Some thoughts on ‘groping’: naming uninvited touching

Thank you Jeremy for the welcome, and thank you for having me at Talking Philosophy. I’m looking forward to joining in the discussion! For my first two posts, I’m going to talk about my own personal experiences of the phenomenon that philosopher Miranda Fricker calls ‘epistemic injustice’. This is the injustice that occurs when someone is wronged specifically in their capacity as a bearer of knowledge. There are two main types of epistemic injustice – hermeneutical, and testimonial. In this first post I’m going to talk about the former, and in my next post I’ll discuss the latter.

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 UK 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 of 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.

Leave a comment ?


  1. It seems to me this is a sexual assault as, presumably, the man doing it would not have touched and stroked another man in the same way, if at all. I have seen men put their hands on women’s shoulders etc. when they are seated. This is patronising at best and usually creepy, unless they know the woman very well (and she is happy with it, of course).

    I have a question for you. If this was to happen again, would you straight away ask the person to stop touching you? If so, that’s probably the answer. It’s unfair that the burden should be put on you to get yourself out of such a situation, but it’s probably the best way.

  2. Claire Creffield

    Thanks for this piece. I enjoyed it and I think I understand the kind of problem you refer to, a difficulty with “seeing as” perhaps.

    It reminds me of the current high-profile sexual abuse case in the UK involving a deceased major celebrity. It seems that there was a wealth of information available to many about his activities, but that the categorisation of them as abusive was not available until recently and is now being retrospectively applied. The effect is like staring at one of those superficially meaningless puzzle-images that, after some intense looking, suddenly reveal a content so obvious that you wonder why you never saw it before.

    As individuals we do rely on shared meanings, shared gestalts We can be left entirely disorientated if some organising principle by which we can interpret relevant data, is lacking.

  3. I think it is fair to say that these occurrances affect both men and women, and that there is a dire need for language to describe what is, I suppose, ‘unwanted touching’. It sounds to me like what you experienced was horrible and creepy to say the least, and as a man, I’m (as usual) disgusted with whatever man thought that this would be ok behaviour. As someone who exists from a place of privilege in many ways, (white, middle class, male) I try to be extra cautious with these types of things, as it is often difficult to understand the nuances of oppression I’ve never experienced, e.g. having my pregnant belly touched by strangers, or other such common interferences that women and other oppressed groups encounter so regularly. There is a risk though in labelling all unsolicited touch as unwanted – I see this in my practice as a mental health professional, where our ‘professional boundaries’ have created touchless clinical spaces that inhibit recovery and act as barriers to caring. I wonder if there is a way to teach people how to ask permission in ways that are safe and acceptable. I think this is the challenge we face as humans, to communicate in ways that are honest and caring and respectful of each others positions.

  4. P.s. this is a brilliant and thought provoking post. Thank you!

  5. How to remedy the situation is straight forward. Tell them you prefer they not touch you uninvited. If that seems inappropriate, then learn to live with it. Some people are ‘touchers’ and others are not. I imagine there are some you don’t mind touching you and others you do.

    When I belonged to the National Speakers Association–a group with many terminal huggers–I learned that when meeting someone you are uncertain how to touch, extend both hands and respond as they do, but not beyond your preference. This allows everything from a hand shake with one or two hands to a full on embrace.

    Still, some people only get the message when told abruptly. Good luck. 🙂

  6. @Gordon – Hang on a minute! It’s entirely possible that:

    a) Some people are “touchers”, and they shouldn’t be touchers;

    b) Some people are “touchers”, and that the onus should not be on the touchee to police their behavior;

    c) The situation Rebecca describes has nothing to do with a continuum of “touchiness” (even people inclined to touch, regardless of the morality of their behavior, don’t tend to touch the neck, hair, etc)), and much more to do with some fella inappropriately trying to get it on with her;

    d) Even if it were the case that the onus should be on the touchee to police the behavior of the toucher (which it seems overwhelmingly likely it shouldn’t be), this isn’t always going to be easy to do because of differentials of power, confidence, etc.

    Moreover, even if you’re right about the way to prevent this sort of behavior (and, of course, it is desirable that people should be empowered to state their preferences in this sort of situation), the problem of “naming” that Rebecca describes remains.

  7. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper

    Thanks for your comments so far!

    @Julian: I hope I would ask the person not to touch me. That is the ideal response. However, I can say from experience of this incident and others, that you often don’t respond ideally, for numerous reasons – fear, panic, confusion, politeness. But anyway, it seems that knowing what I would ideally do next time doesn’t help me to label/identify the behaviour, as there are lots of things I would ideally ask someone to stop doing. Presumably if he were to punch me on the nose I would ask him to stop doing that too, but that doesn’t mean what he was doing belongs in the same category, if that makes sense.

    @Claire: absolutely. It was thinking about that case that prompted me to start thinking about all this – there’s been a lot of talk about ‘groping’, and I realised I didn’t know what that referred to. And I think it’s right to say that we now have the vocabulary of child abuse to look at those incidents and understand why they were so wrong. But at the time not only was that language not available, but also the existing framework of social meanings interpreted this as something different, something harmless. Which explains how the behaviour was so widespread and was able to go on for so long – because there was no vocabulary for the victims to communicate what was happening to them, they were effectively silenced. So all this stuff has serious implications – it enables certain practices to be condoned and perpetuated.

    @Keith – glad you enjoyed the post. I totally agree, which is why I think the language of uninvited touching not quite right to describe this either, as some uninvited touching is perfectly acceptable, and indeed desirable. Perhaps unwanted touching is better. But even so, it doesn’t capture the sexual nature of this touching. Though it’s not as serious as sexual assault, it is clearly sexual in nature, and is of a different type to other kinds of unwanted touching.

