By Michaela Gregoriou
The pulse of the music vibrates beneath your feet. The revolving strobe lights occasionally flash across your vision, blinding. Your heart, a thing so heavy, constraining against emotion. You can’t see him yet, but you know he’s waiting for you, anticipating your arrival. After all, he invited you here, initiating the “Wanna go out tomorrow?” text. You don’t know this boy very well, but you met him at a party a few weeks ago and bonded over the fact that he wanted to drunk-snack on cucumbers (which you found weird but kind of charming).
As you round the corner, air flows through your lungs, thick with cigarette smoke and excitement. Your gazes meet, and he smiles at you, shy and boyish. Approaching the table, strewn with tall glasses of vodka lemon, you notice the rest of his friends. Nerves simmer beneath the surface. You hug, and you notice the smell of his cologne — a detriment to your already erratic heartbeat. And then, as you step back to meet his friends, his hand descends to the small of your back, as if it belongs there. His hand pushes, guiding you when you do not need to be guided, nudging you in a direction that you were already intending to approach.
You inwardly scoff. Subtly, his touch makes you feel like a child, incompetent and docile, being pushed around. As you try to pinpoint why such a touch would bother you in the first place (after all, you want him to touch you), you reason that if you dared to place a hand on his lower back, he’d probably think you had grown another head. He would have probably shrugged your hand away, or laughed at your effort. And you would have probably felt uncomfortable, touching someone in such a way, as if to command their movement. It’s not so much the attention that bothers you, but rather the type of attention. The coddling, imposing kind of attention, which places you in submission to his touch. The expectation that in the uncomfortable “getting to know you” stage, a woman should depend on a man to make the first move and lead the relationship. The assumption that you are the puppet to his desires.
You are a sixteen-year-old girl that cannot understand why such a simple touch can unearth so many questions, that cannot understand why she feels so isolated in her displeasure. After all, she should want his touch, right? Other boys touch girls this way all the time, and they don’t seem to mind. In fact, both parties seem to enjoy it. But what if, to you, such a touch represents something larger, something deeper than just a guiding hand in a nightclub? What if it represents your forced subservience to men, not because you like it or because it “feels natural” but because it makes things easier? What if it represents your silence to patriarchal conventions that bother you but are more convenient to ignore?
As a Greek American who has grown up in Greece her whole life, I’ve always had a very layered relationship with affection, having to reconcile my instincts with what is socially acceptable. In Greece, that means reluctantly tolerating touches that perpetuate a patriarchal system. In America, that means holding back when I would otherwise reach out because of the fear that my affection could be taken the “wrong” way. In fact, as my perception of the American “personal bubble” crystallized, Greek displays of affection and touch began to elicit a novel fascination: greetings of kissing each other on the cheek, hugging someone goodbye, squeezing someone’s arm when they told a good joke. Such behaviors are weaved into Greek culture so seamlessly that it would be impossible for a Greek to imagine an interaction without them. Greeks are expressive and loud and caring, and in no other way is that expressed so strongly as through their touch. And yet, what do Greek norms of affection reveal about the perception of women in Greek society? The perception of men?
Oftentimes, I have found myself struggling with the desire to form meaningful, affectionate relationships with men, only to be disillusioned by the politics that dictate touch and dating culture. It’s not so much the touch itself that bothers me, but rather the context of the touch. Why is it that men feel entitled to cross that invisible barrier first when things are still new and unfamiliar? Why is it that certain touches or “moves” feel so rehearsed and contrived? Why do I end up feeling like an object, like my personality is inconsequential to his interest? Touch, aside from being mutually consensual, should feel natural, rather than a forced assertion of “masculinity.” Of course, I understand that we have all been socialized to operate under gendered body language, and that it can be difficult to pinpoint how independently motivated our behavior is from these norms. For instance, I cannot say whether that boy put his hands on my lower back because he genuinely wanted to or because he felt entitled to that touch.
That being said, a man is free to act as stereotypically “masculine” as he pleases, and a woman is free to act as stereotypically “feminine” as she pleases. My suggestion is not for women or men to reverse the norms that they’ve become accustomed to, but rather to acknowledge the gendered confines that patriarchy places on touch and to question the authenticity of affection within these confines.