I was working as a server late one Monday night when a man reached across the black bar top that divided us and pulled my bicep toward him. He held my arm in his hand and studied the bouquet of flowers that had been tattooed there just a few months earlier. Without thinking, I whipped my hand up, ripping my arm out of his grip and smacking the side of his face. He stared at me, flabbergasted that I had taken my body back. And I stared at him too, amazed that he thought it was his to touch in the first place.
I know, I know, it was just my arm. It was a harmless touch; he was only trying to get a better look at my tattoo in the dimly lit bar.
As the #MeToo movement has taken off, conversations about consent have shown just how complex and nuanced the topic is.
I think it’s time to have a conversation about consent pertaining to everyday touch. If we can learn to ask for consent in our everyday physical interactions, that can lead to easier conversations about consent in sexual interactions. By making permission a prerequisite for basic everyday interactions, we can make those of us who don’t like being touched way more comfortable, and make asking for consent in general second nature.
I have never liked being touched. I grew up in North Dakota, where a stiff handshake often feels like an intimate exchange. Snuggling during a movie gives me anxiety, hand holding makes me want to chew off my own arm, and the idea of someone rubbing my shoulders straight up makes me nauseous. I’m not a hugger. I’m not even a high-fiver!
When someone opens their arms wide to embrace me, I watch it happen in slow motion, my eyes locked on the nearest exit.
People tend to feel hurt when you ask them not touch you. I am getting better at saying no when someone asks if they can give me a hug and I don’t want that. It makes me feel guilty. I know, too, that when I deny someone the chance to touch me they think it’s due to some kind of trauma or low self esteem. It’s not. But avoiding hurt feelings or misconceptions has lead me to hug, or hold hands with, or pat people when I really didn’t want to.
It’s true we need human touch for our sanity. Some of us just need it more often than others, and some of us prefer it comes from a professionally trained massage therapist who knows nothing about us and whom we will never see again. I don’t mind a well-timed hug from a friend, having my hair stroked, or the occasional spooning session. When asked, I even allow people to lightly rub the scar tissue under my tattoos while I recount the story of why I got them.
Although getting sexual consent and platonic, everyday consent are very different, they are both still imperative to the safety and wellbeing of each partner involved.
There is no way of knowing if giving a hug, holding hands with, or even touching someone on the arm or back is comfortable for that person unless you ask. We should get in the habit of asking if it’s cool to hug someone, or touch the fabric of their shirt. And if we practice asking for consent in everyday moments, asking for consent during sexual interactions will be like second nature.