you’re actually a masochist? Do you expect a cookie? Do you feel all better now?

2. It makes me question EVERYTHING about our past interactions. Before: Wow, cool, someone wants to talk to me about life and they think I’m interesting! What a great friendship. After: Oh, was he only being nice to me because he has a broken, one-sided crush? How often did he fantasize about me? This is awkward.

2. I talked to you about girls, dude. I told you the way seeing the back of her neck makes me feel in my crotch parts. I told you things I wouldn’t have told you otherwise, just because it seemed fucking obvious that you and I would never date. I thought we were bros. Now I don’t even know how to act around you any more.

3. Maybe because these guy friends know rejection is guaranteed, they feel free to be painfully honest. I often get more than just a passing, “Not saying I have a crush on you, but I have a crush on you.” I get confessions just short of the guy telling me he’s in love with me. How am I supposed to respond? I don’t secretly think about whether my guy friends are dateable. I cannot honestly say, “Yeah totally, I feel the same way.” I really do not.

4. It just reminds me that men are trained to think their sexual/romantic interest is something that can “validate” a woman. I mean, half of them can guess that I don’t want to hear it. But the other half tell me I make them swoon-stupid without a disclaimer. “I know what will make my friend feel awesome! Knowing that they are totally up to my dating standards! Never mind that I (should) know she doesn’t want to date me — Girl, I checked you against my rubric and you got a 9 out of 10.” Boy, I really didn’t want to be reminded that all your girl friends are categorized into “Would fuck” and “Wouldn’t.”

5. In case this point is not already clear: your sexual attraction to me is *not* a compliment. These are compliments: “You’re funny.” “You’re clever.” “You have amazing hair.” Telling me that in an alternate universe, you would have tried to bang me…? Not. A. Compliment. By virtue of being the opposite of the gender I find attractive, you’re just not that hot. It’s like hearing someone’s kid brother has heart eyes for me. Kind of adorable at first, creepy the more I think about how often I had let him sit in my lap.

I’m over skinny-shaming as a criticism for “All About That Bass”

I am All About That Deconstructing Pop Culture, normally. I am so down to take one tiny thing and analyze it to pieces to make a point. Yet, I had this gut feeling that I “just don’t get” why the skinny shaming in Megan Trainor’s hit single is a big deal. I agree that there are problematic elements, e.g. using black women as props (please read Jenny Trout’s thoughtful essay). Still, it bothered me that friends and other writers were obsessing over this song making a few cheap jabs at slim ladies.

I couldn’t figure out why until I read Melissa A. Fabello’s excellent expose on thin privilege. Like Fabello, “I wear size medium shirts, size seven jeans, and (in case you were wondering) size eight shoes.”  And, like Fabello, I’ve “never had someone dismiss me as a dating prospect based on my body type, nor had someone scoff, openly, while watching me eat French fries in public.” I have thin privilege.

I get that skinny shaming is annoying, or even hurtful. At its worst, it’s part of a larger system that treats women’s bodies like commodities and makes men and other women feel like they have the right to tell us how we should look or what we should eat. As a younger, still-growing string-bean of a little woman, I’ve been told I needed to “eat a sandwich.” I was just trying to buy jeans for my first time all on my own, and I was accused of anorexia by the woman behind the counter. And, yes, it was fucking lame.

Still, I’ve always understood that fat shaming is worse: its an institutional system of oppression. Like Fabello points out, at least the mannequins look like me. At least I know my body type is accepted as desirable, as “normal.” I don’t know what it’s like to be fat, but when my fat friends have complained about how they’re treated, I feel like I should not try to compare their problems to mine. So what if Trainor wants to call me a skinny bitch? I am a skinny bitch.

“That’s skinny shaming,” seems like a whiny complaint. It’s like if a woman of color made a poster for a rally and I told her she used too much glitter and spelled “equality” wrong. “Excuse me?” she should say, “Who are you?” What right would this white girl have to criticize her for doing her best with the tools she has? There’s a song out there promoting something other than the default body type, and all I hear is a chorus of, “she didn’t bend over backwards to make this song feel-good for me. I don’t like it!” I’m sorry, princess, but for once it just isn’t about you.

I don’t think this song deserves accolades. I don’t even think it’s that good of a song. It’s repetitive and boring. It doesn’t make any sense (she’s singing in treble, not bass…??). I’m just disappointed that my fellow thin women feel compelled to complain so loudly about this song. It just feels like #notallmen all over again.

