Hands Off

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There is a strange post by Eugene Volokh about “involuntary sexual arousal and touching” here, at the Volokh Conspiracy. It elicited a very strong negative reaction from Belle Waring, which is posted here, at Crooked Timber. Volokh’s theory seems to be that people don’t like to have their genitals touched nonpermissively because it involuntarily arouses them, or as he stated in the comments thread: “It may be both arousing and disturbing; it might in fact be disturbing partly because of the arousal, or of the possibility of arousal.” I think it is fair to characterize Waring’s reply as emphatically stating, “No, that is NOT the reason unwanted touching is disturbing.”

Like most women, I have been inappropriately touched by strangers, most commonly in the close quarters of a mass transit environment. My usual response to physical intrusions is to shout, “Get your hands off of me!” or “Stop touching me, you pervert!” very loudly. This usually scares the offender away, but most of the other people on the bus, platform or train will avert their eyes and move as far away from me as possible, as if I have done something scandalous. On a few occasions someone has asked me if I am okay, or if they can help, which has been very much appreciated. Gropers and frotteurs rely on the embarrassment that victims often feel to keep them nonconfrontational. Any suggestion that victims derive sexual arousal, even involuntarily, from unwanted physical content, is not only wrong, it is utterly repulsive, and seems pointedly designed to further shame victims into silence.

I know Volokh enjoys theorizing about law and society in provocative ways, but I simply can’t believe that “arousal” would be the overriding cognizable emotion he would feel if a stranger unexpectedly grabbed him between the legs, and I don’t understand why he would want to project this at best counterintuitive reaction on anyone else.

Via the Crooked Timber comments thread: A scholarly analysis of “Sexual Harassment as a Gendered Expression of Power” by Christopher Uggen and Amy Blackstone is available here. The comments evoked by both Volokh’s and Waring’s posts are quite informative.

–Ann Bartow

NB: Mimi Smartypants has a relevant mass transit story here. She manages to make it sound humorous, but the laughs are angry ones.

Update: I hope I was pretty clear in this post that I think Eugene Volokh is very, very wrong on this issue. He was wrong about torture, he was wrong about “homosexual conversion,” and he was wrong when he encouraged his commenters to slime Brian Leiter. Actually, if I tried to list all the times I think he’s been wrong, I’d have to make it my summer research project, and it would be one I might have trouble finishing by September. But here’s the thing: He’s not an elected official, and he’s not a judge. He’s not a policy-maker. He’s just an academic who likes to provoke people. He’s still human, and some of the ad hominems floating around are a bit much.

Update 2: See also Shakespeare’s Sister’s post, “I wonder if it would have been possible to get this more wrong.”

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