Hands off, mister

Classes were changing, and the Howell Hall lobby filled with students and faculty as they made their way to their next class. One of my female students spotted me and hurried toward me with her arms wide open for a hug. Nearby, a faculty colleague watched, then pulled me aside to share a piece of advice. Be very careful about touching students, he told me. I could get in trouble for sexual harassment. This was in 1978.

It gave me pause. Touching friends with what I consider innocent affection feels like normal behavior to me, but, armed with his advice, for the next 22 years I was privileged to teach at the University of North Carolina, I tried to be careful about touching others.

Females always have been an important part of my life. Two of my mother’s three sisters lived with their families on our street. Their homes, especially their kitchens, felt like an extension of my own. These loving aunts, along with my mom, exerted a profound influence on my development. And yes, in our family we hugged. A lot.

I am overjoyed to be partnered with an amazing woman. Our 56-year marriage has been blessed with three strong, beautiful daughters. Even our cat is female. It’s safe to say that I am comfortable in the presence of females. Always have preferred it to hanging out with guys.

It feels natural to me in social situations, choir rehearsals, adult ed classes, attending church, to pat someone on a shoulder or even swap a hug. I don’t think I have ever had a sexual thought when doing this. These are intended as gestures of affection and support. Certainly I have never grabbed someone by her genitals as our president has done.

My wife and our daughters, intelligent, modern women all, deserve respect. I don’t want other guys’ hands all over their bodies. How do I reconcile these feelings with my own natural tendency to touch or even hug other women? I applaud the rise of the Me Too movement. Overdue.

Now comes Joe Biden who is considering a run for the presidency. Like me, Joe is a natural hugger, given to an affectionate shoulder squeeze or pat on the back. But he’s learning that, no matter how well-intentioned or innocent, such gestures aren’t always welcome. It’s a lesson all men need to learn. All of us.

Including me.

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