I can say it nicer, but I’m not sure I can say it more succinctly than The Coquette: “For now, please just start listening to better music, and rest assured that the concept of ‘skinny shaming’ belongs in the same pile of imaginary bullshit as cisphobia, misandry, and reverse racism.”

Society policing our bodies: Problem. People who are oppressed using imperfect language to try to fight their oppression: Why are you mad about this, are you fucking kidding me?

You Are Not My Boyfriend (Being a Better Ally)

I’m no improv expert, but it’s my understanding that the key (perhaps) ingredient to a good scene is to Say Yes. Don’t immediately shut someone down when they say something crazy, try to welcome and grow their suggestions, etc. My gut reaction to an untruth is to correct it, so in a party atmosphere I try to put on my “improv” hat and encourage, as much as possible, delusional thinking. This means pretending to have the same astrological sign as anyone who asks, and getting excited about their birthdate-based analysis of my personality. This means catching when the ball is thrown, and dancing when my hand is asked. It’s not always easy for me, but when I get it right, it’s fun.

I was surprised, then, when one guy was “bothering” me and another called me his girlfriend, that I immediately rejected the idea. “Don’t pretend to be my boyfriend,” I said. “It doesn’t help me.”

Hi, the weather is great today in San Diego and also I am not your girlfriend.

Hi, the weather is great today in San Diego and also you are not my boyfriend.

Was I being a little harsh? Would I have allowed the play-act with a more conventionally attractive guy, or one with more social leverage? This acquaintance-friend was just trying to help me.

No, I was not offended simply because this particular person claimed me as his girlfriend. I was offended because stepping in as a woman’s pretend-boyfriend in order to protect her from other men is bad feminism and poor allyship.

Had *I* made the improvisational statement (“He’s my boyfriend”) and, seeing my aggravation, he allowed it, then that is fine. Of course, no one is obligated to accept lies about themselves or participate in a boyfriend-girlfriend role play (which could be really uncomfortable). A good ally response to a woman trying to pretend to be your girlfriend could also be: “Hey man, she’s not actually my girlfriend but the fact that she’s pretending to be is a pretty clear sign that she’s not interested in you and she wants you to give her space. Please respect her attempt to reject you in a nice way.”

Had I been more on my toes, I might have said something similar, “Oh, he’s not my boyfriend but it’s obvious he offered to pretend since he can see that you’re bothering me. I was trying to think of a non-confrontational way to tell you to please give me some space, but I think it’s time I just say so.” Instead, I was startled.

Somehow, it did not work when he made the improv-move. By telling another man that he was my boyfriend, he put me in the awkward position of needing to defend my space from not one, but two fronts. If I accepted the role, I would then need to negotiate, such that the other man wouldn’t catch on, the terms of our “relationship.” Would he try to hold my hand (which would make me uncomfortable)? Would he use pet names (this also would be weird for me). Kiss me? He did motion like he was going to put his arm around me, which is why I barked at him. Don’t pretend to be my boyfriend.

Telling someone that you are a woman’s boyfriend to “protect” her also has several, more nuanced problems:

1. It assumes that she “needs” your help.

First, people generally do not like attention drawn to their vulnerabilities or weaknesses. In the case of people with systemic disadvantages due to racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc., there are webs of social risks attached to having their vulnerabilities revealed. I know, as a gay woman, I feel a lot of pressure to protect the “problems” in my relationship(s). Marriage is a legal privilege I have only recently been granted in my state, and socially I sometimes feel pressure to “prove” that I “deserve” it. I might avoid talking about my more complex, unconventional, or really any relationship problems, and I might avoid getting help for them, because I often am made to feel I have to be an “example” for all gay women. I don’t want to give fuel to homophobes to criticize gay women.

A woman who is not interested in a persistent man (lesbian or not) faces a fire hose of insults. If she shows or admits that she is unsure, oftentimes a man will use that to assume he has a chance or that she can be persuaded. If she is too dismissive too fast, often he will assume her evaluation of their match potential is wrong because how could she know so quickly, she barely knows me? Any crack is seen as a way for the offending man to blast her defenses and get what he wants, or even feels he deserves. Many women know what they are up against and have their strategies for coping with this, and not all interruptions in their strategies are welcome or even effective.

