As women leaders and activists from around the world gather for the 63 Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week I thought, it would be fun to share a little story with you, to get us all thinking about the current status of women around the world, particularly as it relates to sexual harassment or sexual and gender based violence.
Recently there was a near fist-fight at a local pool. The source of the conflict being my hair (pictured above). A man jumped out of the pool while I reclined on a deck chair reading a book On Beauty. My back was behind him so I didn’t see him as he slid his wet-chlorinated hand over my head while his fingers brushed through my hair.
“Nice hair,’ he said brushing past.
I looked up and about, surprised.
“Thank you”, I mumbled wondering why it was necessary for him to offer a compliment so intrusively when just his words would suffice. But I decided to let it go. The man was already standing over a barbecue he’d been preparing with his friends, far away from where I was. I did not think his actions warranted any further reaction from me.
So I turned my eyes back to the book I was reading; I was making an effort to follow the conversation about the arts, beauty and intellectual stimulation without any success, when one of my girlfriends who’d been sitting diagonally across from me asked sweetly.
Jedi, do you know that guy?
No, I said.
Oh, she exclaimed surprised.
I thought you knew him because of the way he touched your hair, she inquired.
I don’t know him, I told her. I just didn’t want to make a fuss about it. She shrugged, and continued rubbing lotion on her arms and legs. Ten minutes later the same man returned. This time he was facing directly at me and without slowing down he lunged towards me – with both hands reaching for my hair. Instinctively I raised my arms and legs to block him from going any further. What are you doing? I asked incredulously.
“Please, please, just let me touch your hair?.” He said pushing my hands to the side.
No! I screamed stretching my arms and legs even further to prevent him from reaching my head. “No, please,” he continued “I won’t do anything to you, I just want to feel it”
I was disarmed by his approach and felt defenceless as his body hovered over mine. In that moment I felt completely vulnerable and exposed with my legs and hands still up in the air. The tug of war continued for about five minutes in the company of my friends – I struggled with a stranger. His hands were trying to grab mine and mine were trying to push his away from my head or away from the vicinity of my hair.
Perhaps to a distant observer this may have looked like a playful tug of war between a “loving” couple. But it was not the case.
Please, I just want to run my hands through it, I don’t want to do anything to you! He said impatiently.
No! no! no! I screamed.
My throat let out some laughter, incredulous. Bewildered. Stammering, laughter.
As this is taking place, the only thought running through my head was: is this man serious?
It turned out that he was because he would not give up. He was still trying to touch my hair which made me even more hysterical with laughter.
Until one of my female friends interjected, realising that I was in trouble.
“Excuse me sir, she said, ” she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, can you please leave”
“I don’t want to do anything to her, I just want to touch it” he protested.
Please sir she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, please go. My friend insisted
Reluctantly the man returned to his Barbarque. Claiming innocence;
“I didn’t want to do anything to her okay?? I just wanted to touch her hair. What is the big deal man?” he said walking away in protest.
Jedi, do you know this guy?
My friends asked in unison.
I don’t know him, I said.
So why does he want to touch your hair?
I don’t know, I said, shrugging.
Did you want him to?
But why were you laughing?
You seemed to be enjoying it!
No. I repeated. No. I was not enjoying it at all, I was trying with all my might to stop him from touching my hair. But all I could manage was to laugh and say no.
When confronted by my friends, he was unapologetic. His defiance created a loud argument at the pool side drawing everyone’s attention. A woman who’d been sitting across from me tanning, saw the commotion and signalled to her friend that trouble was brewing. She packed her things and swiftly stepped out with her leaving me alone on the same chair I had been sitting on when the man approached me. I hadn’t moved since.
I watched as his hands flailed wildly as if he’d been possessed while my friends who had been poking fingers at him began flexing their muscles and clenching their fists ready for a fight which seemed both imminent and unavoidable.
From where I was sitting I couldn’t always hear what was being said by who and to whom but soon punches were flung across the air between two human shields who were trying to separate them. Security was called in.
Every now and again I heard cuss words being thrown around. “Bitch” being the most frequent. The man was now pointing in my direction.
I wondered why I had chosen to sit back while my friends were engaged in a fight which was ostensibly on my behalf. But If I did go, what would speaking to him achieve when he had previously disregarded every no I had uttered when he was ‘innocently” trying to touch my hair? What would my presence there do? Would it calm the situation or escalate it even further?
Ultimately I decided that my presence there would not make the situation any better – so I sat back.
“I don’t even know this bloody woman, I have never seen her in my entire life before!” said the man.
