Rocks in Our Pockets

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The inspiration for this Hot Topic comes from Moving Violations by communications analyst Deborah Tannen which haunted me and peppered my social conversations for days after I read it. Tannen’s article is about women’s common experience of being groped by men in the subway. She compares North American women’s passive, humiliated response with Greek women’s vocal, aggressive one. Every woman I spoke to had her own story and most admitted they had suffered silently or tried to wriggle away from her offender.

One firebrand scoffed: “I was on a crowded streetcar when I felt someone groping me. It was just once too often! I grabbed his wrist, held it high above my head, and asked loudly, ‘I just found this hand on my ass. Does it belong to anybody here?’ I held on until he was identified by all around. He was the one humiliated, I tell you. I don’t know where I got the courage, but I don’t worry about unwanted touch anymore.”

Her reaction was akin to the Greek women’s practice of carrying rocks in their pockets for pelting their molesters. Sadly, women worldwide learn they must fear men. They learn also that their protestations may be dismissed and that they may be punished for making them. This same reason often keeps women from reporting rapes.

Surely men are learning a lesson that they are entitled to touch. When women’s protests are firm but polite, they are sometimes not taken seriously. With the burden of sexual initiation placed so squarely on men’s shoulders, where do they draw the line between persistent and predatory? None of us seems too comfortable with actually talking about sex with each other. It’s little wonder some men resort to ham-handed attempts at furtive connection when they lack the skills to make social contact, much less establish loving relationships.

For their part, women are learning to be sexual victims. Deborah Tannen added a half hour to her daily commute so she could safely sit on her target rather than defend it. I understand her, as do most women. We have been scared silent. We are generally smaller and weaker than men, and pay equity is still a dream, keeping us financially disadvantaged and often dependent. We’ve been culturally trained to feel shamed if we are mauled, though the logic of this escapes me.

I don’t have a solution, but I don’t think literal rock-carrying is the answer. I propose we talk to each other about how horrible this empty and unwanted touch feels from both directions. I think it will help if we carry our voices in our throats as surely as we carry rocks in our pockets and use them on the same occasions. It would help too if we insist that we will not be made victims by men or by our bodies, but will stand proud.

I can only surmise that some men feel so isolated and contact-starved that they resort to stealing touch. While sad, it gives them no right to violate the rights of others. I hear from women that they, too, wish for more loving touch but often receive only perfunctory fumbling. We need to learn better communication, as we all seem to want more closeness and intimacy.

As we learn to accomplish this, I agree that women would do well to carry metaphorical rocks in their pockets. When all we want to do is ride the bus, we needn’t put up with any man’s inability to communicate adequately his social or sexual desires. We certainly need not become his groping victim. We’ve a right to be left alone, and if that is violated, we’ve a right to make a scene and a spectacle of our attacker. Ever since contemplating and discussing Dr Tannen’s article, I’ve felt more powerful and somehow happier. Now I don’t go out without my rocks. I think it’s a good decision.