“Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations. We fall to our level of training.”
– Bruce Lee (supposedly)
When I was looking for My Patient, well before his neighbor grabbed my butt, I remember noticing that most of the slots in the doors of the isolation jail cells were open. These slots are tall enough to pass a softball and wide enough to pass a clipboard. They are about three feet up from the ground. The slots function like small doors: The hinges are on the bottom, so the slot doors fall open when unlocked. Only people on the outside — correctional officers — can unlock and open the slots. The slot doors automatically lock when closed shut.
The slot in My Patient’s door was open, as was the slot for his neighbor. Before I started talking to My Patient, I remember thinking, “Maybe I should completely shut his neighbor’s slot.” I shrugged that thought away: I had been working in the jail for over five years, and nothing had happened to me before. I partially closed the neighbor’s slot in a vain effort to provide some privacy to My Patient. While standing between the two doors, I leaned over to talk to My Patient, who I was meeting for the first time, through his slot.
My Patient, calm and civil, had spoken with me for only a few minutes when I felt fingers grab a handful of my gluteal flesh. In less than one second, my mind had deduced what had happened: My Patient’s neighbor, who I did not know, had pushed open his slot door, reached out, and grabbed my butt, which was covered in a white medical coat. Before I reacted, he also cackled with spite, “Shake that Chinese ass!”
There are many ways I could have reacted:
- Yell, “Don’t touch me!”
- Shout, “What are you doing?!
- Holler, “What is wrong with you?”
- Exclaim other combinations of profane and proper words to express my displeasure.
But what did I actually do?
“EXCUSE YOU!” I exclaimed as I whirled around. I caught a glimpse of his face as I slammed his slot door shut.
I still laugh at my reflexive reaction. There was no thinking involved. Nonetheless, my non-thinking brain still generated the phrase, of all the possible responses that are applicable in this situation, “Excuse you!” The emphasis on professionalism in training and in practice had prepared me for this day.
(Of course, the more emphatic point was slamming the slot door shut. The importance of boundaries was reinforced in training and in practice.)
I then took a breath, turned back to My Patient, and said, “I’m sorry about that. You were saying?” He resumed talking. We both pretended like nothing happened.
Though no one witnessed this event, my colleagues believed me. (Let’s be clear, though: The differences in social status alone — physician versus jail inmate — tipped the scales heavily in my favor.) This was the first time I had ever experienced a stranger grabbing my butt. I had announced my resignation from my position in the jail (and an administrative role in county government) just a week prior, so my colleagues, after offering support, quipped that of course this was ordained to happen.
What this event highlighted to me, though, was the respect most men show to most women most of the time, whether in or out of jail. While it is entirely possible that men everywhere are exerting great, continuous restraint from reaching out and grabbing the butts of women, I don’t get the impression that such self-control is exhausting their energy reserves. In my five years working in jail with individuals who are often demonstrating significant behavioral disturbances, this was the only time someone grabbed my butt. This suggests to me that most men — even men in stressful conditions like jail — have intact impulse control or are least willing to adhere to social norms about butt-grabbing.
To be clear, though: I hope I never encounter this man ever again. (And, as of this writing, he is still in jail. I got out; he’s still waiting.)
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