Saturday I took myself on a Christmas shopping date. I saw the huge tree in Pioneer Square, had coffee and a pastry, and walked all over the city. By the time the stores closed I was full up with loveliness, but tired and ready to go home. As I stepped off of the streetcar in my neighborhood, I heard a couple fighting behind me. They were just a bit older than me, and dressed up to go somewhere nice. They had stopped and she was telling him, “Let go of me! I don’t want to! Let GO!” This triggered all of my squick alarms and my stomach dropped as I watched him pin her arm under his and clamp onto her hand. I didn’t know what to do but I didn’t want to leave, so I stepped to the side and pretended to fiddle with my gloves. They passed me and I followed until we both came to a street corner at the same time. I asked her if she was okay and when she turned her face I could see that her mascara was messy from crying. She said, “Yeah, I’m okay. Thank you.” They continued on but her fingers were straight out while his hand remained clamped down. Soggy leaf mush sloshed onto her feet while he dragged her along.
I walked a few feet behind them for a couple more blocks with no other plans than to be a presence. He caught on and stepped to the side so that I would have to pass them. I started to turn up the street with memories of the times I’ve been touched when I said no flashing through my head; men who wouldn’t let go of my hand as I was desperately yanking it away. I turned to face him and said, “You know, it sounds like she really doesn’t want to hold your hand right now. Maybe you should respect that.” Anger flared up in his face and he screamed, “She’s my fucking WIFE!”
Now I was yelling too, “So?!? Her body is still hers!”
His wife was dragging him away and begging him to come on as he advanced on me screaming, “FUCK OFF! WHY DON’T YOU FUCK THE HELL OFF? FUCK YOU! FUCK OFF!” I quickly decided that the consequences of escalating this interaction would fall on her shoulders, so I let her pull him down the block and turned to walk up the street.
I was shaking with anger and worry for her. Worried that she was with someone who needed so desperately to possess and control her body that he would hold her hand like a vice, and worried that I had made that night more difficult for her. I hope that I did the right thing in letting her know I was there, that someone else saw what was happening and was willing to stand up and declare that it wasn’t okay.
It wasn’t okay because our bodies are our own, all the time. We do become more adept at reading the body language of our partners (or family, or friends) and understanding their message of consent as they melt into a hug instead of shrinking away. If their shoulders stiffen, and for god’s sake if they say, “No, let go of me,” you LET GO. That’s a really good time to talk about what’s going on (or give them some space), that’s not a good time to force them to interact with you with their body. It’s okay to tell your partner that you don’t want to hold their hand, even if you’ve wanted to hold their hand before, or usually want to hold hands, or wanted to hold their hand a minute ago but now you don’t. Consent is sweet, and sexy and warm. It means that I really wanted to hold your hand so I asked, and found out that you really wanted to hold my hand too.
If you’re ever unsure, remember that not everyone wants a cup of tea.