I am not the first person, nor will I be the last to write about this. Anyone with body art, especially something quite prominent, unusual or recognisable, knows that it can be quite the conversation starter. What they also know is that complete strangers are not shy about touching visible body art. I include in this “everyone” as I know men are subjected to this too, but I think it is safe to say that women more frequently have to deal with being touched without being asked permission on a regular basis, in part because the same people that wouldn’t think twice about touching a woman’s skin would not do the same to a man.
I feel lucky that I have not had too many experiences of this personally – I have a partial sleeve of tattoos and as the number of tattoos on it have increased, so too have the number of times my arm is stroked, grabbed or twisted whilst the viewer gets a better look. In my personal experience for both myself and situations like this that I have witnessed, the person viewing the tattoos is often male, this adds an extra dimension and in a way a power play to an uncomfortable situation.
But it is something I witnessed last year that made me realise that despite the proposing of tattoo etiquette (on which there are some great points here and here), there is still a lot of discussion around the subject to be had. For me, a lot of that discussion boils down, not just to the etiquette, but also the reasoning behind it and calling people out, where possible, on how they are making others feel.
My thinking stems from an event I was at last year. I got talking to two other women near the bar, one of whom was heavily tattooed, I complimented her on her body art and she turned slightly to show me how the work continued up her arm and over her upper back. We continued to stand there talking, moving off of the subject of tattoos and a man started to walk past us. He stopped, and then came over and struck up conversation regarding the tattoos. Moments later he took hold of the girls arm and twisted it around so that he could get a better view, seeing that it continued along her back he then pulled down the strap of her dress to get a better view. After a few moments the conversation ended and he walked away. During this time I was talking with the other girl we were standing with and it wasn’t until the man was leaving that I realised how uncomfortable the tattooed girl looked and that she obviously did not know him, he was a complete stranger to her.
At this point I asked if she knew the man and she said no. I then said “you know, he had no right to touch you.” A look of realisation spread across her face. She said it happens to her all the time and it never occurred to her before that her feelings of personal space violation were completely valid.
Interestingly, I relayed this to a friend of mine who has had children and she expressed how annoying this kind of behaviour is for pregnant women. That complete strangers feel that they have the right to invade your personal space and touch your belly, just because you are pregnant. But, she added, there is little you can do about it without seeming quite rude about something that the other party has not at all realised is an inappropriate gesture.
I’ve discussed this occurrence many times with tattooed friends who have experienced similar situations (the other similar situation that occurs is being asked to justify, explain and validate your tattoos, again often by complete strangers – there is a much bigger subject for dialogue concerning the perception of body art and the treatment of those with it). There are two points that often come up:
1 – The tattooed individual does not realise that they shouldn’t be touched by someone they have not given permission to because they are just so used to and have become accepting of that behaviour, and
2 – When this situation arises, it is not always appropriate or safe to express this to the person touching you.
Know your rights
Morally, ethically, socially and legally no one has a right to put their hands on you in any way whatsoever without permission. This may seem obvious, but in the case of things like body art (and pregnancy) for example, people on both sides of the situation don’t always consider this, especially if it happens to you a lot – you begin to accept that it happens because you are tattooed and so have in some way invited it. Nope! Aside from the personal space invasion, there are points to be made about health, safety and hygiene.
Educate if appropriate
I say “if appropriate” but I also mean “if safe”. This I think is the biggest obstacle to changing the situation, because no matter what common sense guidelines you come up with, some people just don’t get them, and sometimes it isn’t appropriate or safe to try to explain it.
Where possible you should feel able to step aside from the touch and explain to the person that it really isn’t appropriate to touch other people without their permission. Sometimes when you say something like this it dawns on the other person that they hadn’t even considered that and are apologetic. I say sometimes, because this kind of conversation happens rarely, and when it does the stranger often is completely offended as though you have been very rude to deny them access to your body.
The majority of times my friends and I have been touched because of our body art, it has been in a bar or pub and the perpetrator has been drinking (or possibly drunk). In situations like this it can feel like you can’t object, and sometimes rightly because this is now a complete stranger who is drunk and, especially if you have been drinking too, you might not feel ready for any consequences that could arise from you protecting your personal space.
But if you see one of your friends do it to someone else, that is the opportunity to let them know that it’s not cool. Whether then or the next day when everyone’s sober, or even send them this post! It is not ok to touch someone, it is even more so not ok if that person is in any way smaller, potentially weaker and/or more likely to be intimidated by your actions.
The last time this happened to me was in a bar, a drunk man next to me in the crowd ran his fingers down my arm and made a comment about my tattoos. I was polite, but when he went to do it again I stepped out of his reach. He was drunk and I didn’t know him, so I decided that was enough – I didn’t want to risk drama by then trying to explain that it’s not cool. I hoped instead that one of his friends might see and say something should they realise that he was acting inappropriately. I know if he had been a friend of mine I would have raised the issue with him.
A female perspective
All of the above could also be experienced by a man as much as it could by a woman – which is still not cool. However, I want to take the woman angle a little further to comment that where a man might ask someone not to touch them, this can be more difficult for a woman for the following reasons:
1 – In general men are physically larger and stronger than the average woman, couple this with any situations involving alcohol or potentially drugs, and you have consider whether it is safe to call them out on their behaviour. This is definitely a judgement call and based on a lot of variables, all of which should be considered.
2 – If you judge that there would be no bad consequences from pointing out someone’s behaviour be prepared for a dismissive response. We have all seen it, and perhaps experienced it – you ask someone to leave you alone, not interested, thanks but no thanks, and immediately the venomous response is that you must be a lesbian/bitch/tease they were just joking they weren’t interested in you anyway because you are fat/ugly/whatever. Anything you have to say is completely torn down, disrespected and ignored. No matter what you say it will not be heard.
Another reason why it is important that when we see our friends behave in this way, we call them out on it.
It’s not nice to be touched without permission regardless of reason of circumstance, it can be anything from rude, intrusive and an encroachment on personal space, to inappropriate and even painful. The fact that people with visible body art seem to provoke this response in people is unacceptable, and those who feel the need to put hands on, please rethink. No matter what the social situation, someone’s body art does not make it ok to touch them, stroke them, grab them, squeeze them, twist their arm, adjust their clothing and so on. We can only hope that the vast majority of people, once it is calmly explained why touching someone without their permission is not ok, with have a moment of realisation and think twice about doing it again in future.