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Why it is unhelpful to classify every touch as sexual assault

We can all agree that sexual assault is categorically bad. It also appears that sexual assault is rife. #MeToo has been shared on Twitter millions of times. In the past year, the news has been inundated with stories of high-profile men – and it’s almost always men – sexually assaulting colleagues across numerous industries. It would seem that sexual assault is endemic.

But that begs the question – is it actually sexual assault? Both the actor Adam Sandler and the MP Michael Fallon have been vilified for unwanted advances on women – namely, touching their knees. Hold on. Since when were knees sexual? Knee touching is something that your nan does when you moan to her about your love life. It’s a comforting touch that seems almost automatic. Humans are tactile creatures. Touch is a both a key sense and a tool of communication. Suddenly, we seem to have reached a position where every single touch can be misconstrued as sexual assault, even if the toucher did not intend it as remotely sexual. Unwanted doesn’t automatically mean assault. You don’t bump into somebody accidentally on the street and demand they be arrested for actual bodily harm.  

Feminism has created a Catch-22 – women do not exist for the sexual gratification of men, but at the same time seemingly every unwanted breach of one’s personal space is sexual assault. There are three key components in qualifying sexual assault: intention, both in the act and its sexuality; malice; and the impact of said assault on the victim. Somebody accidentally brushing against your backside in a crowded club isn’t sexual assault, because it was, well, an accident – but somebody groping you is. Likewise, somebody extending a touch to your knee as a gesture of comfort or to get your attention isn’t sexual assault – it’s a violation of your personal bubble and perhaps unwanted contact, but that doesn’t qualify it as assault.

The double standard for unwanted sexual advances is blatant and counterproductive in feminism’s pursuit of equality

It almost seems paradoxical that feminism decries the unsolicited sexualisation of women while making us think that everything coming from a male is automatically sexual. Interestingly enough, I was watching Strictly Come Dancing’s sister show the other week, and one of the judges was demonstrating a move with a professional. This judge, a middle-aged woman, grabbed the backside of the male dancer, and then proceeded to laugh about it with the presenter while the dancer looked exceptionally uncomfortable. Had the gender roles been swapped, there would have been outrage – the double standard for unwanted sexual advances is blatant and counterproductive in feminism’s pursuit of equality.  

The media certainly isn’t helping the anti-sexual assault movement. Leading stories with claims of knee touching when more serious acts have occurred plays down the trauma of victims coming forward, because knee touching simply isn’t sexual assault. It certainly doesn’t help the generation that is already being lambasted for its oversensitivity and inability to deal with the real world outside of ‘safe spaces’.

Inadvertently, women sharing their experiences is making sexual assault and rape commonplace

And that is exactly why women don’t need the #MeToo movement. By everyone jumping on the bandwagon, they only water down the emotional and psychological impact of traumatic sexual assault. Inadvertently, women sharing their experiences is making sexual assault and rape commonplace. In doing so, you’re inevitably going to get comparisons drawn between how two people with completely polar experiences dealt in the aftermath, despite being at opposite ends of this spectrum of severity. You’re going to get ‘well she seems to be fine now, so why aren’t you?’ and that just isn’t remotely helpful for anyone. The experiences of women who faced little or no long-term effects aren’t any less valid – fundamentally, they were touched privately without consent, intentional or not, which is unequivocally wrong – but labelling them all as sexual assault is only detrimental to assault victims everywhere.


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