Bookselling in the 21st Century: “Please Don’t Touch Me.”
Emily Ballaine on the Exhausting False Intimacies of Life in Retail
Here is a thing that happens to me regularly: I am at work and a man will grab my arm. Usually they do this in a way that is meant to come across as non-threatening. They aren’t trying to scare me—they’re good guys after all. They’re just curious about me. They just want to know me. They are being polite. They are being inquisitive. They are not breaking any rules.
Usually I will be handing them their change and as I do so, as I carry out this transaction, they will notice the text I have tattooed on my forearm and they will grab my arm to read it, and just like that my body has become a part of this transaction. And perhaps what is worse—I don’t pull my arm away. I dutifully let them grab my body. I let myself be read. I resign myself to another moment of my body no longer belonging to me.
After they have released my arm they want to know the story. They want to know the why of my body. They want to know the why of this act of permanence. They are entitled to it. And I am expected to explain myself. Because underneath their curiosity, their small talk, their good intentions, they are really asking, “Why would you do this to yourself?” Or perhaps the real question they are asking, the real assumption is, “Why would you do this to yourself if you didn’t want men to notice?”
And perhaps I’m overreacting. A strange man grabbing you is low on the list of terrible things that men inflict upon women. I should probably just let it go. I should probably accept that I am an upper middle-class white woman living in a coastal city working in a bookstore. I am privileged. I am so privileged. So I should probably just shut the fuck up. And I’ve thought about it. Here are the words that have gone through my head every time I’ve sat down to write this essay:
I feel guilty writing this. I feel guilty about complaining. I feel guilty about saying these words. I feel guilty about being bothered by this.
And so I stand behind a counter and I hand a man his change and I let him grab my arm and I say nothing. I let him say something that is generally dumb/boring/innocuous. I force myself to laugh at his bad joke. And he lets go of my arm and he goes about his day and I am left no worse for wear other than once again being filled with these familiar feelings—anger, frustration, annoyance, guilt. I am left once again feeling so fucking tired.
Here is another thing that happens to me regularly: I am talking to another woman and there comes a moment of “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” Probably we are drinking. Probably we are talking about the men or women we are dating. Probably we are comparing notes, trading break-up stories, trying to one up each other—he broke up with me over text message but she broke up with me on election night. Probably we are talking about the weirdness of it all—life, etc.
Eventually though it will reach a point with this woman—perhaps she is an old friend or maybe we just met—when the conversation turns to this idea of “women’s bodies.” That’s not quite how it comes up. No one will say, “What are your feelings about the female body?” Usually it will go more like this:
We were walking in the Castro last night and a strange man came up and grabbed my crotch.
I was on the subway this morning and a strange man asked me to give him a hug.
I was at work last night and a strange man came behind the counter and grabbed me.
I was walking down the street yesterday and a strange man yelled, “Give me your pussy.”
And in a circular way what we are saying is here was another moment when a man imposed himself on me. Here is another moment when a strange man made me feel out of control, unsafe, dirty, used, bad.
Usually they are this: stories of invasion. It’s hardly a new idea—that women’s bodies are commodities. But still—there is always a certain level of surprise. There is always a certain level of—they’re still doing this to us? But there is also a certain level of—how did I let this happen?
This is to say that my experience isn’t unique. You are taught from a young age that as a woman your body is something that doesn’t really belong to you. You might dress it up or pierce it or tattoo it. You may put food or drugs or alcohol inside it. You may let certain people touch it or kiss it or fuck it. But it does not belong to you. And if you forget someone will remind you.
So I’m not sure what my story really counts for. What the point is. A man touches me when I don’t want to be touched. It is a small transgression in the grand scheme of things. It is something he doesn’t even see as a transgression—but then maybe that is exactly the point. He does not know. And I never say, “Stop.”
Because we are taught to be nice girls. We are taught to go with the flow. We are taught to let it go. We are taught to be compliant, malleable, quiet, complacent.
Because I wish I could just tell these men to fuck off. I wish I could stop acting so nice. I wish I could stop being so goddamn accommodating. I wish I could stop saying, “Have a nice day,” when what I really want to say is, “Please don’t touch me.”