“It was nothing more than a friendly slap on the bottom”

A short article:

In today’s Times, referencing a report on Mailonline, you may read these words:

“She wasn’t groped. It was nothing more than a friendly slap on the bottom. She was apologised to and she didn’t make a big deal of it.”

This short article is not about the people involved. What I want to do is take a closer look at this odd collection of words. Let’s consider the ideas that such words are apt to convey.


The difference between a grope and a slap

There’s a difference, right? A grope is self-evidently wrong, but not so a slap. A grope is a continued action, sustained and malicious – is this what is meant by those words? On the other hand, a slap is short in duration – and accordingly acceptable? It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that these thoughts are intended because the words consciously contrast a grope with a slap. Why else use the comparator “nothing more than” [a slap]? Why else describe the slap as “friendly”?

The reality is that whilst a grope and a slap might represent two different ways of touching another person, they represent deliberate, unexpected and unwanted touching. They are as bad as each other, as sexually demeaning, and typical of an attitude of self-justifying male entitlement. There is no sliding scale of wrongness here. The use of the word “friendly” is offensive.


So what if the slap was on the bottom?

Do you need me to explain this?


“She was apologised to”

This is a curious use of words. I call it the third person impersonal. The emphasis is on the “she”, being the subject of the sentence. And what did “she” do? Well, nothing, which makes it odd that “she” is the subject of the sentence. The words are telling us that something was done to her, i.e. she received an apology. So that’s that, then? The end? Move on? Hold on. One normally sees an “I” in a sentence about an apology being given; however, there is none here.

The reality is that we cannot tell from these words:

  1. Who issued the apology? Was it the man who slapped? Was it someone acting on his behalf?
  2. Was the apology issued personally to the woman? To someone on her behalf?
  3. Was the apology issued immediately? Later? How much later?
  4. Did the desire to apologise come from within? Was it prompted by external factors?
  5. What is the subject matter of the apology? What was the wrong that gave rise to it?
  6. Why is the apology being made at all? This is why the “I” is generally important. Only when the “I” talks about a realisation of having done wrong do the words actually amount to an apology. Otherwise the words have no meaning.


“She didn’t make a big deal of it”

This follows immediately from the expression “she was apologised to”. Do you see how the emphasis on “she” is maintained? There is still no “I”. (In fact, we might consider that the word “I” doesn’t feature at all in this whole collection of words.) All that this part does is tell us the view of the man who did the slapping: “she didn’t make a big deal of it”.

But what does that expression even mean? Should we understand that “she” made a “little deal” of it? Or maybe a “medium-sized deal” of it? Or maybe no deal of it at all? Would any of these reactions make the slapping retrospectively more acceptable on the grounds that none amounts to making a “big deal” of it?

In reality, this emphasis on the reaction, or non-reaction, of “she” is a tawdry excuse that sorely misses the point. It is an example of the victim-blaming culture that exists in our society. The words “she didn’t make a big deal of it” draw us in to a self-justifying description of where the line falls between acceptable and unacceptable. The line is drawn not by reference to what “I” did but by how “I” say “she” reacted – or didn’t react.

But the criticism cannot stop there. There’s more. What of that reaction or non-reaction? Does it really tell us anything? In a different context, this puts criminal lawyers like me in mind of specific directions that judges give juries in cases involving sexual allegations. These directions warn juries to guard against stereotypes and assumptions about sexual behaviour and reactions to non-consensual sexual conduct. Typically juries will be directed as follows:

  1. experience shows that people react differently and that there is no one ‘classic’ response;
  2. some may complain immediately whereas others feel shame and shock and may not complain for some time;
  3. cautioned against applying stereotypical images about how the jury may feel an alleged victim [or, for that matter, an alleged perpetrator] of a sexual offence ought to have behaved at the time;
  4. warned against approaching the evidence with any preconceived assumptions.


There may be any number of reasons why “she” might not make a “big deal of it”, but that is nothing to the point.







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