“Exactly!” one of my friends responded. You don’t even know her – why do you think you have a right to touch her hair, when she clearly told you no?!! They screamed back.
Because a woman’s no, does not matter, I thought to myself.
After a while management was called in. It became apparent that the man had threatened and grossly offended someone very important during the arguments and if he didn’t apologise soon the consequences of his actions could be dire.
The man eventually succumbed and offered an apology to my friends which I did not hear but they were well pleased with it.
Consent Without Consent
I have been thinking a lot about this incident in the past few weeks trying to process my thoughts around it; from wondering why this particular hairstyle made men and some women who had never attempted to touch my hair before in all the 11 months I had known them suddenly became unable to “help it” because my hair is simply “asking to be touched”. I wondered where I had gone in the discussion.
One of my male friends offered an explanation ” it’s all about the objectification of black women” which I agreed with in part. But what stood out for me in all of this was I had to defend my decision not to allow anyone to touch my hair. My friends, sadly, were no different from this audacious stranger who insisted on touching my hair even when I said no. They were also of the opinion that I should allow them to touch my hair simply because they were friends, people I was familiar or close with. Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? they demanded. I was made to feel wrong for refusing them permission to touch my hair. And in fact who was I to refuse?
The idea that their persistent requests to touch my hair was making me uncomfortable or that it indicated their total disregard for my personal boundaries was something which never crossed their mind. To such an extent that at times I have found myself consenting to my friends especially, allowing them to touch my hair so that I am not labelled a self-entitled, “bitch”.
So even though I may have given my “consent” it was still an unwanted capitulation induced by a level of coercion and verbal harassment from friends and strangers alike. While none of these incidents can be defined as criminal in any sense, they do shed some light into the sometimes polarising nature of debates or discussions around Sexual and Gender Based Violence as seen through the #Metoo movement and other SGBV testimonies in the media recently.
They behaved as if I owed them. As if touching my hair would validate me in some way; their touch would be a sign of “approval” or “disapproval” depending on what their fingers found.
In her 2008 paper on Law, Sex and Consent paper, Professor at Law at Georgia University Robin West explains that the “historical reliance on consent as a demarcation between rape and sex are misguided as they falsify the degree of coercion imposed upon women by men in their ordinary sexual lives”. She goes further to suggest that while she is not advocating for new forms of non-violent sexual crimes to be re-defined and included in law, it is nevertheless important for “law makers, scholars and feminist theorists to focus more on harms caused by consensual sex and their relation to the law, in the intimate sphere no less than we do in our political and economic lives”.
Her ideas are not far from that of Prof Noam Chomsky and his long time critique of the different forms of “consent” which continue to be imposed on people in the public, political and economic spheres. In his 1999 book on, “Profit over People” which is a critique of the global political and economic system Chomsky notes that politicians often use a concept named “consent without consent” by imposing their authority on the people who are being governed because the imposition is for the highest good. Just like a parent stoping a child from crossing a busy road, or forcing the child to comb their hair, or eat – the child may not agree at first but ultimately these interventions are good for them. The idea here is: you may not consent now because you don’t know what is good for you, but once you know what is good for you, you will consent to it.
I think this theory applies well to this pool side “can I touch your hair, by force if necessary please story”, because embedded in the question itself is the tacit implication that it would be beneficial for me and the person who is asking, if I called them touch my hair. Touching my hair then, in this context would be good for humanity. Since it is a “harmless” request, the assumption is I must consent to it. The fact that I may not want my hair touched (for whatever reason) was discounted as a mask to “hide” something or to lie.
My friends and I continue to laugh about this hair story today. It has moved from being a source of conflict to a source of humour with many of them continuously asking me; “But Jedi, Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? Don’t you know that by refusing you will invariably cause us to want to touch it more, even by force? Who do you think you are not to be touched? What are you hiding?
All things considered it would have been so much easier for me to allow this guy to simply just touch my hair in an attempt to avoid conflict. If had been alone by the pool side this man could have easily overpowered me in broad day light. Everybody would hear me laugh, scream and push. But all people would see is a woman enjoying or pretending not to enjoy the attentions of a man. They would say she wanted it. She enjoyed it.
This experience made me see how sometimes consent is not always a meaningful marker between autonomy and coercion. According to Robin West “consent (touch, sex, money, economy et al) when it is unwanted and unwelcome, often carries harms to the personhood, autonomy, integrity and identity of the person who consents. The harms are often unreckoned by law and remain more or less unnoticed by the rest of us, even in the #Metoo era.
I think it’s time we took another look.
Noun: Permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.
Verb: Give permission (allow) something to happen.