How sexual harassment impacts our sense of personal space

Proprioception is our sixth sense. It encompasses our awareness of movement, the position of our body and its parts in space, how we occupy space, balance, the senses of effort and force and heaviness, and our posture or shape. Proprioception also includes the space around our bodies—and sometimes others’ bodies too. It involves a symphony of actions, reactions, predictions, and functions in which multiple instruments playing both in harmony and in a state of intelligent entropy.  

Proprioception is not just part of our sensorium. It’s a scaffold for our sense of self. And an integral part of proprioception—and thus, our sense of self—is how we negotiate peripersonal space, the area that surrounds our bodies. 

Peripersonal space is brought to us in part by the frontal and parietal regions in the brain. These regions team up with peripersonal neurons throughout our bodies in a mutual and multi-sensory network of visual, auditory, and tactile support. Our peripersonal system is like a magical array of second skins. Some are small and hug the body, while others expand beyond our reach.

This cloak of second skins is one of our superpowers. Sentient and responsive, it moves in tandem with the motions of the body. It expands and shrinks in response to our actions. When we ride a bike, for instance, it stretches to include the bike. When we drink a cup of coffee, it makes the cup part of its territory. And when we put away the bike or set down the cup of coffee, this intelligent force field shrinks back to its original size.

Our peripersonal space defines our margin of safety. the region we don’t want other people to enter. It is an archetypal, often unconscious mechanism for boundary setting. Not surprisingly, our peripersonal space (the size of our boundary) expands in response to anxiety (and, by extension, trauma). 

Like interoception, proprioception, and all elements of embodiment, our sense of peripersonal space is not just personal, but social. It is tied to our larger social body. It is shaped by social dynamics, including multiple forms of oppression. 

It turns out that women have a much larger peripersonal area (think: safety buffer), particularly with men. In contrast, socially dominant people (in particular, those who are white and male) need less space around their bodies, particularly around one another. But it’s not just that socially dominant people have a smaller peripersonal space or safety buffer; they are also more likely to invade the space of others. To be clear, this behavior isn’t biologically determined. Rather, it is socially indoctrinated.

Like other forms of privilege, men’s tendency to invade others’ peripersonal space is often unconscious. It doesn’t rise to awareness until someone they love is violated or until there are consequences. Which brings me to Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

In 2018, when it became known that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had repeatedly and violently assaulted several women, Governor Cuomo called for the Attorney General’s resignation. And yet, Cuomo did not relate Schneiderman’s behavior to his own. He didn’t see himself in the story. He didn’t change his invasive behavior, even in the wake of the #MeToo movement’s resurgence and renown.

Among many accounts of harassment on the Governor’s part, Anna Ruch reported that Cuomo placed his hand on her bare back at a wedding. She removed his hand with her own, clearly redefining her peripersonal boundary. Cuomo invaded her space yet again: He called her aggressive (!), put his hands on her face, and asked if he could kiss her. Cuomo has made several apologies—the first few lame, the more recent showing some contrition.  

And now, other men are calling for Cuomo’s resignation in the same tone in which he called for Schneiderman’s—in other words, without embodied insight. It’s a cop-out: Like most men who hold social power, they don’t see themselves in the story. They don’t understand the gravity of such transgressions. They don’t understand that violations of all facets of our embodiment, including peripersonal space, harm our sense of self. Cuomo can resign, but his doing so will not change the capitalist white supremacist patriarchal culture that allows these behaviors to continue unabated in every corner of our personal, social, and professional worlds.

It is not enough to say that sexual harassment is about power. At its core is forced disembodiment and the negation of the body rights and body sovereignty of women, people of color, and vulnerable bodies. Sexual harassment is held together by an infinite number of somatic aggressions and by our social failure to discuss, acknowledge, process, and remedy them or to educate our culture about why they matter.

Accountability can’t be confined to the passive receiving of consequences on the part of powerful men. Neither consequences nor contrition lead to rehabilitation. Accountability and change only occur when men understand the violation (and its cost to body sovereignty and integrity) on a cellular level and can make informed apology, restitution, and change.

I am a psychologist, somatic educator, and advocate for body justice. I am also a survivor of multiple incidences of sexual harassment and assault. And yet, I don’t think Cuomo should resign, particularly when our current and previous presidents have committed similar offenses multiple times (to differing degrees). 

Instead, Cuomo could instead undertake restorative justice measures. Where appropriate, he could volunteer his services to nonprofits dedicated to sexual assault and harassment. He could donate the proceeds of all future public speaking engagements to survivor-run initiatives. And he could offer an alternative to punishment: a living example of someone working toward true equity in action—willingly, and for the sake of his own humanity.

Before teaching about consent as a yes/no issue, we might first teach about embodiment: about interoception and proprioception and peripersonal space and the somatic attresions that violate them. If we discuss body sovereignty and body justice with children from a young age, we put flesh on the bones of consent. By including body justice, we point to where consent comes from: how we know when we feel it, when we need to withhold or withdraw it, or when we’ve transgressed it in others.

 This is body justice, the how and the what and the why that underlie consent. And only a full-bodied understanding and approach can move us beyond issues of punishment and accountability and apology to lay the foundation for lasting systems change.

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