When my daughter was 10 months old, as I held her in my arms – in a bookshop in Louisville Kentucky – she was touched inappropriately by a man in late middle age. He approached us and commented amiably on her sweetness and I smiled in return and made some innocuous reply. Then I realised that he had put his fingers in her mouth and rubbed them along her gums, as he asked me conversationally if she had any teeth yet.
I pulled her back away from him as I replied to him, sensible of the physical imposition – but I didn’t rebuke him. It didn’t even occur to me to rebuke him. I was swept along in the imperative to be polite and friendly in public. And it all happened so swiftly. He didn’t linger, he headed with his purchase out of the shop and that was that.
My friend had seen it all from a few feet away and she moved over to us quickly, indignant on my behalf. She asked if we were okay as we watched him walk out the door, and wondered scathingly how he would like it himself if a total stranger stuck their fingers into his mouth. I brushed it off, played it down. He probably meant no harm. He may not have even been conscious of what he was doing. He had just been trying to be friendly. Well anyway it was too late now, he’d left the shop. No point in dwelling on it. Just a weirdly unpleasant encounter, best forgotten.
The trouble is, I have never forgotten it. I remember being surprised, caught off guard, when he reached out and touched the inside of her mouth. I remember pulling her back and away from him, my gut instinct being that he had crossed a physical boundary, and wondering when he’d last washed his hands. I remember the immediate mental negotiating, trying to rationalise why it was no big deal, that I shouldn’t worry about it, that it didn’t matter. I remember a seed of disquiet lodging itself inside me and spoiling the rest of that day, what should have been a wonderful day visiting with my friend.
Time hasn’t eased the disquiet. That seed has grown steadily over the years, and with it my anger. I’m not especially angry with the man himself. My baby daughter wasn’t harmed, and he really may not have meant to cause any offense. I’m not angry with that man himself but I am very, very angry that it happened. It makes me angry that he felt so thoughtlessly entitled to touch her. He imposed himself upon her, and upon me too by proxy. It makes me angry that I didn’t stop him or confront him – that I didn’t have the social tools or the inner confidence to confront him. My ingrained response was to swallow my discomfort, to not rock the boat, to minimise and excuse and push it all aside. It makes me angry that I accepted it with a smile, even though it didn’t feel right.
Jesus, it wasn’t even sexual contact.
Like every woman alive on the planet, I have experienced inappropriate behaviour and sexual harrassment from acquaintances and strangers. I have been ordered to wear shorter skirts and sexier tops by my male boss, and fired when I failed to be flirtatious enough with his pub clientele. I have had my ass touched in public places, and been ordered to smile by complete strangers. I spent nearly an hour one afternoon trying to peel away from a man who had attached himself to my side, demanding that I tell him my name and join him for a drink. I’ve sat next to men on the bus and the train, squeezing myself into as small a space as possible, while they stretch themselves out, often with their legs splayed wide apart. I’ve walked past innumerable men with a hand resting on their crotch… why? To intimidate me? To reassure themselves? To make sure their dick hasn’t dropped off?
But of all this everyday sexism, it is the encounter with the man in the bookshop which sits like a grim pit in my stomach and still nauseates me nearly twenty years later. It was so casual, so nebulous, so invisible a transgression. So insidious in its power dynamic: you are there, available for me to touch, this old man told my infant daughter – and in doing so told me as well. I can touch you as I like, and then walk away as though it means nothing. And you won’t complain. You won’t kick up a fuss. You will try to tell yourself it doesn’t matter. But it does.