Unwanted Touches Are Common, But We Don't Talk About Them

Touch. Brush. Caress. Grope. Feel. However you want to arrange the letters, shaping words and perceptions, it's all the same, really. We learn to connect through touch from infancy, wrapping tiny fingers around larger ones to find comfort in their presence and strength. When we scrape our knees or fall off our bicycles, we are afforded kisses and hugs. When we grow older, we seek intimacy, usually through kisses and touches, too. Women, however, are often familiar with another kind of touch, and often from a young age. This is The Unwanted Touch.

I was wearing my bar T-shirt and blue jeans, both wet with dishwater and sprinkled with peanut shell pieces, with a filthy rag hanging out my back pocket. My hair was in a messy bun, and my make-up was smudged and two days old. I stood on the bar floor, chatting with my friend, Rachel, who stopped in to visit me at work, when a familiar feeling came over me. A strange man wrapped his arm around me from behind, placing his hand on my breast and slurred his words in an attempt to greet us. He then proceeded to ask Rachel if she was gay, then repeated, “Wow, you're gay,” over and over before hugging her as she made eye contact with me and her blue-green eyes screamed for him to leave. 

I went home to my boyfriend at about 3 a.m. and casually told him about my evening over a cold beer. I told him that Rachel came to see me, and only briefly mentioned the annoying, drunk guy who initiated The Unwanted Touch. My boyfriend was bothered by the exchange, noting that the fella clearly did not see me as an equal. Of course he doesn't see me as an equal, I agreed, but as an object for consumption, no different than the free peanuts stacked in a barrel at the back of the bar. I thought nothing of it, and would not have thought to mention it to my partner had my friend not been involved.

Surrounded so often by hands and advances from boys and grown men, it was hard to decipher between the good and the bad. 

For many of us, it starts with uncomfortable kisses from older relatives. Parents force their children to participate in this affection, whether the children want to or not, and it can set them up for confusing good touches with bad when they’re older.

Catcalling also normalizes the bad advances we receive from men. We often learn that shouting back or flipping them the bird only made matters worse, and thus learn to stay silent. I was first cat-called at 12 years old, walking down the main road of my small town in Northeast Ohio. Young men, always in groups, hollered from car windows or truck beds. All I could do was hang my head and slouch my shoulders, hoping to go unnoticed.

The Unwanted Touch, an aggressive older brother to Catcalling, became a major part of my life in middle school. My objectification was made into a game when my chest became the target for rolled pieces of paper. The boys called it Boob-sketball. It was also acceptable in the eyes of my peers to initiate hard, surprise butt slaps. It never mattered if one was willing, only that the opportunity arose. Bent over to pick up a book? SMACK.

Surrounded so often by hands and advances from boys and grown men, it was hard to decipher between the good and the bad. 

I was in the drama club in high school, and because the mall was closed, and we didn't have cash for a road trip to Cincinnati, or even a midnight movie, my friend Kenzie and I went to a local big box store for our after-show revelry. We looked through the movies, through the clothes, the toys. We posed dolls in sexual positions and admired the pre-made Easter baskets—we didn't get things like that when we were kids. We browsed the newest Cosmopolitan, then we finally got bored and left.

The parking lot was surprisingly full, considering that it was after midnight. The lights overhead hid the stars. Cars were sprawled around. For a moment, I forgot where we parked. The wind blew, and I regretted leaving my sweater at home. As we got near our car, we noticed two teenage boys getting into a white car across the way.

The boys passed by us and headed toward the exit. Before they pulled out, however, they stopped the car. The kid in the passenger's seat jumped out. He grabbed a traffic cone and hugged it to his awkward, teenaged torso. He ran back to the car and they drove off.

Kenzie and I yelled after them. “That was awesome!” “We wanna be your friends!”

Grinning and brimming with laughter, we got into our car and began to leave. I was driving, concentrating on the curb, trying not to hit it in the dark. Then, Kenzie said with excitement, “That was them!”

“Who?”

“Those guys! They turned back into the parking lot.”

“What should I do?”

“Turn around,” she said.

So, I did a u-ey in the entrance way and stopped my mother’s big, blue minivan beside their little, white junker with flames and random words drawn on in Sharpie. My driver's side window opposite their driver's side window, two boys with shaggy hair and stoned eyes looked at us with our make-up done and awkward grins, and the driver asked: “Did you say you wanted to be our friends?” 

That is how I met J-Nadz. I think the “J” stood for Jordan, but I don’t quite remember. I do remember the two nights we knew each other very well, though. He and his friend Karl followed us back to our small town, to Kenzie’s cul-de-sac, and sat in my mother’s car with us for a while. A huge debate began as to what to do: “I can not jump a fence.” “Karl's fat ass can't fit through there.” “No, we can't go tagging!”

So, we went back to the store where we met, where we soon were kicked out for causing a raucous, bouncing rubber balls nearly as high as the warehouse-style ceiling, chasing each other, and whacking one another with foam swords.

The debate started again as we drove aimlessly. The night was cool, but with all the hot words filling the tight space of our car, I had to roll the window down a little. Air beat my hair against my face in a rhythm. All along, J-Nadz and Karl were trying to convince me to drive to Akron to prank some friend of their's—talk, talk, talk.

Eventually, we went back to Kenzie’s cul-de-sac and said our good-byes, but not until after J-Nadz and I had exchanged numbers and, briefly, some words about sex. He had asked if I had done it before, and I told him no. 

I shouldn’t have texted him the next day while volunteering at a spaghetti dinner in the basement of the Methodist church, but I did. He asked that I pick him up from his place before we go out later that night.

Where did we go? A store parking lot, of course. We made out for some time in the backseat of my mother’s car, which is certainly the most cliche thing I’ve ever done. His mouth tasted like the cherry-flavored cigarillo he had smoked before I picked him up, and it was putrid. He aggressively stuck his hand down the front of my denim shorts and touched me for about 60 seconds before plucking his hand out and proclaiming, “I think you came.” He then insisted that I give him oral sex. Instead, we left and I dropped him off with out even much of a good-bye.

When I never saw him again, I was not surprised, but this funny thing happened: I blamed myself. I blamed myself for being so uncomfortable with his idea of a good time, and for feeling dirty and objectified after. It felt like the blame was on me then, just as it was when an 18-year-old man sexually abused me when I was 13, and when a man in his late 20s repeatedly assaulted me at Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings every third Saturday of the month. I put myself in these situations, I thought. I was asking for The Unwanted Touch, wasn’t I?

Then I realized, J-Nadz was a stupid boy with an awful nickname who thought I came when I was just beginning to get wet. Of course I was uncomfortable, and I had a right to be. The man who set up the lights at Rocky Horror and touched me every month was a creep, drawn to the show because of the innocent girls like me dressed in little costumes. Someone should have put a stop to it, and the others’ apathy is not my fault. The senior in my drama club who abused me when I was 13 knew I had a crush on him and took advantage. I had never even kissed a boy before him, and he should not have taken that moment from me. It hit me, all at once, after I saw J-Nadz’s frizzy head of hair pass by me at the mall one day a year later. It wasn’t my fault. None of it was my fault.

Today, I work as an a home health aide by day. I quit my second job as a bar back after I was sexually harassed by a patron and the door guy didn’t kick him out. A lot of people told me I should expect crude comments from men when working at a bar, but I know better. I didn’t put myself in a bad position—I’m just living my life, and men are passing by in truck beds or on bar stools, with their cat-calls and grabbing hands. It isn’t my fault that they don’t seem to know better, but it is my responsibility to tell them otherwise.

Image: Ilenia Pezzaniti

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