SDS Womyn's Caucus Blog

I.N.A.Y. #2: Touching

Posted on: March 16, 2010

Posted by Robin, Philly

hugging salt n pepper

A person-shaped salt shaker and pepper shaker hug each other, the salt shaker looks a bit taken aback.

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!

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9 Responses to "I.N.A.Y. #2: Touching"

Thanks for this post! I can remember first coming to college and coming into my first “activist” circle. There was a very friendly man who welcomed me and always made a point to speak with me. But then it came to the point that he was actually cornering me and isolating me from the rest of the group, he then started over touching me. I dealt with it in passive assertations that I had hoped would be enough. He replied that it was part of his upbringing and culture to touch people. With obvious discomfort on my part he continued to touch me and pick me up (this is something I have experienced with many men because I am short). I started to believe that this was something about the movement that I needed to adapt myself to because other women in the group didn’t mind him touching them and I was really new to taking in movement culture (and understanding the multiple faces that takes). Then, one day he picked me up and put me on his lap and I made an excuse to use the bathroom. A couple years after that incident I finally told him off at a bar. I feel like being young and searching for the validation that groping males can provide to a struggling self-esteem, it’s so easy to be confused and have mixed feelings when people are telling you they are allowed to touch you, that your the one who isn’t enlightened yet or whose emotions are irrational and out of touch. And I’ve sensed that, that damaged feeling because touching doesn’t nec. intially feel safe or good having weathered being a woman in this culture through anorexia/bulimia and events of male entitlement over my body (and how patriarchy and the body doesn’t always play out from the male body, my grandmother has very controlling tendencies over the body). Thanks for the sharing space, maybe I’ll send a copy of this article to the above mentioned man.

Erica, thanks so much for this comment. I was totally nodding along with it, it really rang true for me. You expanded on the topic a lot!!

My best friend from college is 5’1 and has also gotten picked up a lot. What is up with that?? Every time I see it happen, even if the woman appears okay with it, I cringe. I think a lot of times the victim can be forced into playing along with it because it’s easier than having to confront someone, kind of like what I talked about with the hugging.

“I feel like being young and searching for the validation that groping males can provide to a struggling self-esteem, it’s so easy to be confused and have mixed feelings when people are telling you they are allowed to touch you…”

OMG yes!!! I feel like this is a huge part of it too. We’re so indoctrinated to think that physical attention from men is important and validating, and it can be hard to separate that enough to know what you really want or don’t want. This took me a long time to figure out.

Thanks so much for your comment. I would be honored if you sent the post to that dude! Hehe

I really appreciate this line “Children of all genders experience physical and sexual abuse.”

One thing I wanna throw in to this is that I think touching has some cultural locations and that this might not feel doable or authentic for everyone.

I mean, I come from a culture that is not into touching, I didn’t hug my parents really(like, not regular or often) until I started going to a church where people all hugged everybody. And this was something that was true of men and women on both sides of my family.

for me, the only touch that I expect when I meet people is to shake hands, but my Bolivian friend’s mother wanted to kiss me on the cheek as a greeting.(or maybe just make the kiss sound), and that was real weird for me and crossed a bit of a boundary(a cultural one, and not really a comfort one). But hugging is also more normal in different communities and cultures so like, its obvs anyone who is violating your expressed comfort zone is violating your consent. But I do think that its less clear cut if the interaction is between people of different cultures, because assuming that people will ask before hugging or kissing you on the cheek normalizes your culture and others theirs. So yea, I think this is a great post Robin, but I also feel like its missing some intersectionality.

more things to think about for our group?

Word on cultural differences. I think thats an important point.

I know one thing people in the working class caucus talked about at one point was that we aren’t as touchy as class privileged folks (although that has never been my experience).

“assuming that people will ask before hugging or kissing you on the cheek normalizes your culture and others theirs.”

Word, I think you’re right on with this.
I was talking about this guy (from the post) to friends for the week or so between when I confronted him and when I wrote this. Twice, people brought up this cultural question, and we never really came up with a satisfactory answer. My friend Ian said that when he lived in Argentina, it was common for men to kiss each other as a greeting. My friend Jo mentioned that people also kiss three times on the cheek as a greeting in France.

I don’t want to be ethnocentric (I dunno what word to use), and tell people in France or Argentina or Bolivia or wherever that their culture is fucked up. BUT, at the same time, I feel safe assuming that people in these cultures also experience body trauma. When I think about a woman in France having to kiss someone on the cheek 3 times who molested her as a child, or whatever, I’m sure it’s still really triggering and horrible. I would be interested in talking to/reading stuff by people with body trauma who are parts of some of these really touchy cultures and find out what their take on it is.

One way to frame it that I’m thinking of is, it’s not that there is something inherently wrong with someone’s culture – it’s that most of our cultures have patriarchal elements, and we need to change those elements in all cultures. ??

yeah i think the cultural differences is a good point in reference to touch/ consensual touch. i’ve definitely had to hug and give a kiss on the cheek to someone who had sexually molested me because it is custom in dominican culture to respect the elders in the room by addressing them with a kiss on the cheek and then you ask for a blessing… FUCKED UP!!! what’s worse is that everyone knew what he had done to me and still made me do it…
i dunno because “i had to get over it”, because “it happens to everyone and they all got over it”, or BECAUSE OUR SOCIETY IS SO FUCKED IN THAT FEMALE BODIED FOLKS DO NOT HAVE A FUCKING SAY OVER THEIR OWN BODIES…

okay, excuse my brash-ness, just thinking about it is painful.
point is patriarchy runs rampant and is everywhere you turn. no ethnicity/or cultural background has escaped it….

You’re the best Niv

great post, Robin! Can’t wait to see what’s next in the INAY series!

Robin, I already told you this off-blog. But I think its an important point.

I was talking to my sister and she said her step-daughter told her about her Mom’s boyfriend’s Dad who comes up behind her and starts massaging her. My sister said she totally blew it out of proportion because apparently he does that to everyone (not sure if she meant woman/child or truly everyone) and then told me that she has some major trust issues.

I just hate how it becomes OUR problem that men randomly touch us and our daughters. We are the crazy, irrational ones that are just blowing things out of proportion.

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