Changing Values Around Touch


Joe Biden has been in the news lately due to the possibility that he might still announce that he's running for president, combined with the fact that a few women have made allegations that he made them feel uncomfortable several years ago. This has led some of us to wonder whether Democratic voters will follow the lead of at least a couple of those already running for president in deciding that this disqualifies Biden. I'm sorry to disappoint, but this post is not going to speculate about whether the "listen and believe" crowd will do Biden like they did Al Franken even if it costs them the White House. Instead, I thought I'd address the subject of changing social standards around touch and personal space.

From what I understand, Biden has not been accused of sexually assaulting anyone (like Trump has bragged about on tape). Instead, he was accused of doing things that may sound fairly innocent (e.g., putting his hand on someone's shoulder, kissing someone on top of the head, pressing his forehead against someone else's forehead while embracing them) except that they made the women who reported them feel uncomfortable at the time. Biden should not have done these things, and he has apologized.

This is an interesting example of changing values around personal space and touch. This sort of thing was once common, even in the workplace, and few gave much thought to whether it made anybody uncomfortable. I've been on the receiving end of several awkward hugs, lingering pats on the back, inappropriate shoulder rubs. Although every one of them made me feel uncomfortable, I never said anything about it. I'd often flinch involuntarily and pull away, but I never asked anyone to stop or said that I really don't like to be touched. Why? I think I was worried that would have been even worse than the unwanted touch because others would have decided there was something wrong with me (and maybe there is).

I don't deserve any sympathy here, though, as I'm sure I've been guilty of doing this to others without thinking about it. While I can't see myself hugging someone, I've probably done other things that made at least someone feel uncomfortable at the time. I've probably patted someone on the back as a gesture of affection without realizing they didn't like it. I've probably put my hand on someone's arm to get their attention without needing to do so. It used to be that I didn't think about that sort of thing. I think about it now. Doing so has led me to be more careful since I do not want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

It seems to me that this is an example of progress. People, especially women, who used to endure unwanted touch in silence are now feeling empowered not to have to do so. I think it would be horrible to have to put up with something like this on a regular basis in one's workplace. Even I have managed to say, "Please don't" on a couple of occasions. I won't pretend that I felt good about doing so, but I did manage to do so. I suppose that's progress.

I am sure some will angrily dismiss all of this as the opposite of progress. I have heard complaints from a couple male co-workers along the lines of how the workplace is "no fun" because they have to take other people's feelings into account or face the consequences. I've had more than one heated conversation because I responded with something like, "So you don't enjoy work as much now that you can't harass our female co-workers?" Maybe that wasn't fair, but it seemed to be what they were saying.

Social values change over time. It was not that long ago when everyone smoked on airplanes. It was not that long ago when people might have a few drinks at lunch before returning to work. It was also not that long ago when some men felt that it was okay to grab or pat the rear end of an unfamiliar woman who was merely trying to go about her day regardless of how it made her feel.

One of the many things I dislike about organized religion and religious dogma is that it often seems to get in the way of progress. By elevating traditions, even harmful traditions, to the level of being "sacred" and then equating change with "blasphemy," religion holds us back. We should be able to have a healthy respect for some traditions even as we recognize that change is needed. And we should be much quicker to dismantle those that are harmful.