Perspectives on Touching

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Humans are tactile creatures.  It is one of the senses on which we depend for physical, emotional and spiritual health and safety.  It is a sense particularly important to communication, connection, growth and development.  Our body integrity and sense of autonomy is similarly precious.

Somehow, in navigating the transition of our society and community from one obsessed and represented by commitment to binary gender, including identity, expression and orientation, and from one that has plainly failed to correct and address the serious problem of sexual harassment, assault and rape,  it is important to recognize and appreciate the deep differences between attempted/completed sexual assaults and rapes usually in Western culture carried out/experienced primarily in private, and touchings that occur in public and that are not overtly sexual (do not involve groping of organs considered in American society to be sexual).  Thus, it is highly problematic to have a politician, someone who has chosen to devote herself to public political life, talk about another politician’s placing of hands on her shoulders from behind and kissing her on the back of her head, at a public event, as if it is the equivalent of an attempted or completed sexual assault or rape conducted in private, or as the equivalent of persistent and serious harassment from a person in power to a person who lacks that power (the classic sexual harassment problem faced in many employment situations).

We risk trivializing a conversation that has to remain relevant to the majority of the population, for the goal of gender equality to be realized in our community.  Lucy Flores is fortunate that Senator Biden’s placing of his hands on her shoulders from behind and kissing the back of her head in public is the thing that made her fear the earth had dropped under her feet.  She has yet to meet the real thing – none of us should be the object or subject of gender harassment or assault.  Lucy Flores’ experience however dismaying to her is not what I would consider any of those things.  I am very troubled by the fact that she is in the camp of another politician who did not hesitate to undermine, disrespect and taunt the leading candidate for the 2016 presidential election who was hands-and above the most experienced and qualified person running for president. 

Make no mistake – unwanted or unwelcome touchings of any sort are inappropriate in any culture.  But it’s complicated, right?  And it’s a matter of degree.   We have dozens of cultures (including latinx culture) that may render certain touchings acceptable within that culture.  Generational status, age, background, the touchings we grew up with in families, geography (whether you grew up in the south or north or west, etc.) all influence the degree of acceptability various people may have for certain touchings.  Again, breast grabbing, crotch grabbing, vagina grabbing, penis grabbing, backside grabbing, forced mouth kissing are not what I’m talking about – those are plainly and highly problematic.  But that’s not what happened here.  We shouldn’t lose sight of the difference.

-M. Isabel Medina

(these views are the author’s and are not the views of any institution with which she is affiliated)

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