Monday, May 4, 2015

Unwanted connections - A story (trigger warning)

I think it's pretty clear that in our society, we are not allowed to touch each other without permission.

I wish the event I'm going to tell you about hadn't happened. I wish I was telling you a story about a great time at the roller rink with my family. Instead, I'm asking you to think about what gives a guy the idea it's okay to grab someone he doesn't know. I should just accept it, since this is the culture we live in, right? Yes? Except that's not right. He was wrong. It's wrong. Here's my story.


I saw the couple as I finished the turnaround. They were together, a boy with light brown wavy hair and a teenage girl with an oval face; they were laughing and talking as I went past them.

I picked up some speed and swung my arms around, back and forth to get momentum. I was relaxed and having a great time moving fast and feeling the breeze through my hair, when suddenly he grabbed my hand. I looked up and saw him, the same boy I had just seen with his girl. His mouth was wide open in a grin as he sang along to the song that was blasting from the speakers. His other hand was waving around in the air; he seemed to be dancing.

I was thinking fast. He was holding my hand tight, and skating at my speed. What is this? Who is he? Where's that girl he was with? What is going on? Why doesn't he let me go?

I was surrounded by families, kids, people. The crowd was thick, I couldn't just turn or slow down without risking hurting someone around me. I didn't want to make a scene. I relaxed my hand, but he did not let go.

All of this was in the space of a few seconds - by this time we were halfway down the long side. Since I couldn't stop or turn away I tried skating faster, faster than I was comfortable with, trying to force him to let go. I pulled my hand hard as I pushed down on the wheels and finally, I was away from him.


I shook my hand in the air a few times, trying to sort out what happened. I found my husband,  and told him about it. I tried to tell it as a laugh, a joke of a story, "Ha ha, you won't believe what just happened."

I went and washed my hands in the bathroom.

Later, my husband asked me about it. He couldn't understand why I thought this was a joke, why I wanted to make fun of it. He didn't think it was funny. I told him that yeah, it wasn't funny at all. It instead felt icky, like I was wearing coal tar or glue; I wanted to get the feeling off of me as fast as possible.

I was also embarrassed - really, really ashamed. I'm the empathy-gal, right? So maybe I did something to encourage this. Maybe I was doing exactly what my mother tells me all the time not to do; don't let your guard down, don't be open to strangers, don't put yourself at risk, etc.


I stopped feeling bad, though, for two reasons. First, I know that building empathy isn't possible without being open to new connections. It's part of what is important to me; and nothing (not even this guy) will stop me from trying to draw others in. I will keep working hard to smile at strangers, to nod at other customers in stores and to start conversations with my fellow patients at the doctor's office. I will keep myself open, and that's what I'm hoping some of you are working on too.

Second, I know beyond any doubt that nothing about my being 'open' and 'welcoming' and 'friendly to strangers' meant that I asked for this. They are almost opposite actions; what I do is about creating relationships, what he did was about treating me like a toy.


What does bother me is that I didn't make a scene. I didn't yell, or scream, or say, 'hey, you, let go' or anything like that. I didn't say no, and maybe that sent him a message that grabbing a stranger's hand is okay. Or maybe not. I'll never know.

What would you have done?

Has something like this happened to you?



SL said...

That man was a pig.

The last time this happened ... was at the ... Fair. A strange looking man put his hands on my shoulders and looked at me in a very crowded situation, and before I could say anything, he was gone. All of a sudden I realized he was walking in my daughter's direction, and I ran through the crowds, catching up just as he touched her. I was yelling, 'get your hands off my daughter'. I called the cops afterwards but I don't think there was much they could do to find a random man in a crowd.

It also happened when I was working. I was in the bookkeeper's office, and someone came up behind me and covered my eyes, asking 'guess who'? I was trying to figure out how a member of my family got into the office without my knowing it. It was a woman. I gave her hell for inappropriate behavior. "This is a place of business". Lesbian or straight, no one should touch you without permission.
She was also a pig. I don't know if anyone reported it to the boss or not, but in a few weeks she was no longer working there.

These assaults are so unexpected, it is rare to think in time to take a cell phone picture and report the person to the authorities. We can always hope to remember in time the next time in occurs. It will occur. God loves pigs.

Anonymous said...

Trigger warning! My comments below express a disagreement with you.