    @Gordon: I think you misunderstood the target of my statement that I don’t know how to remedy the situation. What I meant was, I don’t know how to remedy the distinctly epistemic injustice of not having a name for incidents like these. I’m not sure whether we should insist on calling them sexual assaults, or try to come up with some other more accurate term that properly captures what is going on here. I didn’t mean that I don’t know how to remedy the problem of unwanted touching. However, I think it’s a bit simplistic to say that the onus is always on the person who doesn’t want to be touched to speak up. I don’t want to go into loads of detail to explain why I didn’t ask him to stop, but it’s not hard to use one’s imagination and see why it’s not always easy to say “please don’t touch me like that”. Especially in a case like this. Had he touched the sexual parts of my body, I hope I would have said something. But the fact he didn’t is part of what made it difficult to speak up. He would have denied doing anything wrong – and I couldn’t have easily disagreed, lacking the vocabulary to tell him what it was he was doing that I objected to.

  8. Very interesting post, thanks very much. For what it’s worth, this sounds like groping to me. But if the label doesn’t quite fit, then it’s really our collective responsibility to identify a better way of talking about it. I’ll try to give a clumsy first pass at a diagnosis.

    Quite a lot depends on the nature of the trust between the initiator of contact and the target of contact (and vice-versa). The role of trust in these matters is always waiting somewhere in the wings, and we can see that when we contrast ‘groping’ and ‘fondling’.

    The idea of ‘groping’ is that it involves unwanted sexual contact. That means the point of the term is to describe how badly the contact was received by the target, regardless of the intentions of the initiator of contact. And it must be badly received: ‘groping’ is not an appropriate word to describe consensual massages, etc. So the concept of ‘groping’ applies, then, just in case there is a kind of broken trust.

    By contrast, fondling makes reference to the intentions of the initiator of contact (i.e., considered to be stroking in a ‘loving’ way): when Jones fondles the ears of his cat, then we don’t ask what the cat was feeling, we just assume straightaway that Jones’s intentions are pure, and that the cat’s feelings don’t figure much into it. So there’s a sense of fidelity or unbroken trust, when one uses the language of ‘fondling’.

    On the continuum between ‘groping’ and ‘fondling’, there is a wide middle ground, and we don’t know how to go about describing that middle ground in a principled way. Though I think describing the nature of the trust involved would be a first step towards getting a clearer understanding of the nature of the violation.

  9. I’m not immediately convinced that hermeneutical injustice affects women more than men, but I’m open to persuasion! Here are some examples pertaining to men–

    What state is a man in when his partner is pregnant? Couples say “we’re pregnant” but that’s obviously not exactly true. What’s needed is a word for the man’s condition, in so far as he awaits the birth of a child he has fathered. What happens to a man when his partner has an abortion? Or when his partner has a miscarriage? One might argue that men’s feelings and preferences with respect to a partner’s pregnancy are given less weight because we have no common, catchy terminology for the man’s state when he’s expecting or no longer expecting.

  10. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper

    @Jean: I really like these examples, but I’m not sure whether they are instances of hermeneutical injustice. They represent a hermeneutical lacuna, to be sure. But to be injustices, as opposed to merely bad epistemic luck, they would have to be the product of hermeneutical marginalization. Now you can be marginalized either structurally or incidentally. So it’s not necessarily true that since men generally have more power in our societies, therefore they cannot experience hermeneutic marginalization. So perhaps we could make the case that men are in some way marginalized from the creation of social meanings with respect to the phenomena of pregnancy and childbirth, as the marginalization need not be intentional. That sounds plausible. I still think it’s likely to be the case that women experience this injustice more often than men do, even if we can identify cases that apply to men.

  11. Jean:

    The structure of privilege benefits men as long as they follow or fall into conventional male roles.

    Another example of male epistemic disadvantage would be the case of a father who has a child-custody battle with the mother: he simply lacks words or vocabulary to describe his project (unless he borrows terms from those of motherhood), while the mother in this situation has a conventional army of words to make her case.

    In the conventional male role, being a father is secondary to so many things: his career, money, the possibility of future sexual partners, even sports.

    However, as you note, things get trickier for the male when the birth of his child becomes central to a male, as in any case when the male strays into “female territory”.

  12. In my view this has nothing to do with language, but with the lack of a remedy.

    Where we have clear channels of airing grievances and receiving remedies from third parties – most specifically, the legal system – a language develops around the procedure. Hence, assault, discrimination, etc., have clear legal definitions.

    We do not lack language to identify other wrongs that we need to handle ourselves – rude, boorish, inappropriate, invasive, creepy. They just lack crisp definitions, because we aren’t legally entitled to ask a third party for redress.

    The decision to create a remedy comes before the specific definition of the wrong. We have not decided, as a society, that there should be a remedy for this conduct, beyond that already available for ordinary rudeness.

  13. In Florida, that sort of touching would legally be classified as assault: “an intentional threat by word or act that seeks to physically harm another, coupled with an apparent ability to do so, which creates a well-founded fear in such other person that such violence is imminent.”

    When I briefly served on a jury for an assault case, the lawyers made it clear that all it takes for someone to be charged with assault “is to make someone feel like you’re threatening them through engaging in some kind of action.” Your case would seem to fall under that and in Florida you could have called the police to rectify matters.

    Interesting post.

  14. An Ardent Skeptic

    I have experienced these types of situations and have always known how to describe them. The expression I use is “overly familiar”. “Overfamiliarity” is engaging in behavior that is not warranted based on the nature of the relationship of the interlocutors.

    It can be exhibited by either inappropriate physical touching or inappropriate conversation, both of which can make one uncomfortable.

  15. Claire Creffield

    I wonder if it is true to say that it is often the “default situation” that goes unnamed. A situation that is entirely standard can appear so much as an unvarying background that we simply fail to pick it out in language. I’m thinking for example of the fact that a small child tends to name his or her father before learning the word for mother (in cases where the mother is the primary carer) because the mother is so pervasively present that she constitutes, not an entity or an event or even a situation but rather part of the canvas on which events, entities, situations are apparent to the child. Linguistically we pick out a departure from the norm more readily than the norm itself.

