I have been kissed on the mouth twice by men who did not have my consent to do so. The first time, I was nine or ten. I can’t be sure because it was a rough summer all around, but I was definitely a child, and I had definitely never had any tongue in my mouth, certainly not the tongue of an adult man. The offender was my uncle (in his late 20s at the time). He had been drinking beer; the smell was pungent and familiar.
The second time was just this last summer; I was 43 (or almost 43?). I was at the beach chaperoning a high school marching band leadership retreat. I was walking up the stairs from the beach and struck up (what seemed like) an innocuous conversation with a stranger. When I turned to go, he grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth. “I’ll never see you again, so enjoy life!” There was no tongue involved, but the advance was unwelcome just the same. The man was elderly, 74 or so, also drinking (smelled like vodka).
The situations were vastly different and distressingly familiar. Both men considered themselves entitled to take something they had not been offered. Both of them had been drinking. Both times I was initially paralyzed to take action, equal parts horrified by the behavior, and believing that it was status quo. The depth of my distress was not the same — nine year old me and 43-year-old me are very different people with very different coping mechanisms — but even 33 years later, the paralysis wasn’t unfamiliar.
Ultimately both of these events were dismissed (both literally and figuratively) with a brush of the hand. He was just my “creepy uncle.” He was just a “dirty old man.”
But the thing most distressing about these events isn't even the events themselves, it’s my reaction to them.
I called it how I saw it, “creepy male behavior.” I saw it as “creepy male behavior” because I had been socially conditioned to see the “dirty old men” and the “creepy uncles” as outliers, but a tolerated — if ignored — part of society just the same.
As I was making coffee this morning, my husband began to read aloud from an article about George HW Bush (senior Bush) and allegations of his groping various women. The story of Roslyn Corrigan broke in Time Magazine on Monday. Roslyn alleges she was groped during a photo-op in 2003 (when HW was 79-years-old and Roslyn was 16). Five other women have come forward with similar stories of being touched inappropriately by the former President.
My husband continued, reading a statement from Bush’s spokesperson Jim McGrath.
The statement offered the following, as explanation of his pervy behavior.
“At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures. To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”
Roslyn is number 6 on the list of women who Bush has groped, a list that will undoubtedly grow — once an ass grabber, always an ass-grabber. That’s upsetting, but what is more upsetting, and what prompted me to write this article was not Bush being a predator, but my own reaction to Bush being a predator.
“Dirty old man and whatnot,” I said to my husband as he continued to read the article.
Dirty old man.
Women have been conditioned to dismiss this predatory behavior with a chuckle, as if these men are just unruly toddlers grabbing from the ass cookie jar of life. As if they don’t know better, or as if they should but since they don’t, we just let it slide and chalk it up to old age or social awkwardness. We’ve ignored the HW’s. We’ve looked past Uncle Keith as he stares down our 16-year-old breasts.
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When I was a relatively new hospice nurse, I was caring for an elderly man who was confined to bed. I saw him in his home twice or so a week. Every time the assessment was the same: chat with his son and other care providers, review medications and order refills, take his vitals, thorough skin-check for any ulcerations, roll him from back to stomach to look at his backside. Every time I turned him, he’d reach for whatever breast was closest and squeeze. He’d follow the breast squeeze with the signature old man ass-grab.
Every time he did this I removed his hand and went about my assessment. Every time I was annoyed but dismissive. One evening I mentioned it to my husband, who became outraged. Why would I let him grope me without consequence?
“Well he’s just an old man.”
He’s the creepy uncle.
He’s just a pervert.
No. He is a predator.
The same thing happened when the elderly man kissed me at the beach. I mentioned it to my husband in passing. He was furious. Why didn’t I call the police? Why didn’t I take action?
I was angry, too. But not at the man. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my partner for insisting that I should have done something more than just walk away. How dare he question my action or reaction?
This is how deeply ingrained the perceived normalcy of this inappropriate behavior is.
And that is how men like it. That is how men like George HW Bush get away with grabbing asses, or pulling their penises out on a train, or sticking their tongue in someone's mouth, or gawking at the cleavage of their teenage niece. They do this shit, first, because they have been taught it’s their nature to objectify women, and second because we keep excusing them.
Even as I perused the internet for an image of George HW Bush to use in this article, I found myself deafulting to my "oh he's just such an old man, it's sad" baseline. That is how pervasive this is. Women, even women who have been assaulted, will give more careful consideration to the feelings of a sexual predator than her own.
In an ideal world, men — elderly, uncle, or otherwise — would never feel entitled to touch the body of any other person without express permission. In an ideal world, men would not prey on women at all. But in this less-than-ideal world, let’s remind each other that “dirty old man” is not a disability or a condition that excuses predatory behavior.
Do not turn your head, or allow it to be turned, away from behavior such as this. Complacency is contagious. Let's remember that the power of #MeToo extends to include things we have be taught to regard as normal.