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An Awkward Moment

So. Fairly often I am at the circulation desk taking care of a student when that student’s buddy comes up behind them and thwacks them one.

To give you a sense of things: as you enter the library, the circ desk is to your right, perpendicular to the door. Thus, when facing the desk, people are entering behind you and to your right. The café is directly behind you, and the stairs to the bulk of the stacks come down behind you as well. So it is easy for someone to sneak up on you, all unbeknownst, like. Also, most of our students are ‘college age’, between 17 and 22, say. A great age for thwacking your buddies in the back of the head, or on the shoulder, or kicking them in the seat of the pants.

My usual reaction to this is a Librarian’s Glare, second level, followed after the departure of the kids by quietly smiling to myself about the whole nature of homosociality. Except that sometimes it isn’t homosocial. Sometimes it is heterosocial. And my emotional reaction to that is very different.

Just to be clear, I am talking about a fellow giving a reasonably firm but not vicious punch in the shoulder, slap up the back of the head, or hip block to a young woman who doesn’t see him coming. Today (my inspiration for the post) it was actually a kick to the seat of the pants. Not a bruising blow, but not a nudge. What used to be called a love tap, back when spousal abuse was considered sweet.

In today’s case, the young woman responded with affectionate eye-rolling; she kissed him shortly after. I responded with a Class One Librarian’s Glare (with eyebrow raised to the full third level), and with this post.

I don’t mean to be all whatsit, but seriously, no young woman should allow herself to be treated with that kind of rough affection in public. That should not be tolerated in our library. It should make the practitioner of the kick (or slap or punch) an immediate social pariah. Not because the young woman is being harmed, and only somewhat because I suspect that a fellow who routinely kicks his girlfriend’s ass in affection will have difficulty restraining himself in anger, and not only because for the love of Mike she had no way of knowing it was you and if she had responded by instinctively grabbing the book off the counter and decking you with it she would have been well within her whatsit, but because that kind of roughhouse is bad, bad, bad for women everywhere, for the women sitting in the café, in the entrance, on the stairs, or working behind my counter who have to watch it. What are the odds, at any point, that there is a woman within view who has been the recipient of abuse from a family member, romantic partner or other boy friend? Fifty-fifty? More? From the numbers and demographics, I would guess closer to two-to-one.

And yet, I never say anything. I glare, and I shake my head, and I go back to my desk and type. Because in the world as it is, my saying something would be wildly inappropriate (and might lead to my being fired, depending on what I said and how I said it), and would not be welcomed by the student who was kicked, and furthermore as there is no overwhelming social norm backing me up, wouldn’t do much good, anyway. Sigh.

And another thing that makes me uncomfortable about the whole thing—I assume that when a young man thwacks another young man at the desk that they are not romantic partners. I do think that homosocial thwackage is a part of our social norms, and although I wouldn’t encourage a son of mine to adopt that kind of thing, I wouldn’t ground him for a week if I saw him do it. I see third-graders behaving that way in the schoolyard all the time, and I give them only two levels of eyebrow. If I saw a son of mine thwack a girl, especially from behind, it would be Groundhog Day for him, if you know what I mean. Is this sexist? In a way, I think so, but I also (being sexist in that way) think that the world being the world, abuse of women by men being so much more prevalent than any of the other combinations (as heinous as those are), a man thwacking a woman in public has a devastating symbolic weight. A man thwacking a man does not. I feel justified in making this distinction, and yet it nags at me, when I contemplate what my (outward) reaction should be to a thwack at the desk.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Nah, it would be sexist of you to deny the power imbalance present in the world as it is. Which, of course, people do every day. Acknowledging it and wanting other men to be aware of it when they choose their behaviors? Not sexist.

So we're all working for a day when a young man thwacking a young woman is as O.K. as a young man thwacking a young man is. Somehow, that just sounds weird.

(Though I have to assume she knew it was him, or she should have screamed and swung around with the nearest heavy object.)

Well, and by working, read raising an eyebrow, but sure.

She was startled; I don't know whether she was startled because he kicked her, or because he kicked her, if you know what I mean.


I'm having a hard time reconciling my agreement with you in what is a very serious post, with my utter amusement and joy at your use of "thwack" and its variants, which is a word that simply does not get used enough these days.

But more to the point, I wonder if stepping up a notch from the Class One Librarian's Glare to a quick, "dude, that isn't cool," would be a) effective and 2) safe for you from a protecting-your-job perspective. (Also on that front: could you talk to your supervisor and ask his/her opinion of what to do in just such a circumstance? It might be that s/he would totally get your back if it came down to it.)

Isn't it often mentioned that for violence against women to end, it has to be men saying that it isn't right, not just women?

Isn't it often mentioned that for violence against women to end, it has to be men saying that it isn't right, not just women?

Violence against women isn't right.

Have to agree with Catherine and Laughingrat, here.

Does your library have an acceptable behavior policy? Ours does, and people get kicked out for hitting each other, regardless of intent.

This is a tough one for me. On the one hand, I think violence against anyone isn't right, and people shouldn't hit other people who aren't willing to be hit. On perhaps the same hand, violence by men against women is clearly more of a problem now (and historically) than violence by women against men, so it seems reasonable to be especially cautious of it. On the other hand, I can't imagine telling my daughter "it's ok for a girl to hit you, but it's not ok if a boy does it". And on that same hand, if a boy does hit my daughter, playfull or not, I don't want her response to be to cry and say "hey, you can't hit me, I'm a girl" and to tell a teacher so the boy gets punished; I want her response to be to sit on his chest and pin him down until he agrees that violence is wrong. :^p

Less flippantly, I worry about the boundary between recognizing a double-standard and perpetuating it.

"Please, no roughhousing in the library." -- what one steps up to when three levels of eyebrow do not suffice?

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