Trigger warning? I was expecting to read about an attempted rape, a sexual fondling, etc. Not grabbing your hand in a crowded family skating rink for a minute.

My first (and second and third) thought on reading your blog was that this young man (late teens? early 20s?) was autistic or "intellectually handicapped" or Down's Syndrome or something that involves social awkwardness. Haven't you ever met someone like that who wants to give you a hug? I have, on several occasions, in the supermarket, etc. My friend's autistic son used to touch people's hair; they finally taught him not to. I hate to think he was considered a threat, a trigger warning. This young man was clearly happy with the skating & dancing & music and it expressed itself as grabbing your hand to skate with you. If this had been a group skating event of the synagogue (or whatever group), would you have been upset (even not knowing him)?

Try to think of all the innocuous explanations as well.

Anonymous said...

I would have approached him after he came off the rink. Tell him you don't recognize him and ask how you know each other. That may explain things to both of you. :)

Janet said...

Thanks SL for sharing your story.

Thanks Anonymous (both of you) for your comments.

Lyn said...

(trigger warning) In my 20's I spent many a night fighting off "handsy" men at nightclubs. They believed that a woman's presence in a nightclub granted blanket permission to be groped & manhandled.

I learned very quickly on how to shut that down by being verbal. "DO NOT touch me! You don't even know me so you have no right to touch me". I also became quickly familiar with the bouncers as I never hesitated to bring the issue to their attention.

What saddens me to this day, is the number of times my friends were groped or manhandled and they said nothing. They just looked at me desperately for interference.

The respectable guys always apologized, embarrassed and moved away. Then, there were the ones who said "hey I am just trying to dance!". That earned them a lecture on how to ask a woman to dance WITHOUT being disrespectful. They also, always moved on usually not embarrassed at being lecture but at being turned away. Then there were the true jerks. They argued and tried to justify. I became known as the c**l-blocker. Imagine that. Given a nasty nickname because I dared stand up for myself and not be physically touched by a stranger.

Personal boundaries vary by person but I think the responsible thing to do is expect the extreme and let the other person guide you. If you haven't talked enough to understand their boundary; you certainly shouldn't be touching them.

Janet said...

Thanks Lyn, for sharing your story and history.

ES said...

First and foremost, i'm sorry for your experience. Regardless of the "right", "wrong", or "error" status of the situation, it scared and hurt you. From an empathy standpoint, this is something that _other_ people need to think more about before touching people, regardless of the nature of their intentions or lack thereof.

Which leads me to my next thought, which has to do with how situations like this map to our own empathy. (As may not be a surprise, i sort of take a page from the books of all the commenters so far, as well as from my own thoughts.)

In my view, whenever i encounter harmful action from another, it helps me to separate behavior from intent. The reason that this helps me is because i believe that people should be held accountable for their behavior, but "judged" (for lack of a better word) on their intent.

In this example, the guy at the rink may or may not be "a pig", may or may not be challenged in some way (mentally, emotionally, or just socially), or may or may not have various other explanations for his action. From an empathy standpoint, we can try to understand this. If the opportunity to communicate arises (as in Lyn's example), perhaps we can learn more about it. If not, we can speculate. Either way, the opportunity is ours to decide how we wish to empathize with the person. He could've been a sociopath with boundary issues or a borderline rapist (like the person in SL's example), in which case we can ponder how to understand and help such people in our society while still protecting ourselves. He could've been mentally challenged (as Anon explained), which invites other types of empathy. Another scenario that i imagined was a bipolar person in a manic phase, caught up in the excitement of a moment and thinking that he's creating an act of senseless beauty without realizing the ramifications of his actions; again, different empathy thoughts there. I'm sure there are other possibilities, too.

All this said, there is the accountability part. Regardless of the explanations involved, people doing this stuff need to educated (or treated, or chaperoned, or, in extreme cases, incarcerated) to prevent them from hurting others. If, as in Lyn's case, there's an opportunity for rational communication, we might elect to attempt to make a connection ourselves -- exercise that empathy -- to see if we can help. However, the environment, the person, or the emotional state in which we find ourselves after such an assault may not be conducive to this, in which case we can attempt to get help and/or ID the person so that someone else can make it happen (per SL's case).

For me, this separation allows me to empathize with the person's potential intentions while still accepting that the action needs to be accounted for. This, in turn, lets me try to cultivate compassion without compromising the boundaries that need to be maintained for the well being of other people.