Just over a year ago, at an academic conference, something unpleasant happened to me. I would like to be able to tell people about it. I wanted to tell people about it at the time, as it seemed like the kind of thing that should probably be reported to the conference organizers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure what it was that had happened. Thirteen months and a great deal of pondering the incident later, and I’m still not. As you can imagine, that makes telling people about it rather difficult.
I can describe the incident in detail, of course. Over a period of perhaps twenty minutes, another delegate at the conference – repeatedly and without my consent – touched my head, hair, neck, lower back, inside of my forearms, all the while indifferent to my distress and discomfort. (I want to go into lengthy detail here to try to explain why I didn’t tell him not to touch me or otherwise put a stop to it, but I’m going to resist.)
There have been many other incidents like this in my life, and I would be so bold as to claim that all women have several of their own versions of this story – most far worse than mine. I can give you a pretty accurate physical description of the incident. And I know that what this person did was wrong, because it is wrong to touch someone without consent. But what I am not sure about is what type of incident this was; what label to give it, what category to assign it to.
Once I had extricated myself from the situation I tracked down the conference organizers and tried to tell them what had happened. But I found myself lost for words. I didn’t possess any vocabulary to accurately report what had happened to me. I was upset and angry, which won’t have helped. But in the time that has elapsed since, I still haven’t figured out what I should have said. After much stopping, starting and stuttering, I eventually told them that the man in question had ‘sexually harassed’ me. I didn’t think that was right at the time, and I still don’t. I just didn’t know what else to say.
The other possibility that immediately springs to mind is ‘sexual assault’. My knowledge of the law and its correct interpretation is not good enough for me to comment on whether incidents like this are legally regarded as sexual assault. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that intentional touching is sexual assault if the touching is sexual, the person being touched does not consent, and the person does not reasonably believe that they have consented. The issue here would be whether stroking someone’s neck, back or inner arm constitutes ‘sexual touching’. I don’t know, and don’t want to speculate, because it’s not really the legal situation that I’m most interested in here. Rather, what I’m concerned with is the social meaning of events such as these – the label we collectively give them, the category to which we as a moral community assign them.
I didn’t describe this incident as sexual assault to the conference organizers, and whether or not legally it would be regarded as such, it feels to me that it would be inaccurate to use that term. To me – and I think to most people who hear that phrase – sexual assault denotes something much more serious and traumatic than the mildly obnoxious unwanted touching I experienced. If this person had touched the more obviously sexual areas of my body, then I would consider that to be sexual assault. But it just doesn’t seem correct to call unwanted touching of my arm, neck and back to be sexual assault. Not only does it feel overly dramatic and an exaggeration to refer to it in such terms; it also seems to me that to call it sexual assault is to diminish the experiences of other people who have been victims of serious sexual assaults. To equate the mild distress of someone stroking my neck with the trauma and shock that must accompany serious sexual assaults feels attention-seeking, and somehow disrespectful.
Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe it’s symptomatic of how widespread such incidents are, and how acceptable our culture considers them, that even their victims resist labelling them as sexual assault. But even if that’s true, the fact remains that I am uncomfortable with that label. It just doesn’t feel accurate to describe these incidents as sexual assaults, and I feel pretty confident that most other people would share that intuition – if I were to say I had been sexually assaulted, and then describe what happened in detail, they would think I was being misleading and melodramatic. The other possible remaining terminology is to say I was ‘groped’, a phrase that’s being employed rather a lot in the popular press just now. But I am not sure if that is correct either – ‘groping’ is a very vague and ill-defined term and I’m not sure exactly what it refers to. Must groping involve only the obviously sexual areas of the body, or can you grope someone’s neck, arms or legs? Is groping different from stroking? Although I have some vague hunches myself about how to answer these questions, the fact I’m asking them suggests there is no clear consensus on what groping is.
So what follows from all this is that I don’t have any label to give to this incident, and others like it. I know what happened; but I don’t know what type of thing happened. And this is a further harm to suffer – not only has an unpleasant thing happened, but I am also unable to name what that unpleasant thing was.
The problem of lacking terminology by which to identify these kinds of minor assaults seems to be a paradigm case of what philosopher Miranda Fricker calls ‘hermeneutical injustice’. This is the injustice that occurs when ‘some significant area of one’s social experience [is] obscured from collective understanding owing to hermeneutical marginalization’. Hermeneutical marginalization occurs when members of a particular disadvantaged group – in this case, women – are prevented from participating as equals in the creation of social meanings. Members of powerful social groups are in a privileged position with respect to the construction of our collective hermeneutical resources. That is, they have more influence over the creation of the social frames of reference by which people make sense of their lives and their experiences, while members of less advantaged social groups have less influence. The result of this marginalization is that there is a gap in our collective frameworks for interpreting and making sense of the social world, a gap which prevents some people – in this case, women – from being able to understand and make sense of their experiences. Historically, women have been under-represented from those jobs or roles that are central for the construction of social meaning – jobs in politics, law or the media, for example. They have therefore been marginalized from the processes whereby we come to recognize and label certain practices or events and place them within a framework of meaning. As a result, they are prevented from understanding or communicating the things that happen to them. As Wittgenstein famously said: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
The very fact that our collective hermeneutical resource – that is, our shared frameworks of meaning and reference – lacks vocabulary for describing the kind of thing that happened to me at this conference suggests that this form of injustice has taken place. It is startling that we do not have the language to adequately capture this kind of event, when it is such a commonplace feature of women’s lives. Most, if not all, women will experience this kind of uninvited physical contact several times in their lives; and yet we don’t have any terminology with which to discuss it. And the crucial claim is that this is an additional injustice – in addition to the wrong of being touched without one’s consent, a further wrong occurs when the victim of this touching is left without the interpretive resources to describe and make sense of what has happened to her. Not only is she unable to accurately report her experience to others. She is unable to understand it herself, and in interpreting it has to rely on the existing set of social meanings – which, in the case on unwanted touching, often represents this as harmless flirtation. This can lead to confusion and distress, as well as a sense of being alone in our experiences, when in fact they are examples of a wider pattern of behaviour for which we currently have no name. Indeed, lacking the interpretive resources to make sense of our experiences can be extremely damaging to our selfhood and identity. On a plausible account of personal identity, we are all engaged in a process of self-understanding, trying to make our actions, beliefs and emotions coherent and intelligible – first to ourselves, and then to others. If the existing set of social meanings – and of course, this is the only set we have to draw on – lacks the resources for us to make sense of the things that happen to us, it denies us the capacity to work our how it is appropriate for us to respond, and denies us the ability to render our own behaviour and emotional responses intelligible. This has a dramatic impact on our identities and sense of self.
So how can we remedy this injustice? I’m not sure, but one possibility (as some feminist bloggers have suggested) is to insist upon calling these incidents sexual assaults, and to try to raise consciousness among both men and women that this is what uninvited touching is. While I am happy with the implication that both men and women ought to be encouraged to take these incidents more seriously, I still worry that calling these minor incidents sexual assault may have the consequence of diminishing the seriousness of other, more obvious cases. So I don’t claim to have the solution. But I’m happy enough here to have highlighted the double injustice that these forms of uninvited touching involve – first in the wrongness of the touching itself, and second in the effective silencing of those who suffer it.