Not too long ago, I was out with a friend and some of her colleagues. I started chatting with the man walking next to me, who was charming and dressed in sporty clothes. He recommended good books and had a number of insightful things to say about current events. He invited me to an exclusive event he’s involved with, and I told him I would if my schedule allowed, quite flattered by the invitation.
We arrived at a posh hotel bar. The man I was talking with — let’s call him Mr. Charmer — took a seat across from my friend. The woman he worked with sat beside him quietly, smiling nervously at us as we talked. Every time my friend said something clever, he would reach out and touch her knee, leaving his hand on her leg just a beat too long. I could sense she was uncomfortable by the strained way she smiled back at him. Finally Mr. Charmer got up to get another drink and we took a seat with another group from our party.
“I can’t believe his wife just sits there when he does that,” my friend said, clearly distressed.
“Wait. That’s his wife?”
“Yeah, his partner.”
“I thought he meant business partner!” I said.
“They work and live together.”
“I thought he was just creepily and hamfistedly flirting with you!”
Did I tell you he’s charming? He’s “lovely” and smart and listens to you and possesses all those personable qualities that can be faked with enough time and effort. People who know him might be tempted to defend him. A knee is not a breast and nothing he said to either of us was coarse or suggestive. His wife was sitting next to him. If she doesn’t mind this, isn’t it okay? He’s just being friendly! People touch each other all the time — it is natural, right?
The subtlety of the boundary crossed is why I often think of this experience. Mr. Charmer acted disrespectfully to the three of us, flaunting the power inequity at the table. His wife is nominally his professional equal, but it would appear she is not an equal partner in the relationship, which he demonstrated to us. She also acted as his enabler. My friend and I are established in our careers, but nowhere near his wealth and clout.
I didn’t follow up on his invite to the event. If I were younger and starting out, I probably would have gone. What are a few awkward touches if it means hobnobbing with people that might open up some golden doors for me? It is hard to explain the particular power bargains that many women make in their careers. Roughly it amounts to putting up with minor acts of abuse, partly because of the threat that no one will believe you, but also because in the long run you are positioning yourself to a career placement where you are less likely to be a victim of these encounters. He would not act this way with women he regards as equals.
If you had the misfortune of looking at /r/TheFappening/ you might have picked up on a particularly disturbing sentiment commonly expressed in the subreddit’s threads. The community dismissed the victims tweeting angrily about the leaked nude photos, while applauding women whose photos were stolen who appear unfazed by this hack. The good girls are the ones who act within their demarcated ideals of behavior. They are rewarded because they don’t complain. It is likely they are the ones who will be spared if another hack takes place.
The people writing in the threads almost sounded like they were commenting in a forum for compulsive shopaholics. There was so much joy expressed in acquiring something that is forbidden, the sexual content of the photos seemed secondary to them. Jennifer Lawrence has an Oscar. In spite of her wealth, celebrity, and prestige, she is disempowered by the theft of these photos, the dissemination of the images, and the continued conversation. The decentralized coordination of this attack means no accountability and no apologies.
It is easy to dismiss trolls on 4chan and Reddit. It is harder punching up and calling out behavior like Mr. Charmer’s. These two incidents are disparate points on the all-too-broad spectrum of unacceptable sexist behavior. But I bring up this story because I think it best demonstrates what is expressed in every single abusive act, which is: “I am doing this because I can and your boundaries are not valid.”
It took me until now to articulate why this incident with the man in the posh hotel bar bothered me so much. It is because I can’t imagine he failed to notice how much it upset the three of us. But he didn’t stop.