On my flight today from Moscow to Amsterdam I was assigned the middle seat. Ugh. When I arrived to my row, the guy on the aisle, in his late forties, was having an animated conversation with the women in the window seat, in her mid-twenties. He was French, and she was Dutch, and they were talking in English about The Netherlands, although he conflated Denmark and Holland a few times as if he didn't really know what he was talking about. I plopped down between them, and I could immediately smell the alcohol on his breath. I was under the impression that someone sitting in the middle was clear social code for ceasing a conversation, but he continued to lean forward and talk over me for several minutes. I donned my noise canceling headphones, the international language for 🙉, and fired up my pre-downloaded Season 2 of Patriot, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Once the fasten-seatbelt sign was turned off, I looked around and saw that, on the same row, right across the aisle, there was an empty seat right next to my beloved wife, who also got stuck with the middle seat. I was uncomfortable in my position between these two people on several levels, so I nudged my inebriated French companion and requested an exit. I took all my stuff, and, as I was leaving, I noticed the open duty-free bag full of booze minibottles at his feet. He was understandably confused when I continued right on past the aisle and plopped down in the aisle seat, but figured it out when I got a little caress from the gal I just sat next to. As if to cover my discovery of his stash, he asked if I'd like some wine, despite not having any recepticle in which to pour some (chug from the mini bottle?); I declined.
My two ex-elbow-mates were quiet for a while, but when the sorry excuse for an in-flight meal was delivered, he poured himself some white wine and they started chatting. The conversation was entirely mutual. They were both equally engaged with one another. This was all from body language, as I had on my headphones and was not eavesdropping in the slightest.
After the meal had been cleared, another lull occurred. It was a three hour flight! During the last 30 minutes of the flight, things got seriously creepy. From what I could tell, he used some sort of, "I'm scared of flying/landings; will you hold my hand?" line, but rather than waiting for a response, he just reached over – remember, there's my old empty seat between them – and grabbed her hand. She laughed and held it for a few moments, but eventually released his hand. He said a few more things and grabbed her hand again. This time using a free finger to stroke her arm, a very intimate gesture, in my opinion. This happened roughly twenty times, I swear, each time her arms getting closer to her body such that I'd be amazed that there wasn't a little breast rub at some point. Then she decided to close her eyes, pretend to sleep and ignore him. At this point, he crossed a serious intimacy line, and reached over to brush some hair away from her face.
By this point, I'd told my wife what was going on, and she was observing, and pulled me back when raised an arm in an unconscious "look at this asshole" gesture that was going to lead to tapping him on the shoulder. At one point he uttered the vomit-inducing line of, "With your blue eyes and blond hair, you're very beautiful....just like my daughter." Ugh! Someone elect this man president!
He did the hair thing a few more times, and they were not touching during landing. When everyone got up to leave, she did the clever thing and stayed behind for a moment while the local rows cleared, thus not giving him a choice but to leave well ahead of her. My wife and I kept an eye on both of them on the bus to the terminal, and then in the terminal, ready to step in between them if he made any further attempts. I almost spoke to her to console her on her hellish flight and ask if she wanted any help, but chose not to; at no point did either of them know we were witnessing their interaction. Only when we saw with our own eyes that he went towards Connections, and she went towards Baggage Claim / Exit, did we relax at her escape.
We commented to each other that, with his lack of respect for a woman's consent, he most definitely has raped someone and probably will again.
The entire episode has made me think about what someone observing such harassment should do. No doubt there are studies on this, but I don't know of them. What follows is entirely thought experiments run in my white male privilege thought lab.
This is ultimately what we did. If she had ever said, "Please stop touching me!", I was there ready to enforce it. But her giggles and smiles, meant to avoid confrontation, were not a solid "No". From what I have read about this topic, this is a serious problem, where the victim wants to avoid an angry confrontation and sort of plays along, many times (though not in this context) leading to unwanted sex just to avoid conflict.
What I really wanted to do was to grab his hand, as he had hers, with the same line. And then maybe rub his arm. One of the most cuttingly true internet memes I've seen on this topic is, "It turns out that men have a really solid understanding of what 'consent' means if a gay man grabs them." In this thought scenario, I retort, "I was just doing what you were doing to her!" and the airplane erupts in applause.
I could also specifically ask her. "Excuse me, do you actually want him to be touching you?" When she says no, then the social pressure of another dude watching would be enough to stop him. But this is also going to initiate the confrontation that she is trying to avoid. It might anger him enough to further act once in the terminal, whereas the giggling non-reciprocation avoids that.
What if I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Leave her alone, man." I guarantee you that he thinks she's into this, and this would result in the previous scenario where he delivers her an ultimatum, "You like this, don't you?" This seems even worse.
I welcome anyone, especially those of you who are ovarily-enabled, to provide advice on this topic. After rolling it around in my white male noggin for a few hours since, I think my route of avoiding escalation, but being ready for it, was probably the best course of action, even if she did have to endure his unwanted creepy French hands on her. All thoughts welcome...
Update: After thinking about this some more, I think my best course of action would've been to engage him in a conversation, to capture his attention away from her. My discomfort in talking to a slimeball would've been much less than hers being touched by him.