I need to start by saying: I am a “touchy” person. I enjoy being touched and I enjoy touching others. I often touch others unconsciously and definitely do not always remember that not everyone wants to be or enjoys being touched. In fact, I was at a semi-professional meeting a few days ago where I was interviewing someone I had just met in person for the first time. Toward the end of our time, I lightly touched this person’s arm while I made a joke – and I literally did not think about it before I did it. Afterward though, I realized this could easily been an unwelcome touch. It wasn’t very professional and it was someone I had met that day. I realized I should not have touched her. After the fact.
And this is what I’m working on: how to touch people and how to be touched.
Whew, this is tough. There are unspoken, mostly followed rules for touching in our society. And it is so tempting to brush this topic off as “not a big deal”. It is awkward and hard – to voice our desires and to challenge the actions of ourselves and others. But like so much of feminism, it’s tough…and worth it.
Now, I am not talking about intimate touch. That is generally another category altogether (see our recent posts on consent here and here) and it is not my focus today. (Although really, this all goes back to consent – because consent is not just for intimate encounters!) I am mainly focusing on touch between acquaintances, between strangers and/or people who have just met. Okay? Okay.
It needs to be a truth universally acknowledged that not all people like to be touched. And that is okay. You are not automatically public property to be freely touched just because you’re
an entry level employee
a person of color
someone who is short
someone who looks younger than their peers
We live in a culture where it is socially acceptable, or at least nothing to get upset about or call out, to touch members of those groups without their permission.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hugged when I did not want to be. Especially by older, male colleagues. It’s the world we live in, right? Surely I want a hug because I’m younger than you and shorter than you and/or a female. Surely it’s nothing to get upset about because your hug is well intentioned. Surely I was just being formal with you when I extended my palm for a handshake and you’re letting me know we’re more friendly than that by hugging me. Right? Wrong.
It is time we stop tolerating this behavior. I know it will be hard and awkward. But it is time for us to no longer “grin and bear it” or believe the lie we are taught – that our bodies are for touching by any and all. No. Your body is yours alone and anyone who is touching it should have permission.
And this means applying this rule to yourself in both ways. In other words, trying to improve your communication about wanted and unwanted touch and extending the same courtesy to others.
I am trying to be more cognizant of my flyaway hands. I’ve really just started trying to be better with this, so for now sometimes all that means is I realize after a social encounter that I didn’t ask someone to touch them. But I am hoping to soon be at the point where I ask first or don’t touch folks at all. It’s a steep learning curve. It takes conscious work to undo all we’ve been taught – especially about the bodies of people in those groups I listed above.
I am also trying to be better about voicing what I want. And that is just as hard. I’ve been thinking about this side of things for a while and am still finding myself hugged by older, male colleagues and just getting more and more upset about it. (And feeling really helpless.)
But I had a practice encounter just recently – practice in the sense that it was an acquaintance and not a colleague (less professional pressure). A man I know peripherally, he and I have a lot of the same friends but aren’t really friends with one another, approached me at a social function the other day to say goodbye to me when I was leaving. I did not assume we were going to hug; while yes, a lot of the friends we have in common hug each other, I don’t really know him so I wasn’t going to initiate a hug. I even started turning away from him after we’d exchanged a perfunctory “goodbye”. He looked downtrodden and disappointed. I said, “oh, did you want to hug?” and he answered that he did. I gave him a quick side hug and he asked if I do not like being hugged. I said, “I prefer people I don’t see very often to ask before hugging me”.
And I’ve realized, that’s the best way I’ve ever put that. It was exactly what I wanted to say. I love hugging and do not mind hugging my friends and family tightly and often. But I do not want people in my life and in the world – especially men – to hug me, especially without asking first. And I need them to wait for me to say yes before hugging me. It’s fairly pointless to ask someone if you’re already going in for a hug, arms open and coming closer. It implies you don’t care about their answer, that their voice matters less than the fact that you want to hug them.
That interaction I just described was super awkward. And yet, I am so glad it happened. It let me verbalize what I’ve been working through for a while and now he knows for next time. And if he doesn’t remember – or chooses not to remember – I think I’ll be able to repeat my stance since I’ve already voiced it once.
So how do we voice what we want? There are a few ways, I think, and I’d encourage you to practice what works for you. You could say “hey, it’s good to see you. I don’t want a hug right now, but I’d love a handshake.” You could purposefully stay several feet away and keep your arms crossed or at your sides to indicate you don’t want to be touched. You could definitely set an example by asking people you don’t know well if you can give them a hug. This would probably make them think twice before hugging you for the first time(s). You could back away when someone’s coming at you with open arms and say, “I’m not looking for a hug right now”. Or another option. Find what works best for you. (And, of course, it is up to you how your tone and facial expressions look in these encounters. But it is definitely possible to be friendly and polite while saying you don’t want to be hugged or touched.)
It’s taken me a long time to get to this point and I’m still figuring out how to use my voice and bodily autonomy. So if you’re not there yet, don’t worry. Just thinking about these things is a valuable step. But I am convinced that if we all start asking before touching people we don’t know well…it will become the norm.
You don’t owe anyone a hug and no one owes you one. Start from there and let’s go forward together.
*Here’s an article Upworthy posted a year ago that I remember reading at the time and looked it up again before writing this entry. It obviously focuses on two famous people, but I still think it’s worth a read.*