Why do some people find it so hard to support women in upholding their personal space? One recent example is the clear violation of personal space when the now former head of the Spanish FA, Luis Rubiales, forced a kiss on the female football player, Jenni Hermoso.
On hearing the news, like so many women around the world, I held two thoughts. The first was one of disgust. The second was that this happens to women all the time and it is heartbreaking. Whenever such instances take place, women are often told that their dislike and distress is wrong or an overreaction and that they don’t know their own minds.
The feeling of having personal space violated – particularly with such an egregious act as a kiss on the lips – is bound to elicit a physical and emotional reaction. Nausea, fear, freezing, rage, helplessness, anger, frustration, adrenaline, clamminess, desperation for escape. Especially in such an unexpected moment, with a "boss" of sorts, under the spotlight and in front of the cameras. In a moment that was supposed to be about Hermoso and her team's historic World Cup victory.
“I did not like it,” Hermoso said.
Many of us would have seen the violation of her personal space. The video has gone viral. But different cultural norms can reduce the value of women’s boundaries. Just think of the excuses given to women when their personal space is crossed – which Rubiales repeated – that also come up in discussions defending him: He was just expressing his emotions! (But why does he need to cross into her space to do that?) It wasn’t intimate! (It was a kiss on the lips). He meant it in a nice way! (How is it nice if she didn’t ask for it or want it?) Women don’t know how to take a compliment! (Why is space being violated without consent a compliment?) It was just a misunderstanding! (Was it? She looks pretty unhappy. Did he misunderstand that he shouldn’t cross her boundaries?)
We need to go back and establish some basics. Space is sacrosanct. It is physical, emotional and metaphoric. People should not cross certain physical boundaries unless specifically invited. Emotional space is about withholding verbal personal abuse and commentary – in the case of women, I’m specifically flagging comments about a woman’s appearance. And metaphoric space is about dignity, giving women their due space, recognising and respecting them as people.
In this case, the kiss contravened all three. And all three make my skin crawl. But there is a component that magnifies my rage: the violation of her physical space was also a violation of her metaphoric space as an individual in her own unique right, on a platform, on a stage. She was in the spotlight for the incredible win she had just been part of, on the World Cup stage, and he smashed through that metaphoric space she had just won for herself.
In a different situation, earlier this summer in the UK, at a graduation ceremony at Newcastle University, a young woman stepped on stage to collect her certificate. She had obviously worked hard to reach that moment, a huge achievement and milestone in her life. Her moment. But a man in a graduation robe came running on to the stage, dropped on to his knees with a box and proposed to her, in the middle of possibly the biggest moment for her.
He cut through her physical, emotional and metaphoric personal space. This violation of a woman’s boundaries was applauded by the university that later tweeted: “There’s more than one way to make your day in King’s Hall memorable.” Yet another way to diminish women and uphold the idea that their space and boundaries can be stepped over by anyone else, that they should be happy, excited even, and it’s very lovely, and at worst, it’s just "another" way for them to be.
We need to be clear, firm and non-negotiable about protecting women’s boundaries. The idea that breaches "just happen" and women must capitulate should be dispensed with. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, broadly speaking, men managed to not cross physical limits. We need to imagine those limits still exist.
The Rubiales kiss is a textbook example of how such boundary smashing is perpetuated and how women trying to uphold their boundaries are constantly diminished. He’s followed a pattern sometimes called "Darvo" – Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender – used to describe how those who perpetuate harm blame the victim.
Rubiales denied that he had done anything wrong: “The kiss was the same I could give one of my daughters," he said. He then went on the attack saying, “I’m going to take action against them.” And then his greatest sleight of hand in blaming women, Rubiales went on to say that he was the victim of a "witch hunt" by "faux feminism" and “a social assassination is being carried out on me. They are trying to kill me”.
Such justifications seem intent on shaking women's confidence. They are an attempt to have women accept that their personal space doesn’t matter, doesn’t have any value, so why make a big fuss and why should men know any better?
It is tiring to maintain personal space. But women have had enough. It is time to stop with the excuses. We can and we all must do better.