Strangers grabbing you and kissing you is a problem many women will be familiar with. They’re not invited, they’re not welcome, but for some reason they think their desire to invade your body like that is their right anyway. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens, and it has happened to me on occasion since I started going out at night to bars, pubs and clubs. I always feel violated, always feel repulsed, but learned to cope and, often times, avoid it before they get the chance.
Miss Rose is three years old.
A new Marks and Spencers opened in our town, with a rather spangly new cafe. We went, with my mum to investigate and get a cup of coffee. It was busy, full of curious locals such as ourselves, and we squished up on a little table next to a couple of women.
Rose, being the chirpy, confident, and friendly little person she is smiled at them as they cooed over her, and chatted away happily. She got down and went over to my mum to have a cuddle, and the woman at my mum’s side started paying more attention to her. Rose looked a little nervous as the woman leaned towards her, but was polite. My mum kept her arm around Rose, reassuring her she was safe, and I had the baby in my lap breastfeeding so just smiled at her, encouraging her to keep being nice.
I felt uncomfortable with how close the woman was getting, and I could see both my mum and Rose did too, but manners… manners. We didn’t want to offend this stranger.
Quick as a flash the woman’s hand came out, gripped Rose tightly around the neck, then she pulled Rose towards her and she shoved her face onto Rose’s check in a huge, slobbery kiss that left a trail of saliva from Rose’s cheek to her mouth as she pulled back, my mum pulling Rose away from her.
Rose looked petrified. Terrified.
She gripped onto my mum who positioned herself quickly between Rose and the woman, and then ushered Rose around to me. Rose ran as fast as she could then leaned against me. She was shaking.
The other woman at the table explained that the woman, elderly and no doubt a bit confused, had grandchildren and assumed all kids liked to be kissed. The kissing woman kept smiling at Rose, who buried her face into my arm.
As quickly as I could I got baby B off the boob and we left. I took Rose straight to the toilets where I cleaned her face. We both apologised to her. We hadn’t seen it coming. We hadn’t reacted quickly enough.
She recovered fast and seemed fine. Or at least seemed to.
A week later we arranged to go to the same cafe for lunch. Rose asked where we were going and I told her. “Is that where the lady kissed me?” she asked.
I told her it was, but that the woman wouldn’t be there this time and we’d make sure we kept between her and anyone else so not to worry.
She broke down. She begged us not to go there. She cried, she wailed. She pleaded to go home, she sobbed that she couldn’t go, she begged us to go anywhere else. She cried that she didn’t want anyone to kiss her and was scared of Marks and Spencers. “Please mummy! Please! No! I’m scared, please don’t make me go!”
How much I hated myself as I told her we were going. But I had to. I needed to. She needed to see it was safe, that we could look after her, that she could trust us. If we said we wouldn’t go she’d have developed a phobia and going would be even harder next time. We could just never go again, it’s nice but it’s not essential visiting. But then what? It’s not the restaurant that was the problem, it was that woman. It was her personal space being violated. It was her body being touched when she didn’t want it to be. Putting that fear, that trauma, on a building wouldn’t fix it.
She needed to see that she could be safe. We needed to prove to her that we could protect her. We needed her to know she could survive.
We went. We bought her a Peppa Pig chocolate lollipop and a pizza. We sat in the corner and my mum carefully positioned herself between the cooing women at the next table as they admired Rose, and Rose stuck tight to her seat or to me, not venturing off like before. But she was fine. She ate well, she enjoyed her chocolate, and nobody did anything she didn’t like.
There was a creepy guy staring at me breastfeed, but that’s a story for another time.
Learning to handle the impact of someone violating your personal space is something adult women adjust to. Whether your bum’s being grabbed as you walk past, a man’s getting too gropey on the dance floor, or someone “steals a kiss” by forcing their affection on you when you’re not prepared, adult women become used to it. So much so that many buy into the narrative that it’s a compliment, not incredibly offensive. Even if we do find it offensive, most of us learn pretty fast to handle it, use a few expletives, and move on.
But we are grown ups. Rose has had to start that process at the age of three and I am so not okay with that.
My mum and I feel so guilty. Her obvious trauma a week later was horrible. We kept talking about it and agreed that we didn’t see it coming but should have been able to protect her more efficiently.
I know that woman meant no harm, wasn’t a molester or a rapist or an abuser, and would probably be heart broken if she knew just how much it traumatised Rose. But I don’t care. I hate her. I know she was old, maybe confused, but I don’t care. I hate her.
But I am so proud of Rose for going back, for facing the place she was so afraid of. For looking her fear in the face. For handling something I didn’t think she’d be learning to cope with for at least another decade, hopefully more.
Teaching respect for personal space, personal boundaries, it’s essential. Respecting one another’s body and rights to not have that body touched, that’s essential too.