–cross-posted from SDS Womyns Caucus Blog–
This is post #2 in a series called I.N.A.Y.: It’s Not About You. I.N.A.Y. #1: “Effectively” Calling Out Patriarchy can be found here.
Recently, I had a series of discussions with a new male acquaintance about touching. Basically, I had tried to communicate that I disliked him touching me, and he kept doing it anyway. When he was confronted about this, his explanation was that he thinks people in our society are too isolated from each other, and in an effort to bridge our isolation, he goes out of his way to touch people.
The guy is certainly not the first person in my life to repeatedly touch me when I’ve tried to make it clear I don’t want them to, but I’ll give it to him that he’s the first person to have apparently put so much thought into it, indeed to have a theory around it.
The problem is, by reducing it to a formulaic theory (we’ve talked about the link between theory and patriarchy on here before), he is putting his ideology before the desires of actual people in his life. He is being harmfully dogmatic, his actions say “I know best what is good for you, better than you do. Even if you ask me not to touch you, I will because I know what you need.” I.E., he’s being paternalistic and entitled.
In addition, his whole theory is coming from a place of privilege. By framing touch as a positive thing that people do not get enough of, he is projecting his own experiences with touch (as a cis gendered, straight, white man) onto all of society. Lucky for him, it sounds like he hasn’t had the experiences with touch that I and many other people I know have had: violent touch. Sexually violent touch. Touch that makes the person being touched feel powerless. Most people I know who were raised as/perceived as being little girls and young women have had bad experiences with touch. One out of every 3 women will experience sexual assault. 4 million women experience domestic abuse every year. Children of all genders experience physical and sexual abuse from their relatives, teachers, clergy, and other people they know. Often the people who abuse and assault us are people who say they love and care for us. This can create ingrained trauma that is hard to undo.
Trans people sometimes experience body dysphoria, which, regardless of a history of abuse, can leave them wary of people touching their bodies. Trans and queer people are disproportionately targets of violence. People with disabilities are often treated in violent, nonconsensual ways by the medical establishment and able-bodied peers, leaving them with their own body trauma. On a much less person level, the state tries to control the bodies of women and people of color, among other groups. (I’m getting tired of providing links, but think: abortion law, sterilization, access to birth control, sodomy laws, the prison industrial complex, slavery…there are more). What I’m getting at is that lots of people have body trauma for lots of different reasons, and you can never make assumptions.
For people with body trauma, it can be triggering to have people non-consensually touch you. For me, being touched by someone I don’t know well, someone who didn’t ask, is too reminiscent of the person who tried to have sex with me without asking. It brings up feelings of powerlessness and fear. It breaks trust I may be trying to build, causing me to ask myself “What else will they try to do without my consent?” It can ruin my mood for a minute or for the whole week.
So, if you want to touch someone, even when you have the best of intentions and just wish to show your affection, remember that it’s not about you. No matter how close you may feel to this person, you still need to get consent. Ideally you ask for their verbal consent, and you do it before your arm is outstretched in their direction. I am guilty of this myself, and it definitely takes practice. If asking for verbal consent doesn’t feel right, at the very least look them in the eye and notice their body language. When I see someone coming towards me who I expect to try to hug me without consent, I often cross my arms in front of me to try to head them off. Avoiding meeting their eyes is another tactic. While this is not ideal, it is far from easy to confront someone who thinks they are trying to show love towards you with “don’t touch me”, especially if there are other people around.
In the ideal world that many of us are engaged in building, touch should be a positive thing. It should make you feel cared for and connected. But that ideal world isn’t here yet. So until then, respect everyone’s histories and body autonomy, and use consent!