It just happened again. A patron grabbed my arm.
Most people have a little gauge in the back of their head. It indicates whether or not it is appropriate to touch somebody else in a social situation.
Police officer? Do not touch. Mom? Do touch. Bartender? Ask to touch. Librarian?
Experience suggests that some people think it’s totally OK to touch the librarian.
Patron touches happen way more often than I like. In fact, not a month goes by without some kind of surprise physical contact from someone I’m helping. This latest one, which happened less than an hour ago, came from a patron who referenced an autistic family member and therefore should have known not to touch strangers without asking.
I’ve experienced the following types of physical contact from patrons at various points in my career, all unsolicited:
- Arm grabbing
- Shoulder patting
- Hand holding
- Hand stroking
- A finger running up the back from lumbar to shoulders
- Knee to knee contact under a table
- Foot to foot contact under a table
Some of those were legit creepy sexual harassment attempts. But Anna, I hear you chirp. Hugs aren’t so bad. What could be so bad about an innocent little hug? Well it so happens that I’ve thought a great deal about this. Allow me to expound.
The Slippery Slope
If a patron is allowed to grab my arm without asking, I can at least expect more grabbing. I may also expect other types of escalation. The patron who stroked my hand in a disturbingly sexual way that was definitely and absolutely a bad touch? She’d started by brushing my arm to get my attention. While not all unwelcome patron contact comes with a preamble, I have noticed that a pushy patron will sometimes test the waters with casual contact before grasping, petting, and otherwise getting all up in my business. This isn’t uniformly the case. The particularly upsetting back-stroking incident, for example, happened as the patron in question basically ran by. Nevertheless, initial exploratory contact happens often enough that I now try to head it off at the pass with a polite but direct “Please don’t touch me.”
Respect The Librarian
Touching without asking indicates an inherent assumption of entitlement to the librarian. In this case, it’s not just that the patron considers themselves to have special social privileges that you do not have – because they do, that’s a given – but that you’re below the social level where they need to think of you as a human with preferences and concerns. It is a sad fact that some people afford more respect to expensive vases than they do to people who work service jobs. Unsolicited touching also implies that the patron assumes that there’s nothing you can do to protest their behavior if you happen to dislike it, so that possibility isn’t worth wondering about. They proceed to treat you like a thing, and a cheap thing at that, through the vehicle of unasked-for physical contact.
Inconsistency Is Doom
A patron came to the reference floor a couple weeks ago and ended up crying because of some unrelated life stresses. She then asked if she could hug me. I let this happen partially because she had asked nicely before just grabbing, but mainly because I was afraid of what would happen to her emotionally if I refused. It wasn’t a great experience, but I endured and nobody dissolved into actual screaming. Greater good served. However, what if that patron had been male? Call me sexist, but I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable hugging a man I didn’t know. That’s a policy based on my personal feelings! If I refused to hug a guy who knew that I’d agreed to hug a woman, I’d be revealing a prejudiced attitude on my part that could impact whether or not the patron continues to use the library. It’s also a good passive-aggressive way for a creepy guy to do his creepy thing and try to socially coerce a librarian into an uncomfortable situation.
I Just Don’t Like It
I don’t have autism and I wasn’t abused. I’m not trying to perform some hypermasculine butchness routine and I’m not too cool for normal people. I just like my personal space. I’m sure I’m not alone. You may feel differently. Feel free to share your strategies, philosophies, and thought on how to manage the touchy patron situation. However, no matter how you cut it, physical contact with patrons is not part of a public librarian’s responsibilities. Don’t let a patron edit your job description on the fly.