"he doesn’t mean anything by it" is a horrible lie

I ran into an aquaintance– a man that given the social context that we met in knows that I’m a hugger and open to hugs. We’ve hugged before when saying hello, which is something that I’m almost always comfortable with. However, this time, he kissed me. It took me completely by surprise– and I couldn’t shake the twisting, nauseating feeling I had all night because of it.

I was also infuriated with myself for the rest of the week because my reaction afterwards was to silently move away and completely ignore what he’d done. I, like pretty much every single woman in the history of ever … let it go. And letting it slide like that made me feel horribly guilty, like I’d “failed” in some way, that I wasn’t a “good feminist” if I couldn’t even call out the behavior that’s happening to me. Here I am, babbling away on the internet about consent and boundaries and safe spaces and then something like this happens and I freeze.

I’m not saying that a man’s boundaries can never be crossed or that it’s only women who freeze up when someone does something to us that we don’t like or don’t want– there are some don’t ever make a scene! dynamics to what is considered “good manners” in our culture, regardless of gender.

However, women are socialized to accept things that men don’t have to live with, such as the above example. I asked Handsome, and having to put up with people grabbing, touching, slapping, pinching, groping, hugging, or kissing him isn’t something he has to deal with when he goes out. However, many social functions I’ve been to involves surviving an obstacle course of men trying to do all that, and me having very little recourse.

A few years ago I was at a birthday party, and one of the men there got very drunk and groped my ass. I reacted to this with the absolutely suitable “hey! I don’t appreciate that, don’t touch me again” and every single last man in that room poo-pooed me with “oh, that’s just the way he is, he doesn’t mean anything by it” and him walking around like a kicked puppy for the rest of the night … and I felt horrible, like I had done something wrong by standing up for myself and asking for a pretty basic physical boundary to be respected.

The same thing happened when that man kissed me without my permission– even though I didn’t visibly react, or do or say anything, I walked around for the next few days second-guessing myself. It’s just the way he is. He didn’t mean anything by it looped around my head. I felt that I didn’t have the “right” to feel the way I did about it, that the sick feeling in my stomach was me making a big deal out of nothing.

In retrospect, obviously, I have every right to feel violated by being kissed without my permission. That I felt gross and dirty afterwards is a feeling I should respect and trust– it’s my body and mind trying to tell me something about what had happened, and no amount of “it was nothing” was going to be able to take that away.

Women spend a lot of time telling ourselves it was nothing, and that is a monstrously difficult lie to overcome. It’s a lie we’re told by no one– and everyone. It’s the lie we believe when we’re at a party and we’re suddenly A Raging Bitch because we dared to say something when we were assaulted. It’s the lie in the back of our head when a man is acting in a way that sets every alarm we have to screaming, but we force ourselves to ignore it because it couldn’t be that big a deal, right?

My big take-away from all that is this: not being able to say “don’t do that” isn’t a failure on my part. Standing up to the near-overwhelming pressure to not be that bitch and enforce our physical boundaries isn’t something that should always and forever be shouldered by women. I wish it didn’t feel like such a monumental thing to ask of men not to be that guy, but it is. Why should it always be our responsibility to tell men that they’ve been a dick? It should be the responsibility of every decent human being to enforce a social code like don’t kiss people without their permission, instead of the misogynistic code we have right now that reads don’t make a man feel bad about acting like a dick.

Photo by Craig Sunter
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  • I’m sorry you have to deal with this, Samantha.

    I hate to attribute bad intent, but I cannot wrap my mind around how anyone could think it was okay to kiss or grope a woman who hadn’t specifically indicated she’d welcome it–and I spent over a decade being the most socially awkward person I knew by a long way, doing a lot of things that are mortifying in retrospect. I think most likely both those men knew you wouldn’t welcome what they did; I’m dead certain the other men at that party knew he shouldn’t have done it. They just…didn’t care enough.

    • The thing is, men are socialized to believe women are objects and men have an inherent entitlement to women, as a whole. That is not to say that all men think or behave in that way, but it is the dominant cultural narrative. Overcoming those prominent messages requires a lot of effort and purposeful brain-training. Which many men obviously don’t try to do, as evidenced by the awful behavior of these men described above & the men who think it is acceptable to catcall or grope even random women on the street. Everydaysexism . com is a really sad example (or rather, thousands of examples) of this same idea.

