Feminist author Caroline O’Donoghue explains why it’s your actions, not your intentions, that matter most when you touch a woman
As a sentence, “Ariana Grande appeared to get her boob grabbed by a bishop at Aretha Franklin’s funeral” is a very 2018 one. It combines everything we love talking about: dead icons; young, fit female celebrities; patriarchs who are getting it wrong; groping. That last one is a particularly flammable touch-paper, because while not many of us are icons, celebrities or patriarchs, pretty much everyone has an opinion on how and when you are allowed to touch women.
Here’s the rule: beyond a handshake, don’t touch women you don’t know at a funeral. Any funeral. Especially Aretha Franklin’s funeral, especially if you’re touching them right on the tit.
But what about other situations? For some time now we’ve been going back and forth between “you can’t do anything these days!” and “stop touching women until she either gives you permission or expressly asks you to touch her”. While I tend to side with the latter argument, I don’t think it should necessarily apply to chirpsing, which is a minefield best saved for another article, but is a precarious art I both love and respect.
In my experience the vast majority of gross physical encounters come from one of two camps.
One: a person is trying to sexually loot you, and he is getting off on it. These men are usually the ones who press their crotches against you on the train, or trace their hands across your ass in the crush of the bar queue. Say hello to Mr Plausible Deniability: if you shout at him, he can just say the pub is too crowded! If his friendly hug lingers for far too long, and you say something to a mutual friend about it, guess what? YOU look crazy!
Two: a person is trying to engage you in some form of sexually aggressive banter that masquerades as “I’m helping you feel included!” but actually translates as: “I am the most dominant person in this social circle, and I will inflict that on anyone I perceive to be physically weaker than I am”.
We don’t know Bishop Charles H Ellis III’s motivations, but after the incident he apologised, saying: “Maybe I crossed the border, maybe I was too friendly or familiar”. This right here - crossing the line of familiarity and friendliness - is the kind of contact I find myself the most upset about. This is what bothers me the most, and it’s what tends to happen the most.
It almost always happens when you are the only woman in a group of men and – because you have signified by your pint-ordering and crisps-eating that you’re generally up for a laugh – are pushed around the place and effectively groped by people who, moments ago, felt like your friends.
I have male friends who I love – whose weddings I have attended, whose girlfriends I enquire after, and who I text on their birthdays – who have also, on a technical level, sexually harassed me. The friend who, when we met for the second time, wedged a bottle of beer between my tits. The other friend who pretended to dry hump me against a wall when he was drunk, and then didn’t look me in the eye for about a year afterwards.
The interesting thing is that both of these men belonged to those big boy groups that seem to be built around taking overtly physical potshots at each other. You know the ones I’m talking about: those boys who have known each other since school and are always either shirtless or nude together. The ones who give dead legs to their mates for no reason or grab each other by the crotch on nights out (presumably to tear off their friend’s penis?). It’s classic boy banter. It’s also very much not how women interact with each other but it doesn’t stop similar behaviour being forced upon us.
Things get weird, however, when men try to transpose their weird banter dominance onto women who want no part in it whatsoever. That’s when the weird accidentally-on-purpose boob grabs happen, the “isn’t this silly!” dry humps, the “I’m only PRETENDING to sexually harass you because both you and I know I would never do that” leg rubs.
There’s this ever-shifting ratio of “we’re all mates here! Gary, Ian, Marcus and Gemma! The crazy friends!!!” to “who is the most vulnerable person here? How can we single them out? How can we keep this shaky Jenga tower of physical dominance climbing even further towards the sky?”
I asked around on Twitter to check if there was any weight to my theory, and it seemed like I was onto something.
“When I was in 6th form I had a good friend called Jackie - still like one of the only people from home I still talk to really - and she was the only girl in a group of guys,” says Bradley from Peterborough.
“We did that kind of banter, and I think once I either jokingly tried to unhook her bra or grab her boob, I can’t remember which, but I remember her reaction was very much: ‘What the actual fuck have you just done?’ Needless to say, lesson learned.”
The Ariana Grande story may be destined to blow over, particularly as the bishop responded and apologised relatively admirably.
“It’s not about the way that I meant it, or it went bad. If somebody took it the wrong way, or if they were offended by it, the easiest thing and the right thing for me to do, as a Christian, as a man of God is to apologise.”
There’s a valuable lesson in here: it’s not about what you meant, or whether something was a joke, or whether your hand fell in the wrong place. The easiest, cheapest, best thing you can do is apologise, and be better. And stop trying to pull your mate’s dick off.