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Why men touch women's bodies without asking — men like Joe Biden and John Travolta.

A look into the psychology behind what makes men think this certain behavior is OK.

Why men touch women's bodies without asking — men like Joe Biden and John Travolta.

John Travolta, Joe Biden, and why men touch women's bodies without asking

by Nico Lang

When I started college, one of my first jobs was working the front desk at my university's admissions office. I shared a desk with my boss, a voluptuous chatterbox who was bright, perky, and personable. She was the kind of woman whose cheeks you'd always want to pinch.


Unfortunately, our department director, a squirrelly little man with comically large glasses, often did just that. When she did something he liked, he would grab her face to show his approval, as if she were a child or a beloved pet.

The first time he did it, she was in front of students. The second time, she was in front of colleagues. When I recently asked her about it, she told me, "I can remember who was there. I can remember exactly how uncomfortable it made me. It didn't actually hurt or anything. It was this moment where I simultaneously felt like an object and also like there was nothing I could do about it, so I should just let it happen."

Other friends recalled similar stories from work colleagues, acquaintances, family members, and strangers, in which men touched them without prior consent or approval. One example came from a former coworker who remembered "walking in a grocery store parking lot, wearing a skirt, and a man walked up to me, put his hand up my skirt, grabbed my ass, and then walked off." A writer I know reported a bizarre incident in which she was "standing at a bus stop [when] a guy rushed [her] and proceeded to kiss [her] foot before hopping on his bus and escaping."

While these encounters happened between strangers, most women who told me they had experienced unwanted touching from a man said it had happened in a public place, such as a bar or the workplace. The perpetrator was usually someone they knew.

In an office environment, such unwanted touching constitutes sexual harassment (although a great number of women decline to report it, due to factors like social pressure or fear of workplace retaliation.) However, if you're a woman at a bus stop, or if you're picking up hummus at a grocery store, there aren't the same protections in place. If you're on stage presenting at the Oscars and a well-known celebrity starts petting your face, there's no obvious chain of command or boss to report it to.

For the audience, such moments could appear to be humorous. This man is harmless, they all laugh, and the Internet laughs right along with them. It's a shared inside joke that everyone is in on. He's just a "creepy uncle." He's not hurting anyone.

Of course, the celebrity in question is John Travolta, who doubled down on becoming an Internet meme this week after he felt up Idina Menzel's face onstage at the Academy Awards. Menzel and Travolta appeared together to bury the hatchet over an incident last year, in which Travolta infamously flubbed the "Let It Go" singer's name, calling her "Adele Dazeem."

The Internet immediately made a small moment into a viral sensation. Someone created a John Travolta Name Generator, in which the "Saturday Night Fever" star could mangle your name, too. Adele Dazeem even got her own Twitter account.

So when Travolta awkwardly touched Menzel's face at the Oscars this year, the Internet was bound to react as if the incident was intended to be comical. It was an indication that Travolta had become Hollywood's "creepy uncle." But no one saw the encounter for what it was: a moment of public sexual harassment.

In fact, the face-touching wasn't even Travolta's only transgression that evening. On the red carpet, the star also kissed the side of Scarlett Johansson's face while he placed his hand around her waist. Photos show that Johansson was clearly uncomfortable with the gesture, her eyes glossing over as she stares into the distance. (Johansson, for her part, has been a good sport and defended him.) The moment should have been shocking and deeply troubling, but instead it got turned into a meme. You can find photos of John Travolta embracing Kanye West, the Statue of Liberty, and his own "Hairspray" character. How droll!

The lack of outcry beyond the requisite "Wow, what happened to John Travolta?" shouldn't be surprising to anyone, especially in light of the recent coverage of Vice President Joe Biden embracing Stephanie Carter, the wife of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, during his swearing-in ceremony.

As The Daily Dot's own Miles Klee reported, "Biden all but demanded that Carter's wife Stephanie stand near him so he could squeeze her shoulders, sniff her hair, and whisper in her ear." Klee further reminds us:

It's hardly the first time that Biden has breached a woman's personal space. There was that time he got handsy with a White House correspondent. There was the pit stop where he put the moves on a leather-clad lady biker. He's macked on Irish presidents, Olympic athletes, Hillary Clinton, and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. He got close with the daughter of Sen. Chris Coons, much to her annoyance.

