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Early on in her career, comedian Cameron Esposito told a story about an encounter with a man in public, a stranger who stood too close to her for comfort. He may not have realized how uncomfortably close he was to Esposito, but as she described in a YouTube video, there was plenty of room behind him, and it made her uneasy. She politely asked that he give her some space, and the man practically exploded in anger, shouting loudly that he was offended and insulted. Esposito was baffled.
Many women have similar stories of standing in line at the grocery store, at the ATM machine, or waiting to order a morning coffee and noticing that a man nearby is suddenly standing close, perhaps even close enough to smell their hair or press his forehead to theirs like former Vice President Joe Biden has done. The number of women who have come forward in recent weeks to address Biden’s inappropriate boundaries has brought attention to the gender politics of personal space. Whether Biden’s intentions were good or not, that he seemingly never thought to consider what might make a woman uncomfortable is the greater problem at hand.
Personal space is a luxury that’s not always attainable or accessible (such as in large cities or a crowded elevator), or valued in the same way among individuals and communities (in some regions of South America, the Middle East, and Southern Europe, for example, people feel comfortable with less physical distance from strangers). It’s subjective and impossible to measure because not everyone prioritizes physical distance the same way—some require more, others don’t have much of a preference.
However, studies indicate that gender influences many of these differences, even across cultures. Generally speaking, men tend to take up the most physical space and feel more comfortable doing so, even when it means taking up several seats on a crowded subway car or going so far as to put their faces and hands on women like Biden did.
According to Dr. Laurie Mintz, an author, speaker, and University of Florida professor, the assumption that it may be appropriate to hug or touch women without their permission points to a sense of entitlement among some men, who may assume women’s bodies are theirs to get close to or touch, publicly or privately, or may not even notice of their close proximity to a woman nearby. These small microaggressions and constant attacks on personal space can be deeply upsetting for any woman, but for survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, this infringement of personal space can be especially terrifying.
“If you have been touched against your will and that was a traumatic experience, which of course it always is, it’s going to be much more triggering,” Mintz said.
An unwanted touch, however well-intentioned, can instigate a fight, flight, or freeze response and bring on feelings of helplessness, anxiety, or physical memories of the traumatic incident. A survivor may also experience flashbacks to the traumatic incident or sudden, intrusive thoughts that can manifest as visible signs of distress, dissociation, or a silent internal panic. These everyday violations of women’s personal space might seem small or insignificant, but for trauma survivors, Mintz likens the experience to “a thousand tiny little cuts all the time.” Over time, repeated trauma response and triggering events can impact survivors’ mental health in subtle, yet destructive ways that may even affect long-term brain function.
As Mintz explained, however, this sense of privilege and entitlement to women’s bodies and personal space is often unconscious. “People can do these unintentional things and not even know that they’re triggering you,” Mintz said. Men don’t always realize how threatening or upsetting their presence and close proximity can be for the women around them, and may not even register a woman’s presence at all.
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It’s impossible for anyone to determine whether the woman next to them on the train or in line at the coffee shop is a trauma survivor just by looking at her, or to know definitively if she feels uncomfortable without asking directly. Statistically, though, there’s a high probability that she could be.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped in their lifetime, and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one on four women experience intimate partner violence. With those numbers, it’s safe to assume that most women don’t want to feel a professional colleague’s hands gripping their waist, or a stranger nudging their lower back as he passes in a crowd. They are not choosing to be intimate with these strangers or colleagues, nor should it be assumed they ever would. In fact, it is an assertion of power and privilege to think that women would be pleased by this invasion—and that there wouldn’t be any consequences if women didn’t like it.
The thought of speaking up in this type of situation can be terrifying, especially for someone who’s experienced violence and aggression from men. As Margaret Atwood famously wrote, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” A man confronted with a woman’s request for space could apologetically oblige, or he might blow up in an expletive-filled rage that even escalates to violence. It could go either way, and it’s a risk many women aren’t willing to take.
Others may simply feel uncomfortable asserting themselves in any public setting, especially around men. “It’s so deeply ingrained in male socialization to do this and it’s so ingrained in women to just sort of smile and not say, ‘Please get away from me,’” Mintz said. “It’s really the cultural mores around this we need to change.”
Mintz encourages women to advocate for themselves and their personal space and recommends using assertive “I” statements to clearly and effectively let others know they’ve crossed a boundary. “It’s not like doing nothing, and it’s making a clear statement of, ‘I’d really like you to back up a minute. You’re in my space,’” Mintz said. “Believe that you are entitled to tell someone. Absolutely, in your mind, believe that this is your right to tell people to get away from you.”
Even so, it seems the work of instituting widespread societal change and challenging everyday sexism still falls on women, who are forced to play gatekeeper against unwanted physical and sexual advances from men both in public and in private.
Only after Biden’s accusers came forward, he tweeted a video acknowledging the accusations, attributing his perceived misconduct to changing social norms and a culture-wide “reset” of personal boundaries. His phrasing subtly implies that these accusations are simple misunderstandings that could’ve been avoided if the women would’ve kindly informed him what kind of touch is and isn’t allowed. Biden stated that he will “respect personal space” from now on, but seems to shift the blame to changing times, taking on the role of out-of-touch uncle—how could he possibly know that his female colleagues don’t want to be touched if they never told him?
Biden hasn’t yet issued a formal apology. In his words, “I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done.”
Following the allegations against Biden, writer Sady Doyle tweeted, “Biden’s cuddling habit isn’t sexual as most people define the term. It’s paternalistic. He’s treating women like children, or like pets. He’s reinforcing women’s inhumanity, though, and that’s what counts. That’s just as serious no matter what hashtag you put on it.”
As fellow persons of worth and value, women deserve respect, safety, and physical autonomy. It isn’t enough for men to rely on women to tell them when to back away or when to stop. Not because men should be mind readers, but because living in a constant state of fear is physically and psychologically destructive, and good intentions won’t change that. Offering women a respectful physical distance, either publicly, privately, in the workplace, or online, is more than a polite way to interact with women—it’s the most human.