    In some sense then, perhaps the more deeply entrenched a practice is, the less likely it is to be named. With the result that those who are disadvantaged by the practice struggle to articulate, or even experience, their disadvantage.

    Something that comes to mind is the vulnerable status of children within the network of meanings that a family generates and sustains. Naturally children largely absorb a framework of social meanings that their carers supply. It is often only in adulthood that, retrospectively, former children can identify abusive practices that the shared meanings of their family left inarticulable. Like Hamlet’s mother who says to him something like “I see nothing, and I see all there is.” [Edit: What I mean is, she seems to represent the voice of parental epistemic privilege, denying her son’s experience.]

  16. swallerstein:

    “Another example of male epistemic disadvantage would be the case of a father who has a child-custody battle with the mother: he simply lacks words or vocabulary to describe his project (unless he borrows terms from those of motherhood), while the mother in this situation has a conventional army of words to make her case.”

    I haven’t seen any examples of epistemic advantage/disadvantage. This seems to be a fancy way of describing thing that are already describable. The father has the same army of words the mother does: attachment, parenting, nurturing, etc., and he can go to court and give very detailed examples of the role he played in a child’s life. The problem might come, not from the lack of words, but from whether the judge will believe him if the mother disputes his central role. To aid the father, there are all sorts of professionals who might help find the truth, from guardians ad litem to psychologists who specialize in attachment theory.

    He may face a prejudice, but this is just a cultural bias, much as a black man in a wealthy neighborhood might be scoped by the cops.

    The same goes for the example given of the man who has a pregnant girlfriend or wife. Giving him a separate name doesn’t do more to help us understand his feelings. Close to half the population has been in his shoes, so they should easily be able to understand. He’s hardly in a no-man’s land in terms of understanding his experience, although he may lack a legal status.

  17. Don:

    There are phrases, ways of expressing oneself,
    arguments that sound “natural” when a woman says them (regarding wanting custody of a child) and sound “weird” when a male says them: that is, when a woman says them, they convince, but when a male says them, they alienate others, but they don’t “sound right”.

    So to convince others that he is a fit parent, a male has to look for a new vocabulary, one that is not already formulated, while most woman have been studying for the role, learning the lines and how to deliver them all their lives.

    Now, that may be changing in certain sectors of contemporary liberal societies, but that change has not yet made itself apparent where I live and where most of humanity lives either.

    Yes, you can find psychologists who are very open to fathers being the principle care-taker of a child, but many of them have much more traditional views and vocabulary.

  18. I quite like Ardent’s term, ‘overfamiliarity’. Although I worry it potentially under-describes the level of inappropriateness involved. When I say that someone is ‘overly familiar’, it comes across as meaning something like ‘presumptuous’. By contrast, when I think about the case of a delegate who occupies a professional role in the context of a conference, who takes it upon themselves to act like a kamikaze masseuse, I think the delegate is potentially being more than just overfamiliar. They may also be sending a message to third parties that it is appropriate to engage unprofessionally with the target. And, on a qualitative level, that looks as though it may be a whole other kind of trust-breaking [not just presumptuousness].

  19. I think I would call it social assault, the deliberate manipulation of the social conventions around a behaviour in order to disempower and intimidate the victim. In this case it’s in a sexual context, but you see it in workplace behaviour too.

    Or I might call it sexual bullying. We all know bully’s thrive on discomfort.

  20. swallerstein:

    I haven’t seen any support for the idea that there needs to be a new vocabulary to remedy any social injustice. Did women need a new vocabulary when they entered traditional male fields of work? I can’t remember any. Did gays need a new vocabulary when they sought greater acceptance? No – in fact they are insisting on the traditional vocabulary of marriage, and not opting for a new category of civil unions. Blacks didn’t need a new vocabulary, other than dropping a few demeaning terms from polite speech. I don’t think the image of a nurturing father, who stays at home, is so alien that it needs a new language.

    I can’t think of an example of social progress ever needing a change in vocabulary, outside of cases in which specific legal categories were artificially created through the legal system – e.g., sexual harassment, racial discrimination – or the dropping of demeaning terms. What is the precedent for the necessity of a new vocabulary?

  21. How about “inappropriate touching” or “inappropriate physical contact” – or is that not strong enough?

  22. Don:

    I don’t live in the U.S., so I can’t answer your specific questions about what new words blacks contributed to standard American English.

    However, in my informal observation of social change in Chile, where I live, as previously
    marginalized social groups become more powerful and gain some degree of influence in society as a whole, their vocabulary, which reflects their vision of the world, the way that they map social reality, becomes part of the common discourse, becomes accepted as valid daily linguistic currency.

    In fact, it seems that part of having power is hegemony, that is, being able to have others accept your discourse as a valid one or as the valid one.

  23. Rebecca, my very quick thoughts (I need to read the thread to see how other people have analysed it).

    First, this sort of behaviour is often initiated by women – in fact I observe it from women more than from men, and I’ve often experienced it from women.

    But of course, when men do it to women it is more potentially intimidating than when women do it to men or to each other (or than when gay or bi men do it to each other). For that reason, guys should stop and think before being the ones to initiate this sort of behaviour with women. I’d generally advise against it.

    It’s a very aggressive way of attempting to flirt with someone, and it would not usually be appropriate unless there was some basis to think that flirting was already going on – certain kinds of lingering eye contact, banter, sly exchanged smiles, etc.

    Misunderstandings can happen, of course, and if a woman does it she should be cut a bit of slack if you weigh up the balance of convenience. Because women are unlikely to be intimidating to men or even to each other, there’s some social benefit in allowing them to take small risks in showing affection, attraction, etc. Men should be cut less slack because there’s a genuine asymmetry here in physical size and strength, and thus the intimidation factor. (Obviously I’m speaking in a general way, as some women are more physically intimidating than some men.)