Biden's behavior might be meme-worthy, but it's more than an opportunity for clickbait. It's actively predatory, repeatedly violating women's personal space and boundaries. At best, his behavior is completely inappropriate; at worst, it's a gross abuse of power. If the man rubbing your shoulders and creepily whispering into your ear is Vice President and former Parks and Rec guest star Joe Biden, would you speak up?

When you look at Stephanie Carter's face, the look should be familiar to you. It's the same one Scarlett Johansson had. It's the look of a woman who knows what it's like to put up with toxic masculinity.

You can call this behavior whatever you like. The Internet's preferred euphemism is "handsy," as if Joe Biden is manhandling a Christmas ham instead of a married female human. But I prefer the term "mantouching." It's a riff on the term "manspreading," which is defined by the Collins Dictionary as a "male passenger in a bus or train splaying his legs and denying space to the passenger sitting next to him."

In a post for Feministing, Mychal Denzel Smith explains that manspreading is a "performance of masculinity." Smith writes, "It all plays out like an assertion of male dominance, in which every one of them feels as if they have to claim their territory and their manhood in this public space, even at the discomfort of all the other passengers. Who gives a fuck if you can't sit, they are men."

Mantouching operates in a similar way. It's an assertion of one's masculinity, at the expense of the personal comfort of those around you. When a man touches a woman without asking, he's doing so because he feels entitled to access to her body. For him, it might feel like a meaningless or friendly gesture. After all, what's the matter with touching the small of a woman's back? It's not like you're sexually assaulting her.

But for women, it sends a different message. Nancy Qualls-Shehata of Patheos writes, "Your body is not your own, and any good ole boy can grab your butt and no one will stop him. Oh, and you have to pretend it's OK even if you are seething inside. You have to smile and give him a friendly wag of the finger and hug him."

While a recent Cosmo survey showed that an alarmingly high 1 in 3 women reported being sexually harassed in the workplace at some point in their lives, the prevalence of mantouching is likely much higher, simply because no one ever talks about it. Many of the women I talked to didn't speak up for fear of being told that they're overreacting or being hysterical. If they do speak up, the response is usually the same: Stop taking everything so seriously. It's just a compliment.

The Internet has given a great deal of attention to fighting acts of street harassment, such as women being catcalled in public or told by strangers to "smile." Campaigns like #StopTellingWomenToSmile have drawn particular attention to these daily micro-aggressions that women experience, the small-scale ways in which society reinforces female marginalization. Such micro-aggressions are consummate examples of everyday sexism.

While it's crucial that we address the issue of street harassment, we need to recognize that it's bigger than the street by discussing the ways in which performative masculinity creates a culture where behavior like that of Travolta and Biden is normalized. It might feel good to laugh off such demonstrative behavior as vestiges of a fading masculinity, but the problem with mantouching isn't that it's hilariously creepy or weird. The problem with mantouching is that it's so common that some of the women who experience it might not think it's a big deal. After all, it happens all the time.

You might not think a pinched cheek or a shoulder caress is something to lose sleep over. But the next time you see a man put his hand on the small of a woman's back, look at her eyes. Look at her smile. If you're looking closely enough, I bet you can see her faking it. I bet you can see how painful it really is.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

via Wikimedia Commons and Goalsetter

America's ethnic wealth gap is a multi-faceted problem that would take dramatic action, on multiple fronts, to overcome. One of the ways to help communities improve their economic well-being is through financial literacy.

Investopedia says there are five primary sources of financial education—families, high school, college, employers, and the military — and that education and household income are two of the biggest factors in predicting whether someone has a high level of financial literacy.

New Orleans Saints safety, two-time Super Bowl Champion, and social justice activist Malcolm Jenkins and The Malcolm Jenkins Foundation hope to help bridge the wealth gap by teaching students about investing at a young age.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.