      • Gary Eddy

        Kraye211. I was taught by my parent what happened to Samantha was wrong. I taught two boys the same thing. They behave appropriate around all women and treat all women with respect and dignity. That’s how we overcome this chaging the culture starting yesterday.

  • I can really relate to this, since both times that I’ve been sexually assaulted, I felt awful afterwards for not saying no often enough (maybe if I had said it one more time in just the right tone, he would have gotten it?), or letting him get close (because maybe letting him sit next to me was leading him on?), or sending mixed messages by talking to him (seriously, I knew he was drunk so what did I expect?), etc. It’s utterly fucked up.

    However, in both of those cases I can say firmly, “he was not innocent, and what he did was not okay.” I’m curious of your opinion about a different case (this time involving a woman) where I felt the line was much more blurry and never figured out how to deal with it. In this case, this friend of mine was from another country (I was at an international college) and we were all pretty used to being tolerant of each others’ cultural norms. However, she started insisting that she be allowed to greet me by kissing my cheeks. I understood that this was simply a cultural aspect of greeting friends in her country, but nonetheless, I felt distinctly uncomfortable with it… especially since she was significantly shorter than me so I had to bend down for her to reach which left me feeling all the more vulnerable since I was off-balance. Still, if I would hesitate or show discomfort, she’d immediately start saying “oh come on, it doesn’t mean anything” and “I have to do this or I will just feel so unfriendly” and “why are Americans so stand-offish?” and making a big deal of it so that I felt like I really should get over myself and let her do it. I felt dreadfully uncomfortable every time.

    I assume that she probably really didn’t mean anything by it… but I still really disliked it and felt sooo uncomfortable, but I felt like I had no way to politely back out of it. It’s not like I’m permanently scarred by this or anything, but I do look back on it and wonder, was I in the wrong to feel that way? Or was she? Or neither? Thoughts?

    • From your description, I’d say she was in the wrong, absolutely. Apparently she was not used to being tolerant of your “not bending to be kissed” cultural norm, which makes me wonder if she respected anyone’s boundaries more than she was forced to.

    • I’ve wondered what the appropriate response is when kissing/hugging is ingrained in someone’s culture. I had a hard time when studying abroad in Italy and so many people I met would greet me with a sloppy kiss. I was constantly torn between standing up for personal boundaries and not offending or criticizing cultural norms that were different from my own.

      • Exactly. It’s a difficult situation since I wanted to be respectful of her culture, but also was so uncomfortable.

  • Terri

    If the person genuinely doesn’t mean anything by it, they won’t be offended or upset when you ask them to stop. If they do get upset, it’s a clear signal that they do indeed mean something by it. I find in many cases with men that it means they have social dominance and they’re not used to having that challenged. They take it very badly to be called on the unspoken social rule of women’s bodies belonging to the men in the room.

    • Right, I don’t understand why someone would get upset. If I did something that made another person feel uncomfortable (like go in for a hug when they’re not about that), I’d feel so guilty and upset…WITH MYSELF for having invaded their boundaries and made them uncomfortable. They don’t have to justify that discomfort; I have to (within reason, and once I know about it) respect it and try really hard not to add to it.

      This just seems basic to me. I have such a respectful group of guy friends that it’s bizarre that anyone has to deal with this problem. I don’t understand what kind of man-child would insist that he be given the right to do as he wishes with women’s bodies. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen; I know it does. It’s just mind-boggling.

    • I agree. Also, I think when other men attack a woman for standing up for herself by saying “get over it” or “he didn’t mean anything” what they’re really saying is “hey, I’ve done that” or “I would have done that”. Which is disturbing.

    • Gary Eddy

      I agree with you 100%

  • I’ve been in similar situations & sometimes I’ve stood up for myself & sometimes I haven’t. But I’m so glad you’re calling out men & asking for them to stand up against this too. As women we shouldn’t bear the full burden here. Great post!

  • “He doesn’t mean anything by it.” See also: “Oh he’s such a joker!”

