Content warning: The story contains a video clip that shows kiss that appears to be initiated without consent.
When social distancing rules were put in place for COVID-19, I breathed a sigh of relief for women everywhere. I half expected the spike in physical harassment we experience this time of year when the weather warms up to be less pronounced than previous seasons. An incident in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park proved me wrong.
A CTV interview with a woman was interrupted by an unsolicited kiss from a man that she had only met briefly earlier that day. The man in question did not face the legal consequences that could have been levelled against him — reportedly, the woman didn’t consider the gesture to be harassment, and actually enjoyed the interaction. But considering the physical distancing laws that are still in place, and that this man could have been charged for sexual harassment, that man should count his blessings.
It takes an unmitigated gall to display such problematic behaviour on live television, but as recent years have proven, there’s something about being on air that seems to amplify toxic masculinity in all its forms. To entitled men, if there’s an audience present, the infamy they have to gain is more valuable than a woman’s well-being.
Many women are used to simply laughing off this behaviour, even if they feel their safety is in jeopardy. It’s a defence mechanism as much as it is a display of shock, and many men need to understand this before they decide to initiate any form of physical contact.
So yes, the woman in Trinity Bellwoods claimed to have liked it, and yes, the kiss was not seemingly unwelcome. But from my own experience, I know being honest about my discomfort can be difficult when many women worry about the judgment of their peers and feel pressure to avoid embarrassing the man through rejection or resistance.
It can often seem the safer option is to stay quiet or agree.
This is largely connected to the fear of repercussion, and how displaying any level of discomfort with an interaction, including an outright rejection, can lead to violence. Growing up, I can’t even count the number of times I laughed off men’s uncomfortable advances because it was ingrained in me that women are meant to be good-natured, sexually appealing objects that laugh awkwardly in the face of harassment. I’ve dealt with those interactions since I was a teenager, and I can only imagine how a camera in my face would make the interaction even more uncomfortable, and harder to turn down once the discomfort is known.
Troublingly, many women who do speak up against such behaviours can be labelled “playing hard to get” or become the targets of harassment. It can often seem the safer option is to stay quiet or agree.
‘Praise of male peers is a powerful motivating factor’
In Canada, sexual harassment, including unsolicited physical contact, is a chargeable offence punishable by a fine, and in some cases, prison time. And then you can factor in the social distancing laws in place for the health and safety of the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even if the man in the video isn’t charged for his unsolicited display of affection, he can most certainly be slapped with a hefty fine. This apparent carelessness disregards the health and safety of the woman in numerous ways, and all of them are considered federal and provincial offences.
What disturbs me most about this story is not just that this man violated the first rule of consent between adults by not asking for the woman’s consent to the on-air kiss — it’s that the numerous repercussions meant to deter his “bold” move apparently meant nothing to him. But situations like this aren’t an indication of romance, or shooting one’s shot, or “boldness” — they’re dangerous.
In September 2019, a reporter in Kentucky spoke out about a man who had kissed her in the middle of a segment. She accused the man of favouring “three seconds of fame” over her physical and emotional safety, and it seems unlikely that the man wouldn’t have assaulted the reporter had it not been for the camera present. The possibility of an audience no doubt made the opportunity more alluring. The visibility of his crime, of course, made convincingly refuting the woman’s harassment claim impossible — he was charged by law, and reviled by viewers.
Both these incidents display a level of entitlement that disregards women’s safety in light of a “fortune favours the bold” mentality. The delusion that women will let a man do anything to them if that man is attractive, rich or confident enough is one of the lessons conveyed by Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” attitude, the notion that men are allowed to be hypersexual, and that women are merely devices for furthering their conquests. In Trump’s interview, he was bragging on air about his alleged conquests and his disregard for consent, which was seemingly relayed for the approval of the male peers who admire him.
What these men appear to have in common is the motivation to demonstrate their “sexual prowess.” We know that male hypersexuality — particularly being perceived as having multiple sexual partners — is rewarded, often for the same reasons that women’s sexual behaviour is stigmatized. The praise of male peers is a powerful motivating factor for men to display sexual behaviour, and men who deviate from masculine norms are penalized.
This can help explain why “dating coaches” still exist, with men advising one another on how to initiate unwanted contact with women to establish their sexual dominance over them. It is telling that, for decades, these self-professed pick-up artists have used establishing immediate physical contact as a manipulative tool.
The conversation surrounding consent has changed significantly over the past few years. With the #MeToo movement, there has been increasing policy-level support for women who have been targeted by sexual harassment. However, any new laws that have been put in place are eviscerated the moment a person flaunts their sexual aggression in front of the camera for millions of viewers to see, and gets away with it.
Regardless of the outcome, I hope that the backlash from the kiss in Trinity Bellwoods Park stops other men from doing the same — that behaviour was dangerous before the pandemic, and it is certainly incredibly dangerous now. Respect, consent and a keen attention to federal law is infinitely more sexy than going in for a completely unexpected kiss.
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