It is not helpful for someone to focus on and draw attention to my weaknesses when they could instead help me in my goal to represent myself as strong and independent. Even if it seems obvious (to you) that I’m hanging for dear life off the edge of a cliff. I may be perfectly capable of saving myself, or I might just resent the way you made me look weak in front of the other lemmings.

2. Whether or not she can use your help, it does not allow her a graceful way to accept it.

Second, to be a good ally you must offer help in a way that can be accepted or rejected gracefully and, as much as possible, invisibly. Ana Mardoll gives a good example about a co-worker who used his presence and a plausible excuse to diffuse a common uncomfortable situation at a bookstore. The boyfriend play-act is my bad example because it makes too many assumptions, and too obviously, such that if I accept I can’t appear to be independent and able to help myself. It’s either: I have a boyfriend and I accept him interjecting in my conversations with other guys (ew), or I reject the role play and I’m back to finding another way to deter my persister.

Yet, assuming that someone needs help is something that we have to do when we are in situations where we see how our privilege could be leveraged to protect another person, with less privilege, from discomfort or harm. It is a socially risky and necessary part of attempting to be an ally.

I use the word “assuming” because that is exactly what you do. Any time you identify a situation to inject your help, you are making an educated guess that it is needed. The risk comes in for you because you could be wrong, whether or not you are wrong you could be rejected, and whether or not you are rejected you open yourself to the conflict in which you tried to intervene. I say it is necessary to “assume” because 1. People will often not ask for help (vulnerability), 2. People with less privilege than you often do need the help of allies, directly or indirectly, and 3. You must assume that you are even able to give this help. Please always remember that you are making assumptions when you offer help, and use this mindfulness to be gracious and modest.

Many people try to reward themselves at this step by claiming hero-ship or some other gain (getting a super amazing pretend-girlfriend such as myself), perhaps because they unconsciously know the effort it takes to help a person and want to reward themselves. Occasionally, the reward is a by-product of another goal and can be permissible, e.g. posting your efforts to facebook to encourage other people to do the same (awareness) and getting compliments and attention (reward). However, as difficult as it is to stick out your hand for someone, you are not the person who is hanging off the edge of a cliff. Please consider the awkwardness (now everyone knows there’s a problem, great), discomfort (do I have to hold your hand, now?), or danger (did you make him angry at me?) you might put them in by making yourself out to be a hero.

 3. It perpetuates the idea that women should “belong” to men and that other men should respect men’s spaces, not women’s.

Third, using the boyfriend game to attempt to help a woman perpetuates sexism in the long run. It displays to the “predator” that what should really deter him from “bothering” her is that she “belongs” to another man. Resorting to the boyfriend excuse nullifies all of her other attempts to signal to the predator that he should go away. Her comfort, desires, and needs don’t really matter, but what does are those of her imaginary boyfriend.

In a world where, “I’m a lesbian,” works less than half as well as, “I have a boyfriend,” we need more people who are willing to make it obvious that it is simply valid for a girl to reject a man because she says so. No explanation needed. Women are told that they are not inherently sexual creatures, that they are wishy-washy about what they want (and sometimes we are, everyone can be), and if the guy persists long enough he will wear down her defenses and she will realize/admit she likes him. Excuse me, assholes of the universe, you are not an advertising campaign, women are not your consumers, and no matter how obnoxious your commercials are, I will not buy your penis (I swear a lot of commercials these days just try to be as awful/weird/disturbing as possible so we remember that you can get insurance from a talking box with an eyebrow problem, ugh, fuck CGI talking things).

Progressive box guy I hate you and you give me nightmares.

About Being an “Ally” in General

A final note, remember that the final arbiter of whether or not you are an ally is the group of people or person you are trying to support. Oftentimes it is beneficial to publicly name yourself an ally (e.g. raise awareness) but it does not make you 1. an Expert, 2. inscrutable, 3. a hero. While calling yourself an ally could expose you to criticism and even hate, it does not magically erase your privilege. Yes, a business which labels itself an ally to a cause could be a target of vandalism, which is just dreadful. But, a person who has a black friend is not “practically black” by association and does not get to use the n-word (in good taste), for example.

Just think of it this way, a true ally knows that supporting [insert group here] is the right thing to do and everyone should feel the same way. It shouldn’t be special or heroic to support people; society should just change such that we are all allies to each other.

Goodwill to all who made it this far (jeez, what an essay),

Sami

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Comments Policy

This is new for me…. But I like the idea of having post-specific comment policies.

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