    We had a guy at one of our clients tell one of our female staff that she had “nice lips” and asked her if she was a good kisser. She was freaked out but did tell him “That was inappropriate.” His response? “Oh I’m just kidding – stop being so sensitive.” There was a big brouhaha, and the guy got a stern talking-to, but somehow we still kept that client.

    So when I go out to this client along with a male colleague, the guy sees me, says, “Oh YOU won’t last long” and immediately starts talking to my colleague. I just kinda raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. Then throughout the day, women who worked there would pull me aside – “I just wanted to tell you that Adam is a bit of a jokester, so if he says anything to you or flirts with you, don’t take it personally.” I just said: “No problem – I figured I could take him in a fight.” One woman responded with laughter and said, “Good.” Another one said, “You have my permission – go right on ahead.”

    Unfortunately he didn’t say anything REALLY offensive to me – I was kinda hoping I would have an excuse to punch him.

    • Gary Eddy

      I would feel very uncomfortable working there and I am man.

  • In the Hispanic culture, it is normal for men and women to kiss each other on the cheek when greeting, even if they are not very close friends. In the US, it is intrusive to kiss each other unless people are close friends or family members. But when men take advantage of women by kissing, grabbing, or saying inappropriate remarks, women should have the right to stand up for themselves and say “that is not acceptable. Please don’t do it again.”

    • Gary Eddy

      Hear hear.

  • Not only what you said, but when we teach our children this, some of us end up practicing the same things as CHILDREN when we SHOULD be telling everyone we can find that some man is abusing us instead of ‘letting it go’ because ‘he didn’t mean anything by it’ – child molesters DO INDEED mean something by it – they get off on this kind of thing. For us to teach our children to let this behavior slide is just a disaster waiting to happen. How do I know this? Because my brother’s best friend didn’t mean anything when he molested me for 2 years as a 9 year old. Teach. Your. Children.

    • Tim

      I am so sorry that happened to you and I absolutely agree with you about the importance of teaching children about these kinds of issues in a way that’s accessible to them. That their bodies belong to them; that they don’t have to give uncle so-and-so a hug or a kiss just because he wants one if they don’t feel comfortable doing that. That if someone touches them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable the mere fact that they feel uncomfortable is entirely sufficient reason to ask the other person to stop and to make a fuss if they don’t. To deliberately socialize our boys, in particular, in the viewpoint that children (of either sex) are people, even if they’re small people who are weaker and less experienced, and that they need to be treated like people rather than playthings. It’s an uncomfortable task, and it’s tricky because you don’t want your kids to think that A) all touch is potentially very bad, or B) when someone touches you in an inappropriate way it’s your fault and makes you any less in some way, or C) that you can’t trust anyone because most people are just looking to take advantage, or D) that if you’re curious about sex you’re just a bad kid, etc. It’s not easy, but I think it’s one of the most important things to try to get right.

  • There is not a big enough LIKE STAR for me to indicate how much I support everything you say here. The behavior is unacceptable, and the immense burden on women (above and beyond the initial boundary violation) to say the right thing–but never the wrong thing!–and to speak up when it happens–but not too soon nor too late! and not so subtly that he misunderstands nor so brazenly that he is embarrassed!– is indeed infuriating.

  • Tim

    With regard to the ass-grabbing, I generally apply the mom test to something like that. If my mom were groped by a drunk guy at a party (and I saw how upset it made her), would I be like, “Hey, Mom, he probably didn’t mean anything by it.”? Um. Nope. More along the lines of, “Hey, man, what the fuck is wrong with you?” I wouldn’t be happy with him having a kicked puppy look all night. I’d be happy with the level of embarrassment that causes someone to decide it’s time to go home and get sober.

    I agree with your last paragraph – you would have been totally justified in standing up for yourself; you didn’t, because of the way you’ve been socialized, because of the larger culture not really supporting a woman doing that, maybe because of your personality, or other reasons. But it’s absolutely not your fault that you didn’t or that you second-guessed yourself for two days. Some parts of that may just be what they are, but I’m with you on it being a good thing to work to change the culture so that guys don’t feel entitled, and so that people in general are ready to support any woman who identifies her personal boundaries.