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Dear Prudence: Get Over Yourself, Preggo!

April 22, 2010

You may or may not be familiar with Dear Prudence, the advice column written by Emily Yoffe at Slate.  It’s often amusing, though frequently less than feminist, as others have noted previously (Prudence is a fan of telling women to just get married if they find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, for example).  This week, Yoffe/Prudence is up to her old tricks, telling a pregnant woman who wrote in requesting advice on getting acquaintances to stop touching her belly as though it were public property–because, in the woman’s words, it makes her uncomfortable–that she should really just get over it.

I dealt with this in a column a while back and said that when I was pregnant I had lovely experiences with other women, including strangers (hands off, men!), touching my belly and sharing their pregnancy stories. I added that this is a problem that will shortly take care of itself—although the next iteration will be people wanting to touch your baby. The responses ran along the lines of, “Oh, so you think women should be assaulted by strangers just because they’re pregnant!” so I understand I have a minority view here. So, go ahead and step back, or take off the offender’s hand and say, “Sorry, I’m just not the touchy type.” But since the touch lasts just a moment, is it really so bad?

Oh, sorry, got it.  It doesn’t matter that the woman already said it’s bad, or that you’ve already heard from enough readers to warrant a nearly identical response being placed in your “Letters that Most Incensed and Provoked You, 2006” list.  What actually matters is that you don’t care if strangers touch you without asking, which means that no one else should, either.  And besides, it only lasts a minute!  Who could get upset over unwanted touching that was so brief in duration?

Oh, wait, I know who.  People who don’t like strangers touching them!  Weirdly, Yoffe/Prudence even acknowledges that this is a legitimate worry, as she explicitly (in this version of the response, anyway) suggests that men have no business groping strange women’s bodies in public.  She just also–heteronormatively, by the way–assumes that women should be perfectly fine with other women they don’t know putting their hands on them without their consent.  And why is that, exactly?  Well, we get more of a clue in Prudence’s original 2006 response, when she tells a woman who asks her to issue a Dear Prudie PSA to get people to stop touching pregnant women without their consent the following:

Here’s your announcement, and of course, no one should be touched if they don’t want to be. Having said that, I have a big but about big bellies. Seeing a woman bursting with new life is so lovely that it can be an almost uncontrollable impulse to pat her belly. I remember feeling really warm toward the (almost exclusively) female hands that reached out to touch my growing baby. The touch was always accompanied by good wishes or another woman’s memory of her own pregnancy. Can you try to think of these well-meaning hands as a communion that’s been going on since humans became human? When you remove a hand (and isn’t it rare for the touch to last more than a moment?) as if it is a dead carp, you certainly get your message across. But if you could relax about this, you will find it is truly a self-limiting problem. In a few months your belly will be yours again. But you should prepare yourself for the time when everyone who patted your stomach is going to want to hold your irresistible baby.

We thus learn 1) that pregnant women’s bodies are irresistible touch-magnets, and that no one can be held really responsible for what they do in the presence of such a woman (hello, victim-blaming 101!); 2) that the person who really needs an attitude adjustment is the pregnant woman in question, who (as mentioned before) needs to get the fuck over herself and her silly personal space issues; and 3) that, in fact, pregnant women’s bodies are not their own–but this is totally ok, because it’s a “self-limiting problem” that will be solved when she pops that sucker out and…becomes an autonomous being whose rights and wishes with regard to her body are totally respected again, right?  Oh, wait.

What’s even more bizarre about all of this is the way that Prudence chooses to respond to the (many!) readers who write in to tell her how appalling her “advice” is here.  In her 2006 Oh My God What Were You Thinking roundup, she not only notes that unwelcome touching by men (especially men who are aroused by pregnant women) is a problem, but also writes,

Most of the correspondents sounded as if they would be none too happy about Aunt Millie’s desiccated little claws on their belly—as one observed, “Unwelcome or uninvited physical contact is battery, which is a crime in all states.” Let me affirm that I am opposed to perverts, at bus stops or elsewhere, pawing any part of anybody’s anatomy, pregnant or not.

A minority of readers—okay, one—came to my defense. This writer described how the pregnant woman in her office “treated us to endless sonogram updates and detailed reports of every doctor visit. She did everything but bring in an exam table. But then she yelled at someone for touching her stomach and launched into a diatribe.” The reader went on to say that when she was pregnant about 20 year ago, “before pregnancy became such a big deal, everyone celebrated with me when I felt the first kick, etc. I’m not a touchy-feely person by nature, but it’s a brand new life. How awesome is that?”

Weirdly, Prudence/Yoffe acknowledges that unwelcome touching is indeed assault–but in the next breath implicitly suggests that only touching by “perverts” is truly unwelcome, and proceeds to quote the only supporting letter she got as evidence that many pregnant women are…what?  Asking for it?  What else are we to make of the ugh, she totally teased me with her constant talk of pregnancy, and then had the nerve to get upset when I tried to touch her tone of this response?  Especially when it’s followed by the assertion that the writer herself found unsolicited touching to be profoundly awesome?  Oh, you silly pregnant ladies–always saying ‘no’ when you really mean, ‘yes, yes yes!’

Unfortunately, Prudence/Yoffe doesn’t seem to have learned anything from this previous experience, as she closes her 2010 advice on the same question by, again, quoting the one reader who (sort of) comes to her unwanted-touching-defense:

Buffalo, N.Y.: When I was first pregnant 33 years ago, a lovely woman from another culture approached me and asked, “May I touch your belly?” I was surprised and said yes, and she did and said, “Blessings on you and your child.” It was so nice! Now I ASK pregnant women I know (never strangers) whether I can touch their belly and do the same.

Emily Yoffe: Thank you. You’re the second reader I’ve ever heard from on this issue not to think of the touch as an assault, although the asking first may be key. What a sweet encounter!

So, instead of actually repeating the relevant takeaway–ask strangers before you assume it’s ok to put your hands on them–we have a fun little “ooh, open yourself up to blessings from foreign ladies” exchange, which has the bonus of incorporating both the suggestion that the problem is with you, you bitch (don’t think of it as an assault, and it won’t be!), plus a little exoticizing of “other cultures” on the side.  Hooray, two for one!

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