“an infamous pincher of ladies’ bottoms”

(Eventually about a set of social practices and the vocabulary — mostly transparent — referring to them.)

A standout phrase from a moving, and also wryly funny, Gail Collins op-ed column in the NYT on the 22nd, “The Senate Bathroom Angle”. The infamous pincher in question is the monstrous Strom Thurmond, a stridently anti-black and anti-gay politician and notorious sexist pig, also the U.S. Senator from South Carolina for 48 years.

Collins on Mikulski. I’ll lead with the good stuff, Collins appreciating Sen. Barbara Mikulski; the standout phrase is underlined:

We are sorely in need of some cheerful news out of Washington, so I’m going to tell you Barbara Mikulski’s story about the Senate bathrooms.

Almost every veteran woman legislator, in every level of government, has a story about the shortage of bathroom facilities at work. Really, there needs to be a book on this. It could have a happy ending, and none of the chapters would involve Russian attempts to manipulate an election.

Mikulski, 80, has served in Congress longer than any other woman in history. She’s retiring this month after representing Maryland for 30 years in the Senate. Before that she spent 10 years in the House.

… By 2013 there were 20 women in the Senate and waiting lines in the loo. Mikulski recalled that the Rules Committee, which controlled such matters, wanted to create an elegant place with a chandelier and little sinks with slim legs. “We wanted low cost. We didn’t want anything fancy or expensive, but we wanted maximum functionality — the way women use a bathroom and not the way men think women use a bathroom,” she recounted.

In the end, functionality won. The new bathroom had two more stalls, an extra sink and shelves in which each senator had her own basket to store combs, brushes, makeup, whatever. “And so when I leave they’ll retire my basket. … It’s kind of like retiring your jersey,” Mikulski said, rather proudly.

… In Washington, Mikulski has always exhibited a highly unusual combination of feistiness and bipartisanship. Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, recalled that when she first arrived, Mikulski immediately reached out.

“She didn’t know me from Adam — or perhaps I should say from Eve,” Collins said in a recent tribute on the Senate floor. “Yet, despite the difference in our seniority, our states and our parties, she took me under her wing. … I was so grateful for her kindness and her wisdom. … She taught me the ropes of the appropriations process and instituted regular bipartisan dinners for the women of the Senate.”

Those dinners have become famous — especially since the male side of the chamber has become more and more viciously partisan. In the beginning, they were held in a Senate room named after the late Strom Thurmond, an infamous pincher of ladies’ bottoms.

“I know, the irony,” Olympia Snowe, the former senator from Maine, once told me.

… Recently Mikulski and Collins invited their female colleagues for coffee, to welcome the latest generation of newcomers. It was a final gesture of outreach as Mikulski moved on into Senate history.

She deserves some kind of permanent memorial. Maybe they could put a plaque in that bathroom. Or better yet, they could rename the Strom Thurmond Room in her honor.

(Points to Olympia Snowe’s “I know, the irony”.)

Mikulski at the Capitol in November:

  (#1)

I provide no photo of the Massive Asshole of Southern Manhood, but for young readers and those outside the U.S., a bit of information.

Strom Thurmond. Very briefly, from Wikipedia:

James Strom Thurmond (December 5, 1902 – June 26, 2003) was an American politician who served for 48 years as a United States Senator from South Carolina. He ran for president in 1948 as the States Rights Democratic Party candidate, receiving 2.4% of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes. Thurmond represented South Carolina in the United States Senate from 1954 until 2003, at first as a Democrat and, after 1964 [in response to the Civil Rights Act], as a Republican.

Thurmond had two wives, both beauty queens he hired to work in his office and then married. The first was 21 to Thurmond’s 44 when they married, the second was 25 to Thurmond’s 68 (and they then had four children); he liked ’em young and pretty. But before all that, when he was 22, Thurmond impregnated a 16-year-old black servant in his parents’ house; the daughter of that union, who Thurmond supported financially but otherwise concealed, came forward, then aged 78, after Thurmond died and defiantly claimed her place in the family.

God knows how many women Thurmond screwed during his 100 years, but he certainly manhandled a legion of them.

Unwanted, uninvited attentions as a social practice. The key words are unwanted and uninvited; many of the practices I allude to here have their place in consensual relations between two people. The context of the practices is crucial.

[Digression on interactional equality. I’ve just framed things in terms of equality between the two people in these interactions; their intentions and wishes are equally valued, this despite the fact that in any particular interaction, there is typically an asymmetry of action between the two people, with one serving as agent in an act, the other as patient or recipient — pincher and pinched, for instance.

Interactional equality is a recommendation, a normative claim, a claim about what should be the case, not a factual claim, about what is the case, and a great many people subscribe to a different set of norms, in which the intentions and wishes of a male agent prevail over those of a female recipient, because of a set of beliefs about the “natural” stances of the sexes, according to which men are either involuntarily driven to impose themselves on women they find attractive (like cats driven to bat at shiny objects by innate disposition) or entitled to impose themselves on women by the natural order of things (often, because this is the order ordained by religious authorities, which in turn take it to be ordained by God).

