A few weeks ago, I had just finished giving a talk, and as the gathering came to a close the man sitting next to me turned to me to tell me his thoughts. I’m used to this. Maybe it’s because of my relative youth in many interfaith spaces, or because I am a woman, or because those who have heard me speak feel that I’ve already said my piece and it’s now their turn, but after I speak I am often approached by folks who intend to explain things to me. For upwards of 5 minutes they verbally pat me on the head, often without letting me get a word in edgewise.
I have learned to navigate these moments, to gracefully exit the situation when it goes on too long, to politely offer an alternate opinion, to let them know that what they’re talking about misses the point I was making. I’m much better at steering these conversations than I was when I started speaking in front of crowds almost 10 years ago.
What I have not yet learned how to handle is when they touch me, which is what the gentleman sitting next to me did a few weeks ago. Somewhere in the middle of telling me his thoughts, he leaned in and put his hand on my knee. At first, I assumed that it would last only a few seconds, that he was trying to focus my attention on the conversation, and would relent soon. I tried to look at him intently and practice active listening. His hand remained.
In this moment, all of my graceful exit strategies evaporated. A single thought filled my head: “Why is this strange man touching me, and how can I get him to stop without an uncomfortable confrontation?” I didn’t figure out how to extricate myself that day, just as I haven’t ever been able to figure it out before. What I think I have begun to parse, though, is why it happens.
When I speak, either in the course of group discussion or in front of a crowd, I work hard to do so openly. I talk about my personal story as honestly as I can, because I believe that it’s an important practice in interfaith engagement. Truly listening to the personal stories of others helps us to undermine some of the baggage we carry about capital-C Christianity, or Islam, Hinduism or Atheism. So I tell my personal story often, in the process of making a wider point about the topic at hand. I think that this openness is part of why people get so familiar with me afterward. There is an intimacy created in the sharing of our stories, because creating that intimacy is what makes a good story.
People who write or speak publicly about their personal experience are often approached by people who have read or heard those stories, and feel like they know the storyteller. On the Longform podcast a few weeks back, Another Round’s Heben Nigatu said it simply:
“There’s like that intimacy thing where people feel like they really know you. Like we’ve had ten hours of conversation already when it’s like nope… just met you. But for them on their end it is like that. And that’s the feeling I want.”
Intimacy is something storytellers work for, but it’s also a risk, because this sense of familiarity makes folks forget that it’s one-sided. They forget to talk and act like the strangers they are. These people are likely well-intentioned, but their behavior can make the recipient feel very uncomfortable.
When I talk about this experience, some folks say things like “He didn’t mean anything by it” or “He wasn’t attacking you or anything” or “You’re so sensitive.” And they’re right, to the extent that I’m reasonably certain this particular man’s intention was to be friendly. But even if his intentions were good, that doesn’t make him touching me okay.
Had he thought about it even for a second, he might have remembered that we were strangers, and that it is not okay to touch strangers that way. Had he thought about it for a second more, he might have wondered why it felt okay with me when it’s not okay in general. He might have noticed that I am a young woman, and he is male-presenting. He might have thought about whether or not he’d have kept his hand on another man’s knee for that long. If the answer was no, he might have considered the fundamental inequity of that, and opted not to touch strangers at all.
A second after that, he might have remembered that women’s bodies are under constant threat by men. That our walks to work or in the park are punctuated by heckling, sometimes inane and sometimes vulgar. He might have thought about how that experience regularly interrupts our enjoyment of everyday life. He might have remembered that as many as 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and that those two facts combined encourage us to be on constant alert in public. It’s an unpleasant way to live, and had he thought about it, he might have realized that a strange man putting his hand on my knee would reinforce the message that men feel entitled to my body, and would not have endeared him to me.
But even if the person who touched me was a woman (which occasionally it is), and she did so with the intention of connecting with me, it still wouldn’t be okay. No matter her individual intentions, she’d be contributing to a phenomenon that has me bracing myself to be touched by multiple strangers whenever I speak publicly. I can’t image any of the people who have done this would want to make me feel that way.
In interfaith spaces we often ask each other to share honestly and deeply, because openness is crucial to building understanding. But that openness is not intimacy, and it is not an invitation to treat each other at first meeting as anything other than a colleague, an acquaintance, or a very new friend. My story is not an invitation to touch me, it’s an invitation to know exactly that much about me–no more, no less.
Image courtesy of Flickr.