I was standing there in the hallway crying and he just watched me cry.
I was 15 years old when I went to college. I was mature, but by the time the summer came around, I was homesick. After the school year ended, I had gone to Field School instead of going home for the summer. It was the longest stretch I’d ever spent away from home at one time. I don’t know what had happened, but something began making me miss home even more powerfully. During one of our training sessions, I stepped into the hallway and cried. One of the pastors of the church we were at was walking in the corridor at that moment. He came across me sobbing. And he just stood there. Over the weeks we theology students had become well acquainted with the staff and I would have hoped for a more reactive response. He seemed bewildered, or maybe afraid to do anything to comfort me. It wasn’t until one of my female classmates came into the hallway that someone actually consoled me. She put her arm around my shoulder and let me continue to weep.
At the time I felt all sorts of emotions, the chief among them being that something was wrong with me that this minister had no reaction to my sorrow and made no attempts at consolation. Next I felt angry. How incompetent could a pastor be? And then pity: why are some men so hapless?
This is not a “bash all men” session. Quite the contrary! I know many exponentially brilliant and insightful men. But recent events have revealed that there are also a great number who are either oblivious – or take great pleasure in pretending to be – when it comes to dealing with women appropriately. The most disheartening things I’ve read in the wake of #MeToo have been men who claim cluelessness in dealing with women. Henry Cavill remarked about his “fear” of talking to and flirting with women in the current climate, lest he be accused of rape. Articles have been written discussing men’s confusion about how to interact with women and asking asinine questions like if hugging is ok. Sadly, even several pastoral colleagues have noted that they’d rather just resign themselves to being aloof toward their congregations to “be on the safe side”. Talk about dichotomous thinking!
Some time ago I wrote about Mike Pence’s extremism in always requiring his wife to chaperone him when he talks to a woman. Upon observing the backlash against Bishop Charles Ellis’s inappropriate touching of Ariana Grande during Aretha Franklin’s funeral, a friend remarked that he believed we should “just bow to each other like the Japanese.” And I’m sure the pastor at my Field School felt similarly that such extremes were “safest”. This is ridiculous. The insinuation that men cannot fathom a middle ground between molesting women and avoiding the same airspace is insulting to all the intelligent men I know. I’ve never known any man to accidentally molest one of his male friends. If you can manage that, you can manage to not inadvertently grope a woman. Particularly when it comes to professions of caring, being able to appropriately convey compassion is important. Here are some common sense guidelines that should really go without saying:
(1) Don’t touch non intimate partners in intimate places. Unless you are a part of a medical team, performing an emergency maneuver, measuring someone for a top for tailoring, or picking up a small child, there’s no need to touch random people under their arms. Lips, genitalia, and butts are also off limits. Stick to touching people between the wrist and elbow or the very top of the shoulders if you need to get their attention for some reason. In church, if you plan on hugging, those would be the areas to stick to. A side hug on the outside of the shoulders is respectable. When I was crying in the hallway, a hand on my shoulder would’ve been all I needed to feel cared about and not alienated.
(2) Not everyone is the same. If you’re in middle school or beyond, this shouldn’t be the first time you’ve heard this. Although a shoulder hug is safest, Even that kind of contact isn’t welcome by everyone. Some people have trauma. So people simply don’t like hugs. Respect the fact that not everyone will welcome everything. Treat people like individuals. I saw a friend recently whom I hadn’t seen in years. He sat next to me and patted my knee in a quick, platonic nonsensual way (I was wearing pants). Because of our relationship, it didn’t alarm me. It was only in retrospect that it even registered. I welcomed the affectionate gesture as nonthreatening and non-sexual because of who he is and our particular friendship. If he was another man with whom I did not have the same relationship, my reception may’ve been less positive. Likewise, I should hope he doesn’t give greeting knee pats to every woman he knows – he would likely get into a lot of trouble!
(3) If you are unsure, ask. Had that pastor been uncertain as to whether or not a touch would be ok, the proper thing would be to ask. If you’re in a situation greeting someone who you don’t know well, “Is it ok if I give you a hug?” is perfectly acceptable to ask. If the person says no, accept it and move on.Consent is the biggest factor missing from every one of these highly publicized scenarios. People have a right to say yes or no to physical contact. Particularly in churches, we forget that us “being family” does not mean everyone must be accepting of the same amount of physicality. Particularly when it comes to younger people, some tend to forget that their space and agency should be taken into consideration. Bishop Ellis touched Ariana in a way that he didn’t touch any older woman. At worst because he was intentionally trying to cop a feel and at best because he wasn’t mindful in taking a younger woman’s feelings and agency into consideration.
Extremes are unnecessary. But conscientiousness is. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you want to be shown care and comfort when you’re sorrowful or distressed, do the same for others. If you want others to respect your bodily autonomy, do the same for them. Those things are not mutually exclusive. And they really shouldn’t need to be spelled out. You’re too smart for that.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/courtney-ray
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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