At a recent party in the back garden of a friend’s house I witnessed an act so everyday, most people wouldn’t notice it, yet if one were to talk to women about how it feels, most I’m sure would say it makes them feel uneasy to be on the receiving end. A group of mostly strangers, were all sitting around enjoying drinks when I saw a guy in his early sixties stand up and take a necklace of a female friend of mine who had just entered the space, in his hand, resulting in his hand being very close to her chest and neck. He spoke about how pretty the necklace was and generally used it as a tool of introduction to enable small talk between them. I had watched him do something very similar with another woman not ten minutes before too. Innocuous enough you might think, he’s just being social, using the necklace as a means of introduction, that is understandable surely? Well, no. I could see on both of the women’s faces that they had found this incident uncomfortable but responded in becoming particularly effervescent, laughing and generally more mobile on the spot, something I’m sure the cock-sure man (to be fair, I am not one to say all or most men are like that, but this idiot was), would mis-construe as flirtatious behaviour, therefore assume that the women enjoyed his interactions, hence why he does it.
But they weren’t enjoying it as anyone who can read body language would tell you, neither was his female partner who was working on covering up her annoyance. In fact the two women were doing what in gender terms is referred to as ‘performing your gender’. This means that when certain social cues arise – which we have been socialised into becoming sensitive to – we respond by acting in a stereotypical male or female type of behaviour. In this case a woman is quite likely to laugh or become more fluttery in her physical movements than she would normally be. The lady in question was a professional and also – although it is only tentatively relevant – a lesbian, so she was no bimbo in any sense of the word (neither was the other lady). I had already sensed him to be a bit cocky so had sent out my “don’t try anything with me” vibes, which always work! (and there is not doubt he didn’t like me for the very reason I refused to perform in such a way).
Why is a heterosexual man taking a female stranger’s necklace in his hand so troublesome? As always, the way to understand if something is sexist is to ask the very simple question, would he do that to a man (he had just met)? Of course not, and importantly, for two reasons. Firstly, he would be concerned about being misunderstood as gay. This is because the act of moving into someone’s personal space is often a stage one goes through when one wants to get sexually close to them, just ask the Pick Up Artists (men who learn neuro-linguistic tricks to try to pick women up). They call this stage “Kino” and it is a key element of ascertaining whether a woman is interested in you, a milestone (although, when women perform their gender, of course they are often wrong about this). This brings me to the second stage, he would fear an aggressive response from a man if he did it because such an uninvited act is in fact an invasion of space, one that rightly angers anyone regardless of gender, although women are taught to blank this out in order to be socially lubricating.
In another instance, I was finishing a live interview for one of the cheaper quality radio shows in the UK, which was the only one I have actively sat there and thought to myself “I give this presenter one last rude act, before I walk out of the studio”. I meant it too, but in actual fact he didn’t do one more insulting thing – after many instances of calling me Anna Spam, making a joke out of my surname, describing my cheekbones and guessing my middle class status and generally talking to me like a piece of meat (he didn’t get to do it as much as he wanted because I insisted on replying with intelligent answers way beyond the listenership they were aiming at, meaning I effectively threw cold water over his rather basic DJ performance). At the end of an insulting hour and a half he said goodbye and kissed me on both cheeks. It was then that I first felt the anger of being expected to allow him into my personal space. To make matters worse, he had one of those beards that exuded some nasty oil that kept my face red and itchy for a good hour and a half afterwards.
Why the hell should I have to kiss a stranger twice, when a man would shake his hand? There is a massive difference between such an act with one’s hand hand and allowing someone to spread their saliva on your face. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind kissing male friends but those are people whom I like, not arseholes I don’t, or more often, not complete strangers either. The fact this happens in the workplace only confounds the fact. What if women refused to do it? Would we lose out financially? I think we should give it a try and take the risk. I for one make a point of ‘trying to get away with’ just a hand shake in business but will concede if it becomes too awkward. I’m working on my confidence and my social skills to negotiate a new way around this one (and yes, I appreciate I shouldn’t have to but life is full of battles to be chosen).
One thing is for sure, women shouldn’t have to put up with an act which ultimately harks back to the times when women were literally objects bargained for and distributed between men to confirm their homosocial bonds, as they weren’t allowed to inherit the money from their families. In this instance the necklace guy wasn’t so much actively trying to date these women, just to enact his right to their space, which as all the women involved knew on some level, was about entitlement to their sexuality, albeit socially. Especially as women are now more financially independent, we should be moving away from such archaic practices, especially those still under the radar, like these that make women feel uncomfortable, yet as there is no discussion around it, they never become fully conscious of it, or they don’t feel entitled to ask for it to stop. I think we should give stranger kissing the treatment with did to men spreading their legs on public transport and make it very visible so we can all talk about it.
So, I am fully loving the meme attached to John Travolta’s slimy use of women’s personal space at the Oscars this year, especially towards Scarlett Johansson. Let’s make the invisible visible and try to move things onto a more even field where people – after all, lots of male friends do it too – choose who they kiss. It’s only fair. #nostrangerkiss