What's in a Hug

Women know, because our safety depends on it

The investigation of New York governor Andrew Cuomo is complete, and the results are just about what we expected. State Attorney General Letitia James’ report makes clear that Gov. Cuomo is a serial sexual harasser of women, and his office is a toxic place to work. The report outlines how the governor made inappropriate comments to women—like telling a female state trooper his ideal girlfriend would be able to “handle pain”—and touched them often without consent. 

Nothing about the investigation’s results surprised me. I have always believed the accounts of women who have come forward about Cuomo, and his behavior—while disgusting—is fairly standard for a powerful abuser. 

What did shock me, however, was Cuomo’s response. In both his 85-page statement and a video address, the governor and his office presented a photo slideshow of people hugging and being affectionate. Some were pictures of Cuomo hugging other people. “I’ve been making the same public gesture all my life,” he said in his pre-recorded address. “It is meant to convey warmth, nothing more. I do it with everyone.” 

Other photos featured politicians like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Barack Obama hugging various supporters and friends. The report states, “the Governor’s conduct...is unremarkable. Democratic and Republican politicians, male and female alike, use handshakes, hugs, and kisses to connect with others.”

Setting aside the fact that “people touch sometimes” is not a defense against sexual harassment, this tactic is incredibly sexist. Because what Cuomo and his office are claiming is that the women who have accused him don’t understand the difference between a friendly, everyday hug and a lecherous one. 

That suggestion isn’t just offensive, it’s laughably wrong. 

Women know when someone is being blandly nice and when someone is hitting on us. We know the difference between a mindless pat on the back and a charged one, and the difference between a friendly kiss on the cheek or the slobber of a man trying to make us feel uncomfortable. We can even discern between a neighborly ‘good morning’ and an ogling one!

Do you know why? Because our safety and survival depends on us knowing the difference. 

We’ve been hyper-vigilant since we were little girls, determining what kind of messages men were sending us in order to keep ourselves safe. We’ve had a lifetime to understand what men mean. We’re the foremost fucking experts on it. 

Misreading a man’s signals is one of the most dangerous things a woman can do. We need to figure out if we respond to a comment or touch gamely and smiling to keep a man calm, or if ignoring is the way to go. Do we cross the street, yell, or keep our head down when someone catcalls us? Do we give a man hitting on us a fake phone number or tell him ‘no’ outright? Do we grin and bear the hug or a push a guy away? How angry will he get? Will he make our lives miserable afterwards?

Often, we’re making these decisions in a matter of seconds.

So please, do women the favor of not treating us like we haven’t spent the better part of our lives honing our perceptiveness and strengthening our intuition. We know exactly what you mean.

Most importantly, we know exactly who you are.

If you like this column, consider becoming a paid subscriber! You’ll get even more pieces like this, the ability to comment and have access to a pretty great community of feminists. :)