Welcome to Wedding Guest Wednesday, an occasional feature in which Solo-ish explores the joys and woes of attending other people’s weddings. Because it’s not all about the happy couple — it’s a big day for guests as well.
I resent the amount of time it took me to recognize these incidents — when men inappropriately grabbed, groped or aggressively cornered me at weddings — for what they were. It took me far too long to accept that these men took advantage, knowing that no one will dare disrupt someone’s wedding day by calling them out for sexually harassing me.
If these incidents had happened at a bar on a Saturday night, no one would disagree about whether it was appropriate. But at weddings, it all passes with a shrug and an “oh well,” because the perpetrator is someone’s cousin, uncle, co-worker, friend. Such behavior is treated as, “Oh, they’ve had too much to drink,” or, “That’s just Uncle Bob; he’s like that.” Or my favorite: “It’s a wedding; what did you expect might happen?”
I’ve complained about weddings before. I’ve grumbled about the costs incurred, the time a priest humiliated me in front of other guests, the unflattering bridesmaid dresses I’ve had to wear and the bride’s mother who guilted me into three hours of monogramming shower invitations by hand. Most of the time, I dish my grievances to like-minded guests or friends who are not attending the nuptials. I haven’t wanted to do anything to detract from the happy couple’s perfect day. Even when it comes to something as serious as sexual harassment.
But I’m tired of pretending that this behavior is acceptable just because I’m at a wedding.
In an email exchange, Ginger Clark, a psychologist and counseling professor at the University of Southern California, told me why she thinks harassment can be common at weddings: “I think people see weddings as rituals representing romantic love or sexual rites of passage. Sometimes that mindset can lead to more openly sexual behavior — as if the wedding is a special occasion that gives permission to act in ways that would normally be deemed inappropriate.”
Add to that the fact that members of different generations might have different views on how to relate to one another, all together on one dance floor: “You have a mixing of generations, where this clash of cultures takes place. But, you also have social norms like ‘respecting your elders’ at play,” Clark wrote. So it can be harder to call out the bride’s uncle than it might be if it were her cousin doing the groping.
“The victimization doesn’t stop with the harassing behavior. Not only is the victim the one who get harassed, but they are also charged with navigating the waters of correcting their harasser’s behavior while not ruining everyone else’s experience, or they can be demeaned and just suffer through it. Somehow, they have become responsible for the harasser’s behavior,” Clark writes.
At a wedding I don’t expect to have to don my armor — the invisible barrier that I began to construct the first time I felt afraid or uncomfortable by a man invading my personal space. Bit by bit, I have added to it over the years. I have worn it while riding the subway, while sitting at male-dominated conference tables, while walking down the street alone in New York City. Now I am resigned to wear it at your wedding, too.
I wasn’t wearing my armor while hurrying along to a cocktail hour when I unexpectedly felt a hand squeeze my butt. Yelping in surprise, I turned around, assuming to find that one of my female friends was the culprit. Instead, I watched the stepfather of the bride hurrying away with a smirk on his face.
Frozen with indecision at first, I chose to avoid the dance floor the rest of the evening. When enough discomfort and resentment had built up, I finally confided in another guest about it, and she waved me off dismissively with a laugh, saying: “Oh yeah, don’t worry — he drinks a lot.”
I wasn’t wearing my armor the night I stayed perfectly still and silent in my hotel room, while two drunk guests pounded on my door hollering that I needed to come to an after-party. Guests whom I’d repeatedly and politely slipped away from because their drunken aggressiveness throughout the reception had made me increasingly uncomfortable. Now I was relegated to hiding in my room.
I don’t want to feel this way at a wedding. I don’t want to feel small and unable to tell someone firmly enough that that me declining their advances is not an invitation to try harder. I don’t want to hide in bathrooms or behind family members. I want to feel comfortable speaking up for myself regardless of the environment and for my “no” to be taken as the complete sentence that it is.
Clark acknowledges that wedding guests can feel they need to preserve the spirit of the day by ignoring an abuser, but she stresses that it’s important to speak up — and for bystanders to intervene when necessary. She also suggests in the case of confrontation, “The best course of action is to do it calmly and briefly, or even using humor. Something like, ‘Well, I was on my way to get a drink, but now I’m so uncomfortable, I may need two,’ and walk away. Or just saying deadpan, ‘That’s not appropriate,’ and move on.”
When I’m at a wedding, I want to spend my time celebrating the married couple, not worrying about being grabbed or worse. I want to feel grateful to be part of their momentous day and bask in their joy. I don’t want to fake-smile for the 14th time at one of their wedding guests waiting dutifully for me again outside the women’s restroom door. Someone whose advances I’d evaded all night that included him interrupting every conversation I was having with another person and forcibly grabbing my wrists with the intent to drag me onto the dance floor. The first time I acquiesced, unwilling to make a scene, and kept as much distance as I could for an upbeat song. Going forward, I fled to the bathroom whenever I spotted him in my periphery.
When bad behavior happens during a wedding, a familiar feeling pops up: I feel powerless, reminiscent of how I felt in the offices I worked in when I was younger, when fear of losing my job kept me from demanding the respect I deserved from male bosses. For years I thought I simply had to accept it as “boys being boys” rather than address it head on. But that powerless feeling is somehow worse at a wedding — a place where everyone is celebrating friends or family shouldn’t turn into an event where other guests feel preyed upon.
I haven’t addressed sexual harassment at weddings for what it is. I kept accepting that it exists inside some protected bubble where no one dares call it by its actual name.
But we need to keep encouraging women to come forward whenever someone is encroaching on personal space or violating any clearly stated boundaries. Weddings should not be an exception.