I was lying on a lounge chair on a nightclub's pool deck when I recalled the details of a very unpleasant incident that had occurred at a boozy networking event a few nights earlier.
"This guy -- he was about our age, but he had this crazy combover, like Beetlejuice with thin hair," I explained. "Anyway, he comes up to me while I'm trying to find my friends and he's wasted and has terrible breath and he starts touching my arm while he asks me for my name -- and you know I don't like being touched-- "
"I know," my friend nodded.
" - And I'm trying to leave, but it's crowded and he starts grabbing my arm with both hands and rubbing it up and down and tells me to stay and tries to pull me into dancing with him." My friend twisted her face into disgust.
I sat up to emphasize the next point: "Imagine Beetlejuice rubbing his pervy hands all over your bare arm? Nightmare."
We got up from the pool area to migrate toward the dance floor, inching through the bottleneck in an attempt to get there.
"Oh my god," I hissed to my friend. "It's Beetlejuice-combover guy! That’s him!" Unfortunately for us, he was standing right in the center of the bottleneck, touching every mortified Asian woman who walked in his vicinity. I felt the crowds push me toward him and even though I tried to angle myself away, I knew I'd be within his striking range.
There's always this split second between the moment you trip and the moment you hit the ground, when you are aware that you're falling but unable to do anything about it. It is the longest split second and one of the worst feelings in the world.
That's how I felt when I saw Beetlejuice-combover’s eyes light up with hope (but definitely not recognition) as he reached his hand out to grasp my arm.
I wasn't fast enough to stop him, but the moment his hand made contact with my bare arm, I jerked my body back like it was on fire. Instead of acting embarrassed like a civilized person and perhaps apologizing, he advised me to seek psychiatric assistance.
"What is your f***ing problem?" he seethed. "What the f**k is wrong with you?"
"I don’t like strangers touching me," I responded coolly.
"You need mental help." He circled his index finger around his temple. "That's not normal. That's f***ing weird."
I threw up my arms in exasperation and shouted, "It's not NORMAL to touch people you don't know!" It’s true that most people probably would not have recoiled with as much disgust as I did -- I am abnormally squeamish about touching -- but my reaction certainly didn’t eclipse the original offense.
I stormed out with my friend, the same one who was with me when I got spat on years ago ("This does always happen to you," she conceded).
I loudly complained in the elevator about how men shouldn’t touch women they don’t know. Another woman riding with me perked up.
"Yes!" she exclaimed, nodding vigorously. Her male friends laughed. "Seriously though!" she protested to them. "It's not OK." They simply shrugged.
The next evening, I told my close male friend this story. He thought I had overreacted.
"He shouldn't have called you crazy, but I don't think it's that bad that he touched your arm," he mumbled.
"You think it's okay to put your whole hand on some random woman's arm -- her bare skin?" I shrieked. "Fingertips to wrist, full contact?!"
He admitted that was a bit over the line: "But what if you need to get her attention?"
I was surprised that like my elevator buddy’s male companions, my friend, who is a respectful, cool guy, couldn’t see the problem. Men can’t understand the threat a woman might feel from a simple touch, just like they can’t really empathize with the threat a woman might feel if a man approaches her and starts chatting with her on a deserted sidewalk at midnight.
It’s this lack of awareness that leads some men into a false sense of entitlement whenever they walk into a place where alcohol is served. You see it everywhere at bars, like the time a guy told my friend he wanted to snort coke off her boobs about 30 seconds after he introduced himself to her. Or the time at 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day when a man grabbed my face and tried to kiss me and said, “Relax, it’s New Year’s,” when I screamed and pushed him away.
Touching a woman’s arm is certainly not the same as trying to kiss her on the lips, but there is still something vaguely threatening about a stranger making physical contact with your body. You’re crossing an unwritten boundary and invading someone’s personal space.
I talked to a non-verbal expert and dating coach recently (my colleague was writing a story and I decided to freeload) and he made it pretty clear why touching seemed so inappropriate to me: “A tap on the shoulder -- friendly,” he explained. “A touch on the arm, knee, back -- that’s sexual.” Who wants to receive that kind of energy from someone who hasn’t even spoken to you yet?
No. We live in America, a land full of boundaries. The cheek-kiss greeting is considered weird here and people will sometimes skip a seat on public transportation to avoid brushing up against their neighbor. You wouldn’t touch the small of a stranger’s back at a coffee shop, so you shouldn’t do it at a bar, either.
I never ended up seeking counseling for my abnormal “problem,” as detailed by Beetlejuice-combover. I think I’ll be okay.