So, my beard is now long enough that I can fork and braid it if I wish. I did so at the Highland Games, to the great pleasure of apparently everyone. Men who expressed this pleasure did so through a brotherly nod, or some encouraging words. (One fellow, whose beard was much longer than mine, said: "It's not a competition, it's a brotherhood.") Women who did so almost invariably came up and grabbed one of the forks, stroking and cooing over it.
Now of course this was all very pleasant. It did occur to the philosophical side of me that, were a strange man to grab a woman's plaited hair without first seeking permission, we would now consider it sexual assault. I conferred with a feminist friend of mine about this, and she explained that it's all about a power dynamic in which men have the power and women don't. I could of course stop being handled if I wished, so it's a display of my power that women should handle me if they want to. But women can't necessarily stop me, so it would be a display of my power if I were to do the same thing. She pointed out that women often fondle her plaits at work, whereas a man would never do so because it would be inappropriate as a display of power.
I'm wondering if the assumptions about power aren't baked in, though:
1) A man fondles a woman's hair: this shows male power, as the male is using his power to disregard the woman's wishes.
2) A man doesn't fondle the woman's hair: this shows male power, as the male is tacitly recognizing the inappropriateness of displaying his power over the woman.
3) A woman fondles a woman's hair: this shows male power, as it proves the tacit assumption that men have power over women in such a way that a woman's fondling is inoffensive whereas a man's would not be.
4) A woman fondles a man's hair: This shows male power, as he could stop them if he wanted to do so.
5) A woman doesn't fondle the man's hair: This shows male power, as he is too intimidating to be approached.
6) A woman doesn't fondle a woman's hair: Presumably, she just doesn't want to do so.
Couldn't it be that there is a corresponding female power, one that gives them license to touch others without permission in ways that men are simply forbidden to do? Or are we obligated to cash this out as five-out-of-six expressions of male oppression of women, even though four-out-of-six appear to be choices made by a woman?
Maybe we could even go so far as to suggest that the women who engage in this behavior are doing almost the same thing as the men who do so, and are neither morally better nor worse. That might be too uncomfortable to ponder.