How Can We Make Men Stop Touching Us?
It’s not that men don’t notice they’re making women uncomfortable, they just don’t care
This week, a third woman accused New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of inappropriate behavior. Anna Ruch, who met Gov. Cuomo at a wedding in 2019, told The New York Times that he put his hand on her bare lower back, called her ‘aggressive’ when she removed it, and then grabbed her face with his hands and asked if he could kiss her. (The Times has a picture of the encounter.)
The governor has also been accused of sexual harassment by two former staffers: One young woman who claims he asked her about her sex life and insinuated that he wanted to sleep with her; and another who says Gov. Cuomo kissed her and subjected her to encounters she found “degrading.”
Cuomo apologized during a press conference on Wednesday, but cushioned his mea culpa with more excuses than New York has pizza places. When asked about the image of him grabbing Ruch’s face, for example, the governor called it his “customary way of greeting people,” and said he understands “sensitivities have changed.” In other words, he’s just an old-school flirt—a touchy guy who hasn’t caught up with the times. It’s a sly way of evading responsibility for wrongdoing without directly attacking his accusers.
But Cuomo’s claim that he “never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable,” is not exactly true. It’s not that he didn’t notice he was making women uncomfortable. It’s that, like a lot of men, he just didn’t care.
After all, when Ruch removed the governor’s hand from her lower back, Cuomo didn’t apologize, or step back and give her space. Instead, he chastised her for enacting a boundary and grabbed her face between his hands. (You’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who hasn’t endured a similar situation.)
For the men who touch lower backs, grab faces or plant kisses, women’s comfort is incidental. That’s why during the height of #MeToo, the broad reaction from men wasn’t happiness that abusers were being outed and punished—but concern that the movement’s blowback would make it harder for them to hug women at work or ask for intern’s numbers. They were the good guys! Why should they be punished?
The idea that perhaps women didn’t like that behavior either didn’t really occur to them.
Women’s safety and comfort has always been treated as secondary to men’s ability to do what they want. So if a man wants to rub our shoulders, touch our pregnant belly, or hug us a little too long—he just does it. (My personal hell are the men who—instead of saying ‘excuse me’ if they want to pass by you in a crowded space—put their hands on your hips and physically move you.)
That’s why stories like Ruch’s are so important. It’s not enough that men stop sexually assaulting and harassing women; they need to stop treating our bodies like public property. Because this issue is not just about what’s legal, it’s about what’s right. And the standard for how we treat each other cannot be, “well, it wasn’t rape.”
Convincing men that we’re not being over-sensitive if we don’t want them touching us will be a challenge, in part because confronting entitlement is always difficult. But the bigger hurdle is that too many men who engage this behavior think they’re ‘good guys.’ Changing the way they interact with women would mean admitting those touches were never okay to begin with.
I’m not sure what the answer is. For the men who dig in their heels and say their touchiness has nothing to do with sex or gender, perhaps it would help to point out that if they treated men with the same kind of physicality they treat women, they’d likely end up with a broken nose.
What I am sure about, however, is that the entitlement men feel over women’s bodies is exhausting. What someone like Gov. Cuomo thinks of as an everyday encounter—something he’s done with “hundreds of people”—a woman sees as yet another man who doesn’t care what she wants.
So, please: Keep your hands to yourselves.