Sexual Harassment and Groping – What’s the big deal?

Many years ago I was groped by a stranger.  It wasn’t a big deal, except it was. The details of what happened are more firmly etched in my mind more than any other event that took place around that time. I was working as a tennis coach in Hong Kong and was standing in my tennis kit waiting for a tram. It was cold and I was shivering.  As I got on the tram a small man who had been waiting at my stop gestured for me to move to the back of the tram by the engine duct that was warm.  I smiled at him and joined him there. The tram then got very crowded and we got pushed together. His hand moved across my groin, I recoiled a bit, but thought it was accidental. Then he looked at me and did it again. I always thought I would punch someone if they did that. He was tiny, there was virtually no physical threat, I’m not big but a long background in martial arts made me confident in my personal security. This self-power seemed irrelevant,  all I could think of was I had to get away. There was a feeling of panic and revulsion, not anger. I cannot imagine how bad it would feel if there was a power imbalance against you. I went back to the hostel I was staying in and told people about it. Most of the men laughed and told me I should have punched his lights out as that is what they would have done. The women were far more empathetic, but it was pointed out that it really was not an uncommon experience for many women. I felt dirty and defiled.

Every day brings new revelations or claims about sexual harassment of women by men who wielded power over them. These allegations go way beyond the minor incident that left me feeling scarred.  Presumably, it is only harassment by those in the public eye which are considered interesting enough to publish.  What the true picture looks like I suspect few men know. There seems to be a feeling amongst some that it isnt such a big deal. Witness this shutdown from Jo Brand on Have I got News for You.

This is a highly emotive issue and everyone is a loser when harassment occurs. Every male who abuses his power raises the suspicion of the intentions of every other male. Males generally are more likely to have power over women than vice versa. The average male is physically stronger than 80% of females, so a strong man could overpower almost every woman. Gender inequality in the workplace also tends to put men in positions of power over women. This is not to say that men are abusers of this power or even feel inclined to abuse their power. It does explain to me why women may feel, as Jo Brand says ‘under siege’ and why ‘harmless’ banter may not be viewed as such. The silence of men who knew about the abuse has been deafening. It is for all of us to ensure it doesnt happen.

There is also a marked gender difference when it comes to where men and women are comfortable being touched. ‘He only put his hand on her knee, surely thats not a big deal?’

Researchers from Aalto University in Finland and the University of Oxford in England published body maps that show exactly where men and women from different cultures allow touches by friends, family, extended family, and strangers. A yellow colour signifies being very comfortable and black areas completely taboo. The patterns suggest that females are generally more comfortable being touched than males, by those they have a relationship with. But there are some striking gender differences when it comes to touch from acquaintances and strangers.

Women are the top two rows. Front and back. Males are the bottom two rows.

The gender of the toucher is indicated by colour –so the word in red acq means a female acquaintance, and in blue acq means a male acquaintance.

If we first consider being touched by a male – (the blue) acquaintance and strangers,  you can see that both males and females tend to be very uncomfortable, with large taboo areas for both sexes.

When you look at being touched by female the differences are marked. Females still have very large taboo areas, but males although not comfortable appear to have none that are totally off limits.  This means as a male aquaintance or stranger you are far more likely to upset a woman by touching her than a man is to be upset by a female touching him.  “Grabbing her by the pussy” may appear to make her happy in a porn movie, but in reality is completely unacceptable, however powerful you are.  I am not suggesting that ‘Grab him by the balls’ is any more acceptable, simply the data seems to show it will cause him less distress if you are a female than vice-versa.  Could it be that some men feel that women feel the same way about being touched by the opposite sex as they do?

Do we need to explicitly teach our boys the difference in how they feel about being touched by girls compared to them touching girls they dont have a strong relationship with?  Or is it simply about respecting everyone.

We are not in a good place. How can we make it better?


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