    Whoever initiates it, I’d say that it very quickly becomes sexual harassment if it’s not reciprocated. Why do I think that?

    The conduct is of a sexual nature. There’s the “sexual” part.

    In a very small dose (especially if it’s a women who initiated it with a man) it’s not sufficiently intrusive, intimidating, or otherwise obnoxious or egregious to amount to harassment. So generally, I think it’s fine if a woman does it in a small dose. Depending on exactly what he does, I may be less lenient about a man doing it.

    But if it persists unreciprocated, and especially if it’s a man persisting with a woman, then I don’t see how it’s not sexual harassment. It may not be the most outrageous form of it, but sexual harassment covers a wide spectrum from less serious to more serious cases.

    Also, if it persists unreciprocated it’s a common law battery. Persistent unreciprocated touching of even a minor kind can’t be said to be de minimis. Whether it amounts to sexual assault might be another thing if no “sexual” parts of the body are being touched. But any unconsented-to touching that is more than de minimis is technically illegal.

    But to return to my main point – yes, if it persists very much at all without reciprocation I classify it as a form of sexual harassment.

    Now, if it’s being reciprocated it’s outrageous mutual flirting, which is fine with me. But that’s not the situation you’re complaining about.

    To sum up, I consider what you’ve described to be sexual harassment. I think that’s the right thing to have told the conference organisers.

  24. How about subsuming groping under unwelcome sexual advances?

  25. Myron, what is usually conveyed by “groping” is a form of sexual assault and a quite extreme form of sexual harassment. That’s much more serious than just any old “unwelcome sexual advance”.

    I can think of numerous situations where an unwelcome sexual advance doesn’t even merit disapproval and would not be classified as harassment. Here’s just one.

    Person A arrives home from work in an anxious mood after a hard day. He is in no mood for anything sexual. Person B, his wife or lover, arrives home from work happy and frisky after a good day. Person B offers sexual hugs and kisses before properly realising just what a bad mood Person A is in.

    At the time, the advance is subjectively unwelcome to Person A. But Person B has done nothing wrong.

    There are many such cases. Sexual harassment has to be both unwelcome and somehow beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. It has to be somehow humiliating, intimidating, obnoxious, etc. Thus, subjective unwelcomeness is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for sexual harassment.

    Groping usually means blatantly sexual touching in a situation where no kind of excuse could be given (e.g. relating to the nature of the prior relationship).

    What Rebecca is describing is not what I take “groping” to usually mean, since the guy didn’t touch the most sexual parts of her body. But the kind of persistence, lack of context, etc., that she describes certainly do make it seem like sexual conduct that goes well beyond any excuse or social acceptability.

    I hope we all agree that it was the sort of thing that was not only subjectively unwelcome but also the sort of thing that a person could quite reasonably find annoying and even violating. Well, that’s sexual harassment.

    I used to give workplace training, legal advice, etc., on this sort of stuff. One of the first things you have to get across is that sexual harassment covers a very wide range of behaviour and a wide spectrum of seriousness. But it doesn’t cover all sexual behaviour that is subjectively unwelcome. You just need to think of the range of behaviours that are both subjectively unwelcome and that someone could reasonably find obnoxious, etc. The incident described by Rebecca seems like pretty clear-cut sexual harassment to me, and it could be actually be used as a teachable moment.

  26. swallerstein:

    I appreciate your input, but I am lost by your comments and the main article. It isn’t stubbornness or unwillingness to learn: I just have no idea what a “new vocabulary” would mean in these various contexts. I don’t see how tolerance of boorish behavior or bias is equal to some sort of linguistic disenfranchisement. How did new vocabularies help in Chile, and what were they?

  27. @Russell Blackford:
    Okay, being groped is different from what Rebecca experienced, and the question of the personal relationship with the wo/man being unwelcomely touched does matter.
    By the way, what if the guy’s behaviour was “just” a case of nonsexual (not sexually motivated) physical teasing?

  28. It seems that “harassment” is indeed the most adequate term. But we should differentiate between physical harassment in general and sexual, sexually motivated harassment (involving physical contact) in particular.

  29. Julian: I’ll note it’s not quite as simple as it being gendered. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

    Since coming out as gay, there are women who engage in uninvited non-sexual touching with me who wouldn’t when they presumed I was straight.

    I don’t actually have a problem with this (if I did, I’d tell them to stop; I think that the ability for friends to hug and hold each other’s hands to support each other is a sign of mutual respect, honesty and genuine friendship, and the bullshit macho masculinity we’re all indoctrinated into is one of the reasons men think it’s either gay or effeminate or something you only do in a relationship) but I think it illustrates that there’s something going on with power and gender and sexuality in how we understand these kinds of things.

    Much as I am no great fan of “Theory with a capital T”, there’s definitely some gender/power thing going on which is left out from analysis that focuses just on the acts themselves.

  30. Readers may be … « Feminist Philosophers - pingback on October 12, 2012 at 5:13 am
  31. Don:

    How about “mobbing”?

    The concept, used in Chile and in the U.S., dates from the 1980’s, yet the phenomenon described by the term has existed (I imagine) from the earliest days of human society.

    The fact that the phenomenon now has a name allows victims to compare their experiences, to understand it and to take measures, when possible, to deal with it.

    The concept also allows psychologists or sociologists to study the phenomenon, to compare and to publish the results of their research.

  32. swallerstein:

    I’m not familiar with mobbing.

    Perhaps I need to read the source material. I’m not sure who generates the vocabulary. In the United States, for example, we have racial profiling and hate crimes – things that used to have no definition, although I think that the description of the underlying definition would have struck most people as wrong before they were defined. The definitions came more from the legal system than the victims. So, I see many examples where the dominant society accepts something as a wrong, and names it for the victim. The change doesn’t come from the victim or from the language, but from the action of the dominant culture. Maybe this is what is being described. I don’t see the primacy of language, most especially the victim taking the lead in adopting language.

