Last year, many women were forced to reflect on hidden feelings about unwanted public touching after the rape and murder of a 23-yr old student on a bus in India caused worldwide outrage.
Most women have been “touched” by an unknown man in a public place, and unless the man was aggressive or violent, they said nothing. Women endure humiliating public touching, often not knowing what to say or do.
How and why can men freely touch women they have never met with impunity? I was forced to think about this issue and how it lingers in society while traveling yesterday to Kuala Lumpur via Frankfurt.
Sitting comfortably by the window, I got an “uh oh” feeling when an odd man sat down in the aisle seat. But, how many times have I gotten this feeling and was wrong about the man? And, how many times was I right? I took comfort in the seat separating us, but that became a moot point when at 1 am the lights went out for the 9-hour, trans-Atlantic flight, and the man decided to stretch out across the middle seat. “Well, at least his feet are towards me and not his head, ” I said to myself. Well, that changed, too, when he turned around with his head next to my lap.
I tried to relax, watch movies, think about how to pay off my credit card debt, etc, when the man changed the position of his arms and “just happened” to run his hand across my thigh. I screamed. A few people looked up and thought I was having a nightmare or was frightened by a movie I was watching. No one paid any real attention to what was happening. In fact, moments before a flight attendant had walked by and smiled at the “sleeping man” scrunched up close to me, failing to see the look of horror and terror on my face.
The man remained quiet after I screamed, which having experienced the problem before, clued me in to his lack of innocence. An innocent man – or one with a better M.O. – would apologize profusely, explaining he meant no harm. This man said nothing. But, he sat up retaking his place, making me sit wide awake thinking, “Did he mean to touch me or was it a mistake? Maybe he didn’t say anything because he was embarrassed or because it’s late at night…”
When the man’s foot reached way across the middle seat to my seating area and began playing footsie with my foot I started beating the man and crying out “You better stop that! I’m not putting up with this! You’ve got to go!!” I lept up with my (large) behind turning on the overhead personal light and made the man get out of his seat. No one said anything. No one came to ask me what the problem was.
And, I was the one who left. Not the offending man. I found a flight attendant to tell her to change my seat. Looking for the attendant, I was worried she might not believe me. The man remained sitting in his seat with soft puppy eyes looking at me and the world, as if to say, “Is there something wrong? I was just sleeping in my seat. I don’t know why this woman is making such a fuss.”
Dressed conservatively in a shalwar kameez top in preparation for my work in Malaysia, I thought the German Luftansa attendant would think, “Ah! these conservative, Muslim women are always getting upset if a man so much as bumps into her!” And if the attendant did notice my cross dangling from my top, she would have surmised I was an American Puritan, unable to handle men. How many male friends do I have who have been falsely accused by women for doing something inappropriate? But, I knew I had the 2012 New Delhi Gang Rape on my side. Public awareness about men raping and groping on buses, trains and planes is at an all-time high. I found the first female attendant I could and she put me in a new seat immediately, apologizing for the problem and asking where the offending man was.
Of course, nothing happened to the man. How could it? What proof was there, and the look on his face would have everyone thinking he was a saint.
I remember my first memory of feeling uncomfortable on a plane by a man sitting next me and telling my mother. She replied in a way that made me think it was “all in my head” but had my brother switch seats with me so I wasn’t close so him. The man continued to stare, and I continued to be uncomfortable. The dilemma remained: Is this man ogling me or is it “all in my head?”
Since the first airplane incident I have encountered men on Paris metros with skills in touching women I thought were worthy of Olympic medals. They rode buses and subway trains gently placing a finger between a woman’s thighs, right on her mounds or between her labia, remaining motionless. When it happened to me it took me a good 10 minutes to realize it was a man’s finger and not the edge of a woman’s purse or bag that was touching me. I didn’t realize it was a man until there were no more women around me and it seemed like this quiet, gentle-looking man was always nearby, looking like he was paying absolutely no attention to me. I thought “Wow. How does a man like that acquire such a skill? How long did it take him to be able to do this without women realizing what he was doing? Does he continue to ride around all his life virtually unnoticed? Do some women like it – the calm, undemanding, anonymous and motionless touch – saying nothing? And are there women who acquiesce? Or, does the man eventually up his game, becoming increasingly aggressive, then violent and eventually start raping women when he can’t get enough women to acquiesce or his fantasy doesn’t always go the way he wants?
Then there was the time in the Medina of Tunis. I was with up late with friends enjoying mint tea from high above in an old city building thousands of years old rented by a few friends. It was too late for me return home, so I agreed to stay over. Couples paired off to separate rooms leaving me and one of the men to share the large arab living room that looked out over the Medina. I didn’t think much of it. He had his side of the large room filled with soft cushions and low couches, and I had my side. But, late in the night when I was enjoying what I thought was a cat stroking up against me – enjoying the feline touch, wondering how the cat knew how to be so gentle and accommodating - I woke to up to see the man sitting only in his underwear touching me.
Maybe a more sophisticated woman would have known how to calmly explain she wasn’t interested in pairing off, like the other couples had. Or a more confident woman would have relaxed and enjoyed the gentle touches explaining she wanted nothing more, like my friend told me the next morning is what she had done because she already had a boyfriend and only wanted to enjoy another man’s attention and touches. But, I wasn’t one of those women. So, after turning the situation over in my head for a few seconds, I realized the man hadn’t spoken to me (as far as I could remember) the entire night and therefore was not really interested in me but just thought I was an “easy foreign, Christian woman” or thought he could take advantage of the situation. Plus, he was next to me half naked. And, I did the only thing I knew how to do: Let out a blood curdling scream.
And the rest is history. The man was upset. Denied everything. A woman friend told me I was acting ridiculous. The man wasn’t going to do anything to me. Another female friend apologized. I left. My virtue intact. But, always thinking back on the entire situation and the gentle caresses in the middle of the Arab night.
So, how do you make a fuss when you’re touched on a bus?