I have had numerous internal discussions with myself about whether to write this post, and how to frame the subject if I did. This is a story about personal space and bodily autonomy — for a man. I am cognizant of what women — my wife, daughters, teen granddaughters, sister, and friends — go through every day in a sexualized world dominated and controlled by men who see women as playthings put on earth for their use and gratification. The #metoo movement brought to everyone’s attention how pervasive sexual harassment and assault really are. I have spent countless hours thinking about my own complicity in treating women as less than; of not recognizing their absolute right to personal space and bodily autonomy. As a result, I have changed my ways: my actions and speech. For example, I had taken it for granted that female acquaintances of mine were okay with me hugging them when we came in contact with each other. I had always hugged them. “That’s what friends do,” I told myself. However, I never bothered to consider if they wanted to be hugged. I just assumed . . . . I came to understand that I had no right to hug a woman without her permission. So, I ask first before hugging them. It is literally the least I can do.
When I go out in public, I always dress well. No slumming for me. You will never see me in public wearing sweatpants or ratty clothing. I pay attention to what I wear, making sure that my hat, suspenders, socks, and shoes match my shirts and pants. Welcome to OCPD. 🙂 Some may say my attention to these things is obsessive, however looking right, looking smart, and looking dapper matters to me. Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit about what others think about my appearance.
I also know that I have a nice beard, one I take great pride in. I know I look like Santa Claus. During the holiday season, it is not uncommon for adults to call me Santa and for children to stare with that wide-eyed look when I pass by. I have embraced my Santaness, taking time to talk to children about Christmas. Quite frankly, I enjoy doing so.
Unfortunately, I have had adult women take things too far, invading my personal space without my permission. Several years ago, a woman plopped herself on my lap at a high school basketball game. At another game, an attractive woman in her late 20s snuggled up to me, putting her hand firmly on my leg, so she could tell me what she wanted for Christmas. I have had women, without asking permission, touch and run their fingers through my beard. Others have complimented me on my look while telling Polly how lucky she should feel for having a good-looking man like me. Creepy stuff. Uncomfortable, to say the least. And believe me, I am the one who got the better end of the deal when I met and married Polly.
Polly’s mom died last week. Her funeral was on Saturday. Before the service started, I was talking to Polly’s aunt from Michigan and her son and his wife. It’s been years since I have seen them. We had a delightful conversation. One of our family’s Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers deigned to come near me. His only words to me as we shook hands were: “Hey, Bruce. God bless your heart.” And with that, he walked away. I said to myself, “fuck you.”
As I looked up, my eyes connected with his wife, a cousin of Polly’s whom I have known for forty-seven years. As a toddler, this woman was in our wedding. We have gotten along well over the years. She is quite outgoing, much as her mother was. What happened next, though, was quite disturbing and offensive.
As the woman saw me, she said loudly, “Bruce!” As she came closer to me, she asked, knowing my battle with chronic illness and pain (her mom died of bone cancer and couldn’t bear to be touched), “are you doing hugs these days?” I replied “yes, ” and we embraced. (Yes, I was in a lot of pain, but I typically — my counselor says wrongfully — defer to others.) As we broke our embrace, this woman proceeded to put her hands on each side of my face, slowly running her fingers through my beard — twice. She then pulled me back close and said, “you sure smell nice!” (I use cologne from Scentbird — a monthly subscription service. High quality colognes at an affordable price.)
Here we were in the middle of an IFB church. Polly and her husband were mere feet away. I felt uncomfortable, to say the least. We traded several more pleasantries, and then I walked away to my seat. I have only seen this woman twice in the past seventeen years. She assumed a familiarity with me that she did not have. As I sat down next to Polly, I said to her “what the fuck was that?” We later talked about the fact that I had but a taste of what many women go through every day of their lives. Did the woman in question mean anything by her actions? No. She was, however, raised in a church environment where taking liberties with the personal space and the bodies of others was common. Greet one another with a brotherly kiss, the Bible says. Affectionate hugs are common. No one bothers to ask for permission before hugging.
I try to hug my children and grandchildren when I see them. I love them dearly and I want them to know it. That said, some of them are huggers, and others are not. I respect their wishes. Last year, my oldest son’s girlfriend came over for a family holiday for the first time. As they were leaving for the night, I hugged my son. I turned to her and said, “is it okay if I give you a hug?” She said “yes,” and we embraced.
We don’t know the lived lives of others: family members who have been groped by uncles; women who have been assaulted by preachers, deacons, and Sunday school teachers in the name of Christian love; roving hands and lengthy embraces from men (and sometimes women) who are indifferent to what others want and find comfortable. Instead of assuming, ask. It really is that simple.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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