    I know this is repetitive of my other posts, but I think I’ve reached an impasse with the article for the time being.

  33. Apologies if this isn’t quite to the point that Rebecca is making, but as this issue of ‘inappropriate’ touching seems to be emerging as a (the?) dominant theme on Talking Philosophy of late, I’ve been thinking about what sorts of general rules of thumb, or action guides, we can discern from the various stories and perspectives.

    For my part, I would say that although technically any unconsented physical touching is an assault, the world doesn’t, and couldn’t, really work on that basis. At least, it would be a very different world, and not necessarily a better one. (There are, as we’ve seen, different views on that point.) So here are three questions I might reasonably ask myself before engaging in any touching without first seeking consent:

    Q1. why am I not seeking consent?

    Q2. how likely is it that this person, in these circumstances, would agree to this were I to ask them?

    Q3. how unpleasant or upsetting is the touching likely to be if I’ve got it wrong?

    The answer to Q1 might be because doing so would change or spoil the spontaneity of the gesture. A congratulatory backslap, for instance, would seem rather odd if preceded with a formal request for permission – as, I think, would a first kiss on a date (we don’t, in point of fact, live in the world of Downtown Abbey.) Having read articulate arguments from Russell and Jeremy about that, I lean towards the view that it may indeed be a worse world.

    The answer to Q1 may also depend a lot on the answer to Q2. This will involve a whole lot of factors, including any prior relationship with the person, and the lead-up to the contact. Reaching to kiss a woman with whom I’ve been dancing for an hour is a bit different to reaching to kiss a total stranger, or a work colleague with whom I’ve been having a professional conversation, or indeed ‘making moves’ on someone I’ve just met at a conference. (!) And reaching to kiss my partner of 20-odd years is, of course, different again.

    Q3 is, I think, an important consideration. Attempting to kiss someone for the first time, or take their hand, could end up being very awkward and embarrassing if it isn’t reciprocated, but the object of my affections is unlikely – I might reasonably assume – to be seriously distressed if I’ve got it wrong. (Though that may depend on various factors, including any prior relationship with them.) Likewise with handshakes, backslaps, and maybe even (non-gropey) hugs. More intimate touchings are surely a different matter. The further along the spectrum, the more sure I should be that the other person is consenting, because the consequences of being wrong are just too grave.

    If the answer to all three questions is such as to give me the ‘green light’, then I’ll have to keep a fourth question – or really, requirement – in my mind: if I don’t have consent up front, I’d better be on the lookout for indications that my attentions are unwelcome, especially as I move further along the Question 3 spectrum. If the recipient of my backslap tenses or flinches, that will significantly inform my answer to Q2 in future. (Or maybe just incline me to backslap a bit less forcefully!) If the object of my flirtatious or sexual overture gives any sort of indication that they are unwelcome, then that’s a pretty good reason to desist. And in watching out for such signs, I should probably also have in the back of my mind any circumstances that may inhibit the other person from speaking out. Are they my employee or student, for instance? Is it reasonable to assume that they may (god forbid) feel physically threatened by me? (These, I should say, would also be considerations if I was seeking explicit ‘consent.’)

    Now all of that may sound like a pretty complex algorithm, quite incompatible with my desire for spontaneity. But I would think that most of us have learned to make these kinds of assessments fairly quickly and automatically, at least with regard to fairly trivial touchings. In fact, it was only upon reading the various threads on this site that I realised I actually had rules of thumb, which I’d been applying for years. More serious decisions probably do require more serious consideration.

    I’m sure that not everyone would agree with them – Jeremy, I suspect, is likely to regard them as too consequentialist and insufficiently Kantian – and life being the complex old mess that it can be, there’s no guarantee that these rules will avoid any mistakes. I would hope, though, that keeping to them may avoid at least the worst mistakes and most significant distress.

  34. I do not at the moment have time to consider this as closely as I would like and have only scanned the comments. So what I say could be revised with further consideration.
    Points I would like clarification on are, what was the topic of conversation at the time, were you standing or sitting, were you alone with each other, were others able to observe what was going on. Was the person a stranger or someone already known to you, another philosopher perhaps. Did the conference organisers report back to you? You say “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.” With the greatest respect I think, that without that information it is difficult to comment usefully. You also say “There have been many other incidents like this in my life” Really! What action did you take then? You say “all women have several of their own versions of this story – most far worse than mine.” All women? I have known and still do know many women who have not had such experiences so ‘All’ does seem an exaggeration.   In this connection I must say I have been touched inappropriately, and without encouragement, on various occasions by women. My reaction was to think less of them and the incident was dismissed by me as a stupidity on their part.
    You ask “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? “ Groping Is simulated genital/erotic stimulation of another part of a person’s body. It can embrace stroking but we can for instance stroke someone’s arm to comfort them be they in distress. I think we know pretty surely when we are being groped, whatever way the hands or even other parts of the groper of the are applied.
    It seems to me that you had a traumatic experience and rightfully should complain, and hopefully the culprit has been dealt with accordingly, as almost certainly you are not the only lady who has been exposed to his loathsome attentions. The philosophical ramifications embracing what name this action should be given, seem at this moment to pale into insignificance in the light of what happened.
    Is it not interesting that any matter of this nature raised on this blog always results in a huge immediate response. Not so the case with other philosophical issues.

