Near the entrance of a lively cocktail bar, a woman spins around on her stool and half slaps the man standing behind her ““ I say “half,” because her aim was really off. The bar does not stand still, the music does not stop playing, but there is a shocked lull in conversation as heads turn. Why? Is it because of the loud noise she made when she almost tipped over her table? Or is it because in the educated environment of a Cambridge cocktail bar, an intentional act of violence, no matter how poorly carried out, is unacceptable? Whilst I’m sure many of us would like to believe the latter, it was probably the former.
And it was probably due to a sense of decorum that the conversation started back up again ““ no one intervened on behalf of the assaulted man, although I did see most other people at the table turning away in embarrassment. The way I see it, that woman should not have struck out with the intention of physical harm, because I suspect that had the genders been reversed, some good soul would have stood up to the attacker ““ or at least the conversation would have taken a much longer time to pick up again.
These kinds of sexist double-standards are rife in our society at the moment. Why is it that a woman can slap a man, whisper something, no doubt vicious, in his ear, grab her coat and walk out without anyone in the bar raising a finger? If a man did the same thing, feminists would be banging down the door to get to him ““ but where are they now? The very definition of feminism is a movement which believes that men and women should have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities; so why did nobody stand up to this woman and tell her, “You should not have hit that man”? The double-standard turns a blind eye to it, tells us, in another form of sexism, that the man is bigger and stronger and that hitting back or even complaining would be beneath him.
Whether you agree with that last statement or not, you’re probably wondering how I can take such a narrow view of an incident which was clearly motivated by previous events. After all, no one makes the effort to spin around on a barstool to find their intended victim so violently that the table they push off almost falls over, without prior incitement. Should the context of the attack make a difference?
I suppose your opinion might change if I told you that the man was standing behind this woman because he’d just finished groping her breasts two-handed. I suppose it might alter again if I exposed that the man had done this because, “It was the fastest way to get my glasses back,” ““ these glasses which the woman had previously taken off him and dunked in his cocktail. I guess you might do another about turn if I said that this probably happened because the woman felt that her victim had been harassing her and her friends for half an hour or more, having gate-crashed their gathering. And of course, the final contentious issue: does it matter that this particularly lightweight woman was drunk because of the cocktail this man had bought her, and does it matter that he was sober?
What started out as a simple case of aggression unfolds into a complicated “tit for tat” exchange ““ if you’ll pardon the pun. Was it really an eye for an eye? Does harassment warrant theft and damage to property? Not that a cocktail would ever do long term damage to a pair of glasses, but does theft and damage warrant sexual assault? And does sexual assault warrant physical assault?
I think not: both participants were in the wrong, and if they had both been thinking straight, the situation would not have escalated to physical confrontation. It might have been just as nasty and embarrassing, but kept within the boundaries of talk. What really troubles me about this issue, beyond any kind of debate on sexism, is the state of mind of the two people. That man had been trying to ingratiate himself into the group, buying them drinks and intruding on their conversation ““ why did he think that “the fastest way of getting [his] glasses back” was to attack this woman from behind and put his hands on her breasts? As I recall, the glasses were by now in the glass on the table. The woman was not holding them anymore; he could have just picked them up.
The groping was clearly designed to demonstrate his superiority and power, designed to intimidate and silence an opponent. It must have been humiliating for this woman to be held in such a gross and proprietary way in front of her peers, in front of the whole bar, by a man who thought that he would easily get away with it. She was clearly too drunk to weigh up the situation: sober, I’m sure she would not have tried to slap a taller, stronger man who had just assaulted her.
Despite trying to be objective about the situation, I still feel more offended by his actions than hers. In abusing his position of sobriety he turned a confrontation into oppression, and that makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps the final words on the issue should be the woman’s “vicious whisper”: “That was not acceptable. Sexual assault, mate, is not acceptable.” One can only hope that the man listened to that sensible assertion, and won’t be groping any more inebriated women.