There are obviously divergent claims about moral order here, and I’m firmly on the side of interactional equality. (I’m a feminist, so sue me.) But most people (in our culture, anyway) who appeal to the natural order of the sexes still recognize limits, as we’ll see. In actual practice, the divergence comes primarily in the sphere of what’s sometimes called everyday sexism — of which Thurmondian bottom-pinching is a prime example.]

Men’s impositions on women. Several varieties of everyday sexism, including two large sets:

(1a) physical imposition (gluteal): groping, fondling, patting, grabbing, pinching, or slapping a woman’s bottom

(2a) verbal imposition, framed positively: cat-calling, wolf-whistling

These are the least grave impositions. The physical impositions in (1a) target the buttocks rather than those bodyparts viewed as primary sexual loci (the vagina, the breasts). The verbal impositions in (2a), while harrassing, are framed as appreciations.

The physical impositions in (1a) are often framed by men as compliments: pinching her buttocks is conveying “Nice ass, baby!” or something of the sort. She should be grateful!

Otherwise, I’ve heard the impositions in (1a) explained as “checking out her goods”, assessing the quality of her body, and “testing how receptive she is” (in effect, making her a non-verbal offer of sexual relations of some sort). But no matter how framed, the impositions assert dominance over a woman and claim rights to her body. So it’s no surprise that women generally find them at least annoying, often objectionable, sometimes directly threatening.

Not infrequently, men explain both types of impositions above as natural, involuntary responses to an attractive woman: “I couldn’t help myself.” This was the reason traditionally given for the behavior of Italian men towards women in the days of rampant bottom-pinching on the streets of many Italian cities. Apparently, this behavior is much reduced, but there’s some material on the net about the legal status of “unpremeditated”, “involuntary” bottom-pinching (other instances of bottom-pinching on the street are now apparently straightforwardly against the law).

But, but… back in the bad old days `in Italy, a woman accompanied by an adult man would almost never get pinched, and a woman accompanied only by a baby or small child — a woman who presented herself as a mother — would almost never get pinched. Somehow the “involuntary” urges could be suppressed by another male or by maternity. (Raised eyebrow emoji here.)

A common opinion — held by some women as well as many men — about the impositions above is that they’re just “boys being boys”, an expected and “natural” part of heterosexual masculinity, so a woman imposed on in these ways should just accept it and not “make a big thing of it”. But on the face of it, these impositions are assaults; why should they be accepted?

Tougher stuff. The impositions above are at the mild end of the scale. But things can escalate. On the verbal side:

(2b) verbal imposition, framed negatively: anti-woman slurs, demeaning address terms, ordering women around, etc.

And on the physical side, things move from buttocks to more clearly sexual parts:

(1b) physical imposition (mammary): stroking, fondling, or grabbing breasts

(1c) physical imposition (pubic): pussy-grabbing etc.– groping, stroking, fondling, or grabbing a woman’s crotch

It seems to me that by the time we get to (1c), if the act is unwelcome, we’re unambiguously in sexual assault territory.

And then on to:

(1d) physical imposition (frottage): rubbing genitals against a woman’s body, through clothing

(1e) physical imposition (phallic): gaining explicit sexual favors (especially via threats or force) — manual, oral, vaginal, or anal

Meanwhile, there’s a parallel track of physical display rather than imposition:

(3a) physical display: crotch-grabbing, directed at another person, through clothing

(3b) physical display: crotch-thrusting (aka pelvic thrusting), again directed at another person and through clothing

(3c) physical display: flashing (genitals at another person)

If unwelcome, these are all aggressive displays, though they’re framed as if they were offers.

Agents and recipients. We started with a male agent and female recipients, with a gluteal focus. Buttocks come into it because of their proximity to the genitals and because the shape of the buttocks is a strong secondary sexual characteristic — and one that can be discerned through clothing.

So many straight men identify themselves as “butt men”, interested in female buttocks. And there’s clothing designed to show off beautiful female bottoms. The bikini, for instance, shown here as modeled by contestants in a Miss BumBum competition in Turkey:

  (#2)

A great many straight women find male buttocks similarly attractive. A great many earlier postings on this blog have featured handsome male bottoms, but these are chosen with a gay man’s eyes. Here’s a hot Parisian guy, chosen by a straight woman who’s something of an enthusiast of the species:

  (#3)

Male attraction to female butts sometimes results in (uninvited) bottom-pinching. What about female attraction to male butts?  Women seem to engage in (uninvited) bottom-pinching of men very rarely, although reversing roles here is sometimes performed as a journalistic stunt. Men’s reaction to having their butts pinched seems to be mostly surprised, very rarely offended; often, instead of being offended by the imposition, men tend to view the act as a (welcome) invitation to more intimate interaction. Well, at least if the agent is a good-looking young woman. Sigh.

In my experience, though gay men have an abiding interest in handsome male butts, uninvited bottom-pinching is quite rare; it’s likely to be taken as unpleasant aggression. Even more so for the more advanced forms of physical imposition and display, Instead, m2m interactions tend to be rather carefully negotiated, both verbally and non-verbally. (Once, in a situation where I might have been taken to be offering my body, another man didn’t advance on me physically, but instead said, from a distance of several feet, with a wonderful smile, “You have a beautiful ass”. And then in a while we were, in fact, on.)

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