By Payton Aper, Blog Staff
This morning I was standing in line after my lecture session to get some questions answered, and my professor kept touching my arm. Every time they did, I stepped backwards a bit to try and make it clear that I was uncomfortable. Why was I so uncomfortable with it, today more so than other days? Is it running on 5 hours of sleep, or the coffee I downed, or am I really just sick of it?
After I had finished asking 80,000 likely irrelevant questions, I sat down and watched the next person go after me to ask questions. He got really close to the Professor, showing him the textbook like I did, but the professor never touched his arm. It would probably violate some manly code of personal space (not that the University has been a safe place for people of any gender identity). I kept watching my classmate laugh with the Professor and could feel myself getting angrier and angrier. His personal space, to this Professor, was respected without the slightest hesitation. His bodily autonomy in this particular situation was not up for debate.
It’s the guy at the block party running his hand over my waist as I pushed my way out onto the front porch. It’s one of the founders of the last job I had, always patting female workers on the back, touching our lower backs from behind. It’s one thing to yell at a guy at a frat party and another entirely to yell at someone in institutional power. It is one thing to yell at someone who is my age, who in the “woke” era of Gen Z and social media should “know better”, and another to affront someone that is years my senior.
Even if (and what a conditional that is) a person who grabs people’s arms or waists is not a sexual predator, I wonder if they would be surprised knowing how truly uncomfortable they make people when they do it. And regardless, just because legally defined sexual predation is not occurring doesn’t mean that these individuals aren’t subconsciously sexually motivated, or that there is no discomfort from those being non-consensually touched. Does my professor know I actually felt queasy this morning? Did that founder notice the way I grimaced? I don’t know what is worse: the idea that they do know, and enjoy instilling that discomfort, or that it’s so ingrained as a normal behavior that they find it entirely non offensive.
A quick google search for some scholarly information on violation of non traditional masculine space yielded next to nothing. Some of the titles read “Do guys only touch girls they’re interested in?” or “When a Guy Touches you on a Body Part: How to Decode his Intentions.” There is a plethora of advice to enhance and hone male attention where it is
consensual and enjoyed. But something I’m beginning to learn from experience is that there is no discontinuity between desired and undesired attention when I enhance my femininity. I cannot garner one form of attention without inadvertently attracting the other. The simplest choices of makeup and dress become a contest between self image and the male gaze, a stagnant constant.
If I do confront someone, as I eventually had to do multiple times at my job, I run the risk of being seen as a troublemaker and overly sensitive. I am ruining a man’s career and his livelihood by speaking up against the ways he has jeopardized mine. Confronting people in power has to be one of the scariest things on the planet. This summer when confronting one of my coworkers over verbal harassment, I burst into the lunch room, blurted out a few accusational sentences, and ran out before he could even respond. It was incredibly empowering in retrospect, but the fact that I had to do that in the first place- the fact that victims of assault and harassment have to step outside of narrowly defined social norms just to ask for basic human respect- is ridiculous. The fact that I have to fight my own battles and urge myself not to be complacent, when the perpetrator crosses what SHOULD be a social norm and yet is not stigmatized for it, is ridiculous.
Even as I sit here writing this, I wonder what would have happened this morning had I stepped back and said, “Please don’t touch me.” It probably would’ve caught my Professor, and the students behind me in line, off guard. It might have made the rest of the semester awkward, which would be another form of discomfort for me to contend with. Is there an alternate universe where I always defend myself and take no slack? What is that girl like? How do I become her? More importantly, why should I have to?