OK Ghost, listen up. It’s time to talk about everyone’s most favorite topic….sexual harassment! Yes, dear Ghost, it might not be a fun subject, but we’re going to trot out this old nag and give her a once over. No, not me. The topic. Focus.
Twice in about the last two months I’ve had an encounter that met the definition of sexual harassment. In fact, according to the annual refresher training I had recently at my work, they may actually more closely fit the definition of sexual assault, because in both cases they involved unsolicited and non-consensual physical contact of a sexual nature. I’m going to refer to them as harassment simply because I’m at an age and of an ilk that isn’t particularly bothered by light touches like these, pun intended.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how I saw legendary ska band The Toasters:
“I saw The Toasters last night, a band I’ve wanted to see forever. I love them. I was in the front row for most of the show, and I had a blast. The crowd and the band were so high-energy, so engaged. When the band had finished their last encore and were walking off stage, the singer bent down, gently grasped my head, and kissed me full on the lips.”
That was the first incident. The second happened yesterday. I was taking myself for a post-COVID walk to the river, when I suddenly heard a woman walking behind me yell in a strangely gargly voice: “Watch out!” Almost in the next second I felt a hand on my right ass cheek, gently caressing, as a big homeless dude on a bike passed me by. I only had time to yell a sharp “HEY” at him as he rode away. The woman apologized. She’d been grabbed immediately before me, and was trying to scream a warning to me while choking on her soda from the unexpected contact. I told her I was super thankful to her for trying to warn me. No harm done, incident over, glad there was another woman out there who had my back.
But then the dude hung around. A heavyset guy on a red bike, he cruised around near me along the esplanade as I power walked the last of my COVID virus away, always just out of reach but constantly leering at me and grinning. I stopped to take a picture of a fountain at one point and he cruised slowly by and grinned at me again. I’d had it. I said sharply to him “You need to FUCK OFF.” The grin disappeared, and he rode away. I didn’t see him again. Why in the hell was he hanging around? Did he think that I’d liked what I’d felt?
I also immediately felt bad for being harsh with him. I don’t know his deal. I needed to scare him off, but I could have said “leave me alone” or something less menacing. Which got me thinking. Why did one of these encounters make my skin crawl and the other didn’t? What an uncomfortable thought. So of course I’m here to explore my fucked up psyche, Ghost, and once again you’re along for the funhouse ride whether you like it or not.
Really, I should be the most angry at the Toasters’ singer. I paid to see him and his compatriots, and that payment implies a sort of trust between band and fan, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect a band to act as bouncers for the crowd, or really to police their fans in any way, though I’ve been to many shows where bands will stop if there are incidences of violence or injury and even go so far as to make sure folks are OK. It’s hard to put into words, really, but to me the price of a ticket implies allegiance, something a band has an unspoken duty to protect, especially when it comes to the defense of fans who might be more vulnerable. That includes policing themselves.
But that encounter didn’t bother me. Not even a little bit, beyond the initial surprise. The Toasters’ singer is 65 years old. He’s an intelligent and talented family man. I don’t know him personally, but I know him as a longtime fan. I didn’t feel like he would ever put me in a position where I felt unsafe. It felt more like a gesture of thanks and respect than a physical assault. He didn’t stick his tongue in my mouth, he just kissed me on the lips. It wasn’t a pass at me so much as an acknowledgement of our shared advancing years and an expression of joy that we were both still there together, musician and fan, to revel in those particular few hours of very specific music that we both love. Was it inappropriate? Yes. Was it a moment I’ll treasure? Also yes.
Now let’s examine the contact with the homeless man. Why did that disgust me so? Why was an even more innocuous physical contact than a kiss on the lips something that made my stomach heave?
Is it because he’s homeless?
Is it because he’s not physically attractive?
When I examine it a little more closely, the straw that broke the camel’s back was that he followed me. Leering and ogling and smiling at me after unwanted contact, those are menacing activities. Now I’m a little afraid, and fear makes me angry, and now I want him to get the fuck away from me.
He didn’t grab me. He didn’t force a thing. It was just a gentle, full-hand sweep across my entire right butt cheek from fold to right hip. If it had been left at that, I’d have rolled my eyes after yelling “HEY” and just moved on about my day. If the feel of my very beautiful right ass cheek can inform future pleasure for someone else, I’m not totally against that as a rule, and he did me no damage.
But don’t fucking follow me and make me feel unsafe. FUCK that unconditionally.
Why does his homelessness bother me? Because I don’t know what he’s on. Because he smelled bad. Because I sometimes equate homelessness with danger. Because I didn’t know if he had a weapon. Because I had no idea of his intent. But he didn’t have to be homeless to be threatening. His behavior after the ass grab would have affected me the same way if he’d been a wealthy man in a business suit.
I brought this subject up on a trip to visit my friend S last weekend, and he dropped some knowledge on me that gave me pause. He is right, as he usually is, and his answer is paraphrased below. I’m so lucky to have someone in my life who has such an unfailingly accurate moral compass.
This is the truth: companies and agencies have to strictly define what sexual harassment and sexual assault mean so that there is no gray area if there are legal ramifications. In the really real world, the whole thing is gray. What matters to me one day might not matter to me the next. What comes across as innocuous play one day might seem threatening on another. One person’s actions might seem sweet while those of another may feel hostile. What matters is my perception of the encounter. The act of harassment or assault is not defined by the inflictor, but by the victim, and I am allowed to feel exactly whatever way I do about each encounter.
There you have it, Ghost. This has been exhausting to write in some ways, but I’m glad I did it because it’s important to me to examine things like this more closely. More on this in future if I have the wherewithal to explore further.