Who Owns a Woman’s Shoulders?

By Caralyn Davis


Asheville, North Carolina

About five years ago, my mother decided to train to be a lay-speaker in the United Methodist Church. Her class, taught by a male minister, included eight men and three women. At 71, my mother was the oldest woman present; another was in her early 60s, and the third was in her late 20s.

In the first class, a man in his 60s identified himself as the husband of a woman minister during introductions. This average polo-shirted old guy kept looking over at my mother throughout the class instead of focusing on the teacher.

At the start of the second class, the man slipped into an empty chair next to my mother and put his arm around her shoulder in a big hug. “Friendly people I don’t know sometimes hug my shoulders, but they don’t keep their hands there,” Mama says. “And they don’t run their fingers across my shoulders—fondle my shoulders — while we sit together.”   

Here’s what happened:

My mother deftly bent down to pick up her purse and sat back up. The man (henceforth known as Creepy Guy) returned his arm to her shoulders and fondled them.

My mother got up to get a book and, sitting down again, scooted her chair away. Following in his chair, Creepy Guy returned his arm to her shoulders and fondled them.

My mother bent down to put her purse back on the floor. Creepy Guy returned his arm to her shoulders and fondled them.

My mother got up for the mid-class water and restroom break. Creepy Guy returned his arm to her shoulders and fondled them.

My mother picked up her purse again. Creepy Guy returned his arm to her shoulders and fondled them.

Five times, my mother worked to dislodge Creepy Guy. Six times, he laid claim to her body. A room full of would-be religious leaders and one bona fide preacher saw nothing wrong with that. My mother had two choices: Make a public scene, or sit through the rest of the class with Creepy Guy fondling her shoulders. She sat.

Some may question her decision: How could she sit there and take it if Creepy Guy was so bad? Several years earlier, my mother stood up in the middle of a church service and yelled “You’re no Methodist!” at the minister who ranted that all people who aren’t Christians will go to hell because God only accepts Christians. Obviously, my mother isn’t averse to making a scene. However, when she shouted during the church service, her goal was to make sure the teenagers sitting in the front of the church knew John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, made clear hundreds of years ago that non-Christians are not doomed to hellfire. That situation overrode decades of “be polite” and “defer to men in authority” training and warranted a scene because she was trying to protect others, not herself.

In the third class, my mother chose a chair with no empty seats beside her. So Creepy Guy sat down by the woman in her 60s and put his arm around her.

“She looked upset, like she couldn’t believe it was happening either,” Mama says. “I talked to her during the break, but she didn’t want to do anything that would hurt Creepy Guy’s feelings because he was a preacher’s husband.”

My mother nevertheless told the teacher what was happening during that same break. “The teacher apologized, but he didn’t stop Creepy Guy from putting his hand on the other woman’s shoulders for the rest of class,” she says.

As class No. 3 was letting out; my mother saw the district superintendent (head of all the lay classes) in the hall. “Creepy Guy seemed to be working his way through the women to establish an ‘I’m just a friendly guy’ alibi,” says Mama. “I was afraid the youngest woman was next on his list. I saw him eyeing her, so I told the district superintendent what was happening.”

The district superintendent also apologized and moved Creepy Guy into another class. My mother then hid from Creepy Guy in the hall a few times after he caught sight of her and acted like another fondling hug could be incoming. “So it seems likely the district superintendent didn’t say anything to him, and he was hugging women in his new class as well,” she says.

Wait, what about Creepy Guy’s minister wife? She wasn’t in the building to see what he did, she was not known to be psychic, and even if she had been present or psychic, my mother didn’t feel comfortable holding her responsible for an adult male’s actions.

So Creepy Guy was hugging women’s shoulders without consent: Is that a big deal? Yes. Violent rapists and abusers aside, many ordinary, everyday American men feel an almost innate droit du seigneur ownership of women’s bodies. You know, for men to talk about freely, to touch, to use our bodies unless we’re able and willing to immediately and continuously scream “NO” at the top of our lungs (and then we’re branded psychotically unstable, man-hating bitches). Whether we are 17 or 71, women don’t even have autonomy over our own shoulders. We’re forced to police a man’s behavior — or accept his rights to us.

This complete lack of agency creates an environment where both men and women deem predation a natural male activity, allowing harassment, abuse, assault, and rape to flourish. (Anyone who thinks I’m wrong about people equating predation and routine flirtation/sex should consider why so many men have no problem raping a woman who has blacked out — and why so many people defend those rapists.) If my mother’s experience is close to typical, even men who are religious leaders don’t adequately address this systemic disrespect for women when it’s pointed out to them.

Now 76, my mother’s assessment of American men hasn’t changed over her lifetime.

“Many men think women should enjoy their attention no matter what form it takes,” she says, “and there’s something wrong with us — not with them — if we don’t. Since they’re not the victim, they won’t recognize it as a problem.”

Women alone cannot solve sexism and misogyny any more than people of color can do away with racism, or religious minorities or LGBTQ people can render bigotry obsolete.

This power imbalance makes us perpetual victims in the eyes of sexists and misogynists — a distinct problem in a culture that stigmatizes victims as sniveling, angry, less-than creatures who more often than not are believed to “play” the victim.

Women have the primary role in ensuring that our society sincerely respects us, but men also need to step up and self-police their perceived entitlement to our bodies. Mama’s more than willing to be proven wrong.