When is a rub-down just a rub-down and when is it sexual harassment?

Last week my friend and I had a tennis lesson.  Although the courts are public, they are surrounded by a wall, so you can play as well or badly as you like and nobody but you and the coach will ever know how near (or far) from qualifying for Wimbledon you are.

There are no amenities.  There is no club house.  There is no club.  The protocol is that when your tennis lesson finishes, you depart.  But last week the person before us – a man probably in his late 60s – was somewhat reluctant to leave the court.  As we started our lesson he loitered a little picking up balls, and, once that was done, he sat on the bench beside the court and began to sip his water.  After a couple of minutes, I began to feel uncomfortable – the tennis lesson is for me to learn tennis, not for us to provide light entertainment to random strangers.  My friend and I began to mutter to each other that it was time for him to move on.

But he had no intention of leaving.  Instead he stood up, took his top off, pulled a flannel from his bag, and began to give himself a leisurely and ostentatious rub down.  And he was doing this barely two metres from the tennis net during our lesson.  It was like an elderly peacock preening.  And, just to be clear, he was not about to rush off to an important meeting that he wanted to look good for; he was about to get on his bicycle and cycle back to his house, less than five minutes away.  ‘Inappropriate’ is one of the kindest words I have to describe his behaviour.

As soon as he left we spoke to the tennis coach, who is a lovely man.  But he clearly felt unable to say anything, and suggested that if we were upset we should speak to Captain Inappropriate ourselves.  I’ve thought a lot about why we didn’t say anything at the time, and I think it’s multi-layered:

  1. We didn’t like the initial loitering, but it wasn’t a big enough deal to make a fuss. We didn’t realise that by not drawing a line at that point, we had opened the gate to much worse behaviour.
  2. When it happened, the sense of disbelief was palpable: am I really watching an elderly man strip off and rub himself down in front of me on a public tennis court? We were too non-plussed to say anything.
  3. It’s a very English thing not make a fuss, and women in particular are expected to suck up all sorts of inappropriate behaviour on a regular basis.
  4. Complaining is always a risky strategy, because you don’t know what support you’ll get. As it turned out (and this is not even a criticism of the tennis coach), if we had said anything, it is clear the coach wouldn’t have backed us up.

Obviously, this behaviour doesn’t make the man Harvey Weinstein, but it is on the same spectrum.  A spectrum that starts with rubbing yourself down on a tennis court, goes via opening your hotel room door for a meeting naked except for your dressing gown, and ends with coercing women into sex (or worse).

And isn’t this exactly how Harvey Weinstein and countless others have got and continue to get away with it?  The women on the receiving end feel disabled from saying anything for a variety of reasons, only some of which I’ve described above, and the men who might or should support them also feel unable to speak up or prevent it in future (remember: this man, and probably some of his friends, pay part of our tennis coach’s income).

I told the whole story to a male friend, and was shocked when he told me that if we wanted to say anything we shouldn’t make a scene.  After all, he reasoned, Captain Inappropriate might not know he was doing anything wrong.  Whaaaaat?  If I was 20 instead of 40-something, would he know then?  If he did it in front of my daughters (currently 9 and 11), would he know then?  (I recall being on the receiving end of similar behaviours when I was those ages, by the way, and still remember how threatening it feels.)  How inappropriate does his behaviour have to be, for me to make a fuss?  And should I suppress a full expression of how disturbed and angry it made me, because we don’t want to make the person whose behaviour was out of order feel bad about it?

I’m lucky to work in a sector where, if anything, the gender balance favours women and I am also sufficiently senior that I am rarely aware of any discrimination in a professional context.  I have also reached an age where random men on trains no longer hit on me (and yes, when I was younger that used to happen a lot).  But this incident has reminded me that society as a whole still has a significant distance to travel and we need everyone who can to call out bad behaviour and hold the perpetrators to account.  Until we do so, too many people will continue to consider it an acceptable norm.

I don’t know if I’ll see Captain Inappropriate again, but if I do, I’ll let you know how it goes…


What do others say?

I like what the University of Exeter has to say about ‘inappropriate behaviour’: The biggest challenge to ensuring an inclusive community isn’t the obviously illegal acts of discrimination. It’s the persistent, pervasive behaviours that fail to respect or value each other and our differences.

And the importance they place on calling it out: You may have decided not to challenge it because it’s uncomfortable, you didn’t want to stand out, you hoped someone else would have said something, or you might have thought there was no point saying anything because it wouldn’t make a difference.  And then it happens again, because no-one has challenged it (my bold).

They’ve also got some sensible advice on how to call it out without making ‘the scene’ my friend was worried about.

7 thoughts on “When is a rub-down just a rub-down and when is it sexual harassment?

  1. Clive Martinez says:

    The vivid description in your post has hooked me more than a little. Maybe because I am male and not far from Captain Inappropriate in age terms myself. I also have been known to play tennis and have tennis lessons. I wonder what was going on.

    A man displays himself to a captive audience of two attractive younger women – you were having a lesson so you weren’t going anywhere. I suspect he was aware that you were feeling uncomfortable, which leads me to believe that he was enjoying your discomfort – slightly bizarre but some men do (and some women too, but that’s a different narrative).

    It is disappointing that your coach was unwilling to help. You were paying for a lesson and I don’t see why the coach shouldn’t be prepared to ask anyone of whatever gender to move away once they had finished to enable the paying clients to concentrate on their learning – especially if it was clear they were being put off. After all it shouldn’t be too difficult; something along the lines of – “would you mind leaving the courts now that you have finished out of respect for the people whose turn it is to use them”. No guarantee Captain Inappropriate would comply – but at least the point could be made. I also think it would have been better if the male coach had dealt with it as he was in charge of the learning space and it would have been male to male with a clear sub-text of how men treat or mistreat women.

    None of which is meant to imply that you and your friend don’t have a variety of options in terms of how to deal with it yourselves. From what I know of Boudicca, I imagine you have already decided what you will do, should there be a next time. Personally, I hope there isn’t, but if there is, I look forward to reading about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • boudiccaofsuburbia says:

      Thanks, Clive. I will definitely speak to Captain Inappropriate if it happens again, but your comment really highlights the coach’s discomfort with dealing with it. I think he needs help with addressing it too, and I very much like your line about ‘would you mind leaving the court…’ and will suggest it to him. I’ll let you know how it goes, should there be a repeat performance in the future 🙂


  2. Kelly MacKay says:

    The fact that he had the flannel tells me this may be his regular routine he may not think it makes anyone uncomfortable because he is comfortable with himself. What the “rub down” entailed, and how far he took it you didn’t say. If he dried sweat from his chest …. not such a big deal to me. If he carried it to his nether parts definitely, inappropriate.

    Liked by 2 people

    • boudiccaofsuburbia says:

      Thanks, Kelly. I think you’re right that it may well be part of his regular routine, and no nether regions were involved (that I saw). But he was already making us feel uncomfortable when he didn’t leave the court for our lesson, and there was a real preening element to the rubdown – he was clearly ‘owning’ the space. I also think there’s an issue about what’s appropriate. I would never stip my top off and towel down in front of two men I didn’t know playing tennis. His behaviour was appropriate for a men’s locker room, but not a public tennis court that someone else is playing on. I think you’re also right that he gave no thought to how uncomfortable it was making us feel. my argument is that he SHOULD. Fair enough that other people may be ok with it, but I feel like the default should be not to behave in ways that risk causing offence or making people feel uncomfortable. A little more self-awareness and sensitivity would go a long way. 🙂


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