  35. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper

    Since I posted this on my own blog and on here, I have had numerous comments, either on blogs or via tweets, telling me what this phenomenon is called – some of which suggesting I am rather dim for not knowing that it’s called. But what’s telling is how they all say something different. I have had responses telling me that this is: sexual assault; sexual harassment; groping; flirting; unwanted touching; uninvited touching; being overfamiliar; invading someone’s personal space. The fact that there is so much disagreement, in this thread and elsewhere, seems to confirm my claim that there is no accepted vocabulary for this kind of behaviour. So even if people reading this post feel certain that they know what they would call it, it doesn’t disprove my claim that we lack terminology that adequately captures it. And besides, many of these seem to capture something, but not everything, about the behaviour in question. For example, uninvited touching comes close, but isn’t quite right, because not all uninvited touching is a bad thing. But it’s valuable to have the discussion about what we ought to call it.

    Don – clearly, if you’re not convinced that hermeneutical injustice is a meaningful category then there’s not a lot I can say to change your mind. But it seems to me rather too quick to dismiss it out of hand as a phenomenon. It strikes me that it would be rather more implausible to think that disadnvataged social groups wouldn’t experience marginalization of this kind. It seems plausible to think that more powerful social groups are in a privileged position to define social meanings and shape our frames of reference, collective morality, etc. Interestingly, the example you give of sexual harassment is very clearly a case of a hermeneutical injustice being remedied by its victims. This is the specific example that Fricker uses in her book. Contrary to what you say, it is not a category that was artificially created by law – rather, it was introduced by the feminist movement in the 1970s as a way of capturing a phenomenon that women had experienced for years and yet had no vocabulary to describe, until a group of feminists came up with this term. In her history of the feminist movement, In Our Time, Susan Brownmiller gives an account of the process of discussion and consciousness raising that resulted in them arriving at that term, that makes it clear the epistemic marginalization that had taken place, and the sense of enlightenment and empowerment that resulted when they decided upon this term.

    Don Bird (I assume you’re not the same person as Don above?) – I am not going to answer those questions, because they aren’t at all relevant for the argument the post is making. The purpose of this blog was not to ask advice about what to do in such situations, nor to elicit sympathy, nor even to discuss the wrongness of touching someone in this way. I hope that was clear from the post. The events that led up to this event, and the details of the event itself, are not relevant for the main thesis, which is that there is a type of event that women experience and is a central feature of our lives, and yet we lack the vocabulary with which to adequately capture it, which is a further injustice, in addition to the injustice of the initial unwanted touching. That seems to me to be an interesting philosophical point.
    And yes, I do believe all women experience events like this throughout their lives. I didn’t say it couldn’t happen to men. But any informal poll of my female acquaintances shows that there are none who do not have stories like this to tell. I would be surprised if you knew many women who couldn’t relate to what I’m talking about here, but who knows.

  36. Rebecca, this is very interesting and stimulating discussion. I just wanted to get clear on whether hermeneutical injustice is a distinctively semantic kind of injustice.

    Let’s suppose (just for the sake of argument) that it turned out that there is no uniform, homogeneous, context-invariant concept which applies to all cases that fit the description of the scenario in the OP. So suppose, that at the end of the day, it turned out that there are a bunch of different concepts which might be applied, depending on how people interpret the implicit features of the context.

    Clearly, there could still be testimonial injustice going on, even if it turned out that reasonable people had a diversity of views on how to describe the situation. But I wonder, would Fricker say that there is still a kind of hermeneutical injustice going on?

    So, an analogy might be useful. Suppose three people looked at the ‘duck-rabbit’ illusion, and Bob says ‘duck’, and Jake says ‘rabbit’, and Sally says ‘rabbit’. Suppose the experimenter notes that there is a reasonable diversity of views. But also suppose he is a staunch sexist, and ignores Sally’s verdict entirely. In that case, there would clearly be a testimonial injustice against Sally. But I am not sure if there is a hermeneutical injustice. What would you say?

  37. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper


    I wouldn’t say there is a hermeneutical injustice there either. Not all hermeneutical lacunae are injustices, as opposed to simply unfortunate. There’s only an injustice if the gap in meaning comes about as a result of one person/group’s marginalization or exclusion from the processes whereby social meanings are created. So in your example, I agree that there is a testimonial injustice, but I don’t think there’s a hermeneutical one.

    With respect to my original example, for my argument to go through it has to be the case that the lack of vocabulary for this event is a result of women’s hermeneutical marginalization, rather than simply a problem caused by diversity of interpretations. Perhaps that’s more controversial than I’ve assumed here. My flippant, rather too quick answer is to come back to the frequency with which women experience this type of thing, and to say that if things like this happened to men regularly, you can bet your life we would have a name for it! (Bearing in mind that the thing in question is not just uninvited touching, but sexually threatening uninvited touching, that took advantage of my inferior status, etc.) But perhaps that claim needs more exploration – how it has come to be the case that there is a form of inappropriate touching, that falls short of sexual assault but is more than mere flirting, for which we are lacking vocabulary.

  38. Rebecca, thank you for sharing your experience in this very thought-provoking post. Although you say that the “purpose of this blog was not to ask advice…nor even to discuss the wrongness of touching someone in this way”, you also say “…there is a type of event that women experience and is a central feature of our lives, and yet we lack the vocabulary with which to adequately capture it, which is a further injustice, in addition to the injustice of the initial unwanted touching.”

    Discussing the wrongness – the injustice – is central to defining the vocabulary. It is an injustice only if you are seeking justice, which I think you are, or at least some preventative education, similar to educating people about what constitutes sexual harassment. I agree with Don (10/11, 3:54pm) that the lack of vocabulary has to do with a lack of a remedy, but finding a remedy depends upon a definition of the problem.

    What is being sought here is not only shorthand – some label that will define the parameters of this particular type of injustice. You also seem to be considering the vocabulary in terms of the remedy, or at least what the response to the behavior should be. For example, sexual assault is too strong a term, presumably because the consequences/remedies are harsher than you would want to impose for the behavior, and “…uninvited touching comes close, but isn’t quite right, because not all uninvited touching is a bad thing.”

