In conversation, it is not necessary to invade someone’s personal space and touch them. It’s worse after they’ve expressed their discomfort, to repeat the offense is just rude, dismissive and an act of entitlement. Speak to me with your mouth and eyes, not your hands, Sir.
On the last day of 2019, I flew back home to the Bahamas after a year-long stint in Miami. I’d spent much of December depressed and anxious, partially because of seasonal affective disorder and partially because of the trepidation of returning home. Naturally, after spending much of 2019 writing about past traumas I wasn’t keen on returning to the place where I was hurt and abused.
Like many women, I’ve experienced too many brushes with sexual assault stemming from childhood into adulthood. As a result, I have PTSD, thus at times can be skittish around men who aren’t shy about their sexual interest in me. New Years Day I found myself being triggered repeatedly by touchy-feely men.
My PTSD Triggers
For the most part, I don’t like being physically touched. Unless I give an unequivocal invitation into my personal space I prefer people to keep a healthy distance outside of my private square.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), once called shell shock or battle fatigue syndrome is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD is a lasting consequence of traumatic ordeals that cause intense fear, helplessness, or horrors, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, an accident, war, or natural disaster. Families of victims can also develop PTSD, as can emergency personnel and rescue workers. — Source
With post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms fluctuate and only appear when a trigger is present. I’m triggered when I’m reminded of events from the past — touching me is a freight train of a reminder if you’re male, a stranger, and give off the air of being rapey — instantly I feel unsafe.
Often I get irritable, agitated, angry, increased arousal because my awareness goes into overdrive and I see the danger everywhere, especially with so many men around; and fear.
I’ve come to associate older men who are too hands-on in conversation with me as a threat. That circles back to childhood incidents where I was molested — the perpetrator would touch my arm, shoulder, back, anywhere in plain sight, when my family was around while whispering lude things to me.
It’s why I was paralyzed with fear when I sat on a coach from Rennes to Paris in France back in spring 2017, as an older man sitting behind me began groping my breast from the side of the chair.
Touch triggers me if it is unsolicited and from a source that’s not known to me, but beyond that the energy of the person, their demeanor also plays a role. The slimy quality of their words or the way they look at me can even incite the same stress-related response, often I can launch into flight or fight mode or I recoil.
With PTSD anything that you experience through your senses during the original trauma can trigger you again. Some triggers are more recognizable while others can be subtle. In the past I had no idea I was being triggered by PTSD, instead, I would just have a visceral reaction to a man’s unwanted intrusion.
Keep Your Hands to Yourself
I’ve been staying with friends since I’ve arrived before moving in with family while I apartment hunt. New Years Day we went to a gathering at my friend’s family.
There were a lot of men there in particular that I didn’t know. They were enthusiastic about the length of my hair, some asking to touch which I said no to, while others ignored me and touched it anyway.
One guy, in particular, grabbed a few locks of my hair and sniffed it even after I told him not to touch my hair. My discomfort grew and I got snappy. In conversations, my friend’s uncle kept touching my shoulder or my thigh.
Each time I told him not to touch me and so did my friend. He decided to mansplain to me that he was touching me to get my attention. I told him to use my name instead; his cheeky response was what’s my name? Now I was angry and went on a tirade about personal space and boundaries. He again continued to mansplain, giving reasons why I should not rescind his touch, even went so far to say it’s because he finds me attractive — this man is old enough to be my grandfather.
Subsequently, every new man that arrived at the party was informed by him and the guy that sniffed my hair to just not touch me in their loud derisive tone, as if I was being so difficult and it was an inconvenience not having access to my body.
Even though I stood my ground I remained hyper-alert, irritated and anxious. One of the guys even said to me he was interested in fucking me and so that’s his way of showing interest. I simply expressed my disinterest and told him he should respect personal space. He continued with his lude commentary — at which point I just wanted the Earth to swallow me.
Growing up in a Rape Culture
Part of the reason I was dreading coming home is the fact that this country is very much steeped in rape culture. It is at the marrow of every level of our society and it sickens and triggers me.
Men here believe by virtue of their sex, they can dominate women’s bodies — this sense of entitlement extends to the things they say to us when they catcall us or in passing conversation. It makes my skin crawl but mostly I just don’t feel safe.
Is it asking too much for men to consider that a woman’s personal space should be honored above their need to show interest or get her attention through physical touch? Granted someone can’t know that I may be triggered by touch but we need to eradicate this idea that a woman’s body is continuously open for invasion.
My country has a serious problem with respecting woman’s bodily autonomy; religion still holds the monopoly on sex education and many are ruled and ill-informed by the patriarchy. Men like the ones at that party would write me off as a bitch, difficult, unruly and crazy — because I freaked out over something as innocuous as touch.
To make matters worse it seems some men enjoy the discomfort they incite using it to propel them to surmount a challenge — as if they’re breaking in a prize mare that’s wholly wild and unruly. While others meet the rebuff with aggression. I’ve experienced the vilest comments, threats of violence and have even been followed while walking down the street after not engaging or answering lude catcalls.
At the party, I was criticized for maintaining my right to not be touch. Imagine having to explain that it’s your body to grown men who can’t understand why it’s an issue if they touch you. Who feel they deserve to put their hands on you at their leisure. Fucking madness.
My reaction wasn’t violent but I raised my voice eventually because I was getting anxious and panicking. They backed off but not before gaslighting me for my reaction.
Mindfulness Helped Keep Me Centered
Through the course of the evening, I measured my alcohol intake to remain sharp. To mitigate the intense anxiety and panic I was feeling I used an undetected mindful technique.
I kept focussing on what I was experiencing through my senses. What I could see, smell, taste, feel, and hear. I breathed deeply and reminded myself to remain in the present so I wouldn’t tumble into a flashback. It worked, saved my evening, and kept me from falling over the ledge.
The only thing I can control is my body’s response. PTSD doesn’t have a cure, but mitigating it is a matter of maintaining mental health. Once I’m settled I’m going to hunt for a new therapist so I can continue to work with the aid of a professional. In terms of navigating this rape culture that triggers me at every turn, I haven’t the slightest idea of how to keep myself sane.
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