A man grabbed my bum in the pool.
It happened this week – swimming is the only cardio I can stand and I go to the rec centre pool in my neighbourhood. It’s busy, but most people are reasonable: They pick the slow, medium or fast lane with an honest assessment of their skills, cede space to those who are faster and accept the occasional accidental kick if it comes with an apology.
I did say most people. There are exceptions, like show-boaters who want to flip turn even at the busiest times, and part-timers who just can’t comprehend their place in the rotation. And creeps, like one guy who tried to use flippers to swim underneath everyone else (until lifeguards told him to stop), and the man who grabbed my bum.
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I could tell, I could just tell, that he had more on his mind than simply taking up more space than was polite. I could tell by his vibe when we met up at the end of the pool, because I’ve developed that skill over four decades.
Like women learn to do, I made myself small. I moved over when we passed under water and timed my lengths so we wouldn’t, if possible. I spent a fair amount of energy avoiding him, instead of on streamlining my wonky whip-kick. And still, as we travelled in opposite directions, he reached over and grabbed my bum.
The split-second decision of whether or not to stand up for yourself when a stranger touches your body is one that women make every day, everywhere. It happens at work, on the street, in bars, at school, any place you can think of. I have a friend who took an entire transit trip with a man’s hand on her leg, and another who grabbed the hand of a man that groped her on the subway, held it up and yelled “this is the hand that touched me!”
Going on instinct more than calculation, we decide in a moment how safe we are, or aren’t, and how much we do, or don’t, want to make a scene. Then we reconsider that decision for hours or days or years afterward.
Just a few weeks ago, singer Ariana Grande had to make the decision onstage, during a performance broadcast to millions of people. It was Aretha Franklin’s funeral and Ms. Grande had just performed (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman. Then, at what should be a solemn celebration, Pastor Charles H. Ellis III put his arm around her and touched her breast.
Ms. Grande looked at his hand. She tried to move away. He pulled her closer. She didn’t say anything. It was a funeral, after all, and she, at least, tried to respect that. Mr. Ellis later apologized, but only after a viewer outcry.
Georgia waitress Emelia Holden more than stood up for herself this past summer. You’ve probably seen the viral video taken by security cameras at her workplace: it showed a customer reaching over to touch her inappropriately and the 21-year-old whipping around, grabbing him by the neck and slamming him against the wall.
I try to adhere to non-violence, but I’ll admit that it was very, very satisfying. I watched it on repeat for days.
Both Ms. Grande and Ms. Holden made the right decision, because it’s what worked for them in that moment (although I like to think Aretha would have supported a swift body-slam). And what worked for me was to stop swimming, turn around and say “don’t touch me.”
To which the creepy man replied with a stream of screamed expletives. Like a well-trained woman, I had doubted whether it had happened, or had been on purpose. Being called a bitch at top volume in front of a pool full of people cleared that up for me.
As everyone stopped their laps and starting treading water to watch, the lifeguards sent me and the creep to opposite ends of the pool, then kicked him out. The staff and other swimmers were kind and supportive, but now I have to worry about seeing this guy next time I want to exercise and having to deal with him again.
Which I’ll do, if I have to. I’ll do it for Ms. Grande, who felt she couldn’t, and Ms. Holden, for showing us how it’s done. I’ll do it for all the girls still learning to speak up for themselves and all the women with regrets of times they let things slide.
Mostly, though, I’ll do it for myself.