    The lens used to examine the behavior in order to come up with a vocabulary will influence what will be considered to be appropriate responses. Sexual assault, groping, etc., are terms that categorize the behavior of the person perpetuating the action; remedies would primarily focus on addressing the behavior of the perpetrator via legal or some other actions. Unwanted touching, intimidation, and harassment are terms that focus on how the recipient feels about the behavior; remedies would include techniques for the recipient to defend against or otherwise respond to the actions. The vocabulary, in a subtle way, assigns responsibility for handling the event.

    I think Emma (10/11, 7:04pm) gets closest to describing what really happened: “I think I would call it social assault, the deliberate manipulation of the social conventions around a behaviour in order to disempower and intimidate the victim. In this case it’s in a sexual context, but you see it in workplace behaviour too.” In this case there is also an element of the extended workplace, with professional activities, connections, and reputation to consider, which makes contacting the conference organizers an appropriate response (although it isn’t clear what authority or accountability they would have).

    Over a period of 20 minutes this other person who you have some professional connection to (at least by virtue of being at the conference) repeatedly and without your consent touched your body in places that are not defined as erogenous, which leaves a door open as to the question of whether the touches were sexual advances. You made a decision (or series of little decisions – or indecisions) to not tell him to not touch you or put a stop to it. It doesn’t matter what the explanation is; the point is that based on the overall context of the situation you felt constrained from stopping a behavior that you found objectionable.

    I would suggest that the dissonance may have resulted from an “exploitation of the social milieu to entrap a person into submitting to intimidating/disempowering/unwanted behavior”. Perhaps there is some useful German word that gets at this concept. 😉 It may be that the answer to the challenge of developing a vocabulary and a shorthand term to define and discuss that behavior lies in defining how the perpetrator leverages the recipient’s social perceptions and desires (wanting to seem polite, not wanting to embarrass oneself by misperceiving the intent, fear of escalation, desire to maintain professional collegiality, fear of damage to personal or professional reputation, concern about perception of peers, etc. etc.) to get them to accept behavior that they find objectionable.

    PS – as I was writing this you posted a response which shed some light: you did find the touches to be sexually threatening, not just unwelcome, and you say you have an inferior status to the other person. So, as I suspected, there are elements of both sexual and professional threat, although they do not appear to easily fit the current legal definitions of sexual or workplace harassment. I applaud you for having the courage to explore this in a public professional forum.

  39. Aha, interesting. It’s neat to explore some of the wrinkles that can complicate the account. Clearly, I’ve really got to read myself some Fricker!

    So let me see if I can take another stab at the conceptual dilemma. Are we looking for a word to describe inappropriate touching that is not disturbing enough to be a grope, but not understandable enough in context to be a mere flirt? If I were allowed to make up a word for such a thing, I might call it a “flort”. e.g., “Sally and Ted are colleagues and friends. At a faculty party, Sally suddenly told Ted, ‘This is so great, eat this!’, and spoon-fed him cake. Ted was embarrassed that she was florting with him.” I might describe a flort as a kind of suberogatory romantic gesture — not strictly impermissible, but not a good thing to do in that context.

    Perhaps we might distinguish florting from inappropriate touching that really is impermissible according to some important standards in that context, but is not morally impermissible. For lack of a better word, ‘flarting’. e.g., “On the floor of the House of Commons today, Secretary of State Clinton was kissed on the lips by Vice-President Joe Biden. Biden was clearly flarting with her.” The difference is that it poses a credible threat to Clinton’s social status just because it is hard to deal with optics in politics, and since they are political allies, it is not something he is politically permitted to do. But even so, the action might not be morally impermissible.

  40. As I understand it an unpleasant upsetting event occurred in your life to which you wish to append a name. You are saying that being touched and approached by men in an unwholesome manner is a central feature of your life. A central feature, that is terrible, you may not wish to elicit sympathy but one cannot help but feel sympathetic.
    I have had the opportunity quickly to ask around a few ladies of my acquaintance whether it is a central feature of their lives that unwholesome and uninvited approaches by men are made towards them. The replies varied from puzzlement, to an “I should be so lucky” reply. Generally there seemed no problem although unsolicited Groping or whatever you might like to call it, was not approved of, and had been experienced by some who mostly claimed they were quite capable of putting the culprit to flight, but it was certainly not a bothersome central feature of their lives.
    During my working life for a large Financial institution I was aware of a considerable number of cases where the behaviour emitted by men towards women was unsolicited, unwarranted, and insulting. It included unnecessary touching and/or vulgar verbal utterances. There was no doubt in my mind that all these instances, irrespective of the intensity thereof, were all sexually driven. Remonstrating with these men only elicited from them a “could not care less So What! Attitude”. More interestingly on occasions where the men were firmly rebuffed by the woman there developed in the man an intense dislike for her, and the tendency to comment adversely on her physical appearance should her name be mentioned.
    That said it does not answer your question which you say is the main point here. For me unfortunately the psychological aspects, which are in themselves interesting, swamped the question to which you wanted a reply.
    If we consider Burglary it is apparent that it takes many different forms from merely entering a property causing no damage or theft to wholesale damage, destruction, and theft. Might not the same attitude and legal proceedings be pointed at the circumstances you have spoken of and the behaviour regarded as a mild sexual assault to be dealt with in accordance with UK Sexual Offences Act 2003. At this juncture I can only suggest “Mild Sexual Assault” MSA if you like, as a name. As I said above my own experience  of offenders in this connection it was apparent to me that sex was what was driving them and from what I read it sounds highly probable that the man at the conference was under the influence of a sexual drive, and also highly probable he would deny it. Finding a name is for me difficult, for instance where does Mild become Severe?
    You say “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.” Returning to Burglary I am quite entitled to be distressed if someone has entered my house but committed neither damage nor theft irrespective of the fact that others have suffered more severely than I.

  41. I don’t know if it is of any interest in this matter but the men I spoke of who indulged in molesting the female staff were of fairly high rank in the business. Power corrupts and/or facilitates corrupt practices? The British newspapers are presently full of comments on a similar case which has come to light. I do not know if this factor modifies assists in finding a name for certain patterns of this behaviour which, apparently for some, is presently nameless.
    A point which does mystify me, probably because my philosophical, interests embrace areas other than Ethics, so forgive my apparent ignorance, is how can an injustice occur merely because it is difficult to give a name to something. Are we using the word injustice in a slightly different way from that commonly done? I can see how it applies where testimony is concerned we doubt the word of say a foreigner just because he or she is one such.

  42. Don Bird:

    Here is Miranda Fricker, the philosopher who develops the idea of epistemic injustice explaining it.


    This review gives more information on hermeneutical injustice (which is not discussed in the podcast).

  44. Re Swallerstein Oct 14
    Thanks. I already watched it this morning. I must be dumber than I feared. 2242hrs here, I’m off to bed I must need more sleep.

  45. Re Swallerstein thanks for your second communication. Which I have read and now understand the situation concerning hermeneutical injustice. Previously I said I had watched the Podcast, whereas it was sound only, so I had only listened to it. Off to the gym now, perhaps that will knock some sense into me.

  46. I think it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that we can either use an inappropriate term – for the reasons you pointed out – or else suffer in silence.

    I think a more nuanced solution is to consider what is wrong with the term, and from there develop a more workable alternative.

    Exploring this, it strikes me that “assault” is the more problematic word. Assault seems to be an attack of some intensity other than low intensity, for want of a better explanation. For example, Punching or shooting someone is clearly an assault. What if the contact it is of low intensity and is ambiguous – for example if I serve you in a shop, and as I am giving you your change I happen to touch your hand gently for a second. Most people would not consider that an assault. I’m suggesting the reason might because the level of intensity was low, and the level of ambiguity [or potential for misunderstanding] is high.

    A rape is clearly a sexual attack, but is inappropriate touching? It could in some case be an attack, but in others not. So assault seems to be too blunt a tool, as well as [as you pointed out] seeming to be disrespectful to victims of more “serious” sexual assaults such as rape.

    So if at it’s core, it’s really about inappropriate sexual conduct, then maybe that’s exactly the label we should use; “Inappropriate sexual conduct.” This still implies that the problem is about sexual conduct, that appears to be inappropriate.

    The other implied problem that I feel you were almost getting at is caused by the fact that people may not agree widely on exactly what constitutes “inappropriate” conduct.

    But is this not progress? Instead of a problem with believing we lack the necessarily precise language – to a different one of defining what we feel is inappropriate.

    This is something we can approach much more easily by devising thought experiments (not as a way of establishing absolute truth, but of establishing what our norms are and are not).

    So perhaps know we can move the debate on to not focus on what to say, but to what are a person’s implied obligations are.

    Specifically: What do we believe constitutes “inappropriate” conduct?

  47. I know I’m late to the party here, but the search for a label is a bit misguided here. It will take a larger cultural shift to redress the injustice. It doesn’t matter that a lawyer or human resources specialist would immediately recognize it as sexual harassment. The problem is that it is not commonly recognized as such. With most injustices, naming it solidifies things. If I say, “He stole my wallet,” his only option is to deny it or admit to it. He can’t say, “Well, I took his wallet without permission, but I didn’t steal it.” That would be absurd. In this instance, simply labeling it, “He sexually harassed me\He was overly familiar\etc.” only leads to follow up questions, “What, specifically, did he do?” and if that’s followed with, “he touched my arm without permission,” there’s no longer an obvious injustice. He can say, “Of course I touched her arm; I was being friendly.” With most injustices, like theft, the label conveys the same thing to most people. When you are labeling things that apply to marginalized groups, those labels mean different things to people depending on whether they are inside or outside the group. Something like, “univited touching where there is no reasonable expectaion that touching would be acceptable” cannot be properly labelled until the marginalization disappears.

  48. I may well be wrong so to think, but I am wondering if the offending delegate at the conference ever has cause to read this blog. Hopefully he would realize with some embarrassment that the game is up, and mend his ways.

  49. I agree there is an hermeneutical injustice here. However, I dont think the cause is inadequate labeling. The injustice lies in the fact that society as a whole has not condemned such behavior, possibly due to the proximaty to the interpretive line most would draw between acceptable and inappropiate behavior.

  50. Self-Defense Advocate

    Your post is very good; I have a couple of possible terms/phrases to label the incidents: “Unspoken Domination” and “Personal Space Affrontation” I have had to confront a person who repeated an uncomfortable touching incident about three different times. Each time I told him to not touch me was a little more forceful than before and it made me uncomfortable. The “stopping point” was when he he thought I was going to “belt him one” when I actually stood up to scoot my chair closer to the table where I was eating. The way he jumped back and reacted let me know right then he caught on, especially when he said “I didn’t touch you.” as though he’d touched a hot stove eye.

  51. Self-Defense Advocate

    Effrontery is the better word to use with “Personal Space …” instead of Affrontation

  52. Assertiveness and testimonial injustice | Talking Philosophy - pingback on November 16, 2012 at 7:20 am
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  54. I completely understand your dilema. I am currently in a situation where I have complained repeatedly about a colleage who rubs his crotch while you’re talking to him. Once I caught him playing with his penis while reading his text message. Saw me looking at him, stopped and then went back to reading his text and playing with his penis. I have a difficult time finding the proper lable for his behavior. Is he self fondling? Does he have a jock itch? In any case why does he continue the behavior knowing how rude and inapropriate it is and how uncomftable it makes you. The HR woman is trying to convince me that he has a nervous fidgeting habit and he doesn’t mean anything by it! They have told him to stop but a few days ago he did it again while we were alone discussing a case. I was badly offended and was shaking for over an hour. I don’t know what to do about this.

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