Do you remember when you were a kid, and you were taught to keep your hands to yourself? Not to just grab other people or things belonging to them? (I really hope you were taught this as a kid.)
At some point in the growing-up process, this lesson may have stopped being reinforced. Especially for those of you now adults, and especially for the more privileged among you, you may have had to go after what you want. I get that, really I do. You’ve probably also had some conflicting messages, of getting what you want, and not encountering people saying ‘no’ to you strongly and consistently. Especially if you’ve been surrounded only by permissive people who say ‘yes’ to you—and let’s face it, who doesn’t like that, and dislike being told ‘no’ all the time? Most of us can remember being really angry at being denied and rejected what we want, and a sense of triumph when we overcome obstacles and resistance. Feels great, right? This is why improv feels so good, the first rule is ‘say yes.’ (I could write a whole article about privilege and improv and how this can undermine tolerance of being told “no” and social justice, but that’s another story for another time.)
The problem is, not everything in this world is here for you. (Us, actually—I’m white, too, and I’m learning this same lesson, or rather unlearning the sneaky underhanded implicit socialized lesson that the world is all just for us, particularly pernicious in the USA.) If you’ve visited museums it’s very clear you’re not supposed to touch the exhibits, and in stores, there are sometimes expensive things you’re not supposed to handle. And signs like ‘you break it, you bought it.’
If all the people you know and have ever known have never expressed any problems with you hugging or touching them, it’s way too easy to start to feel like those things are a given, that you’re entitled to them, and a relationship without those things means the other person is physically rejecting you. Ouch.
But here’s the thing: other people’s bodies, and their things, belong to them. You aren’t actually entitled to them.
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, and if I put things this way you can easily nod along and say, “sure, of course!” But there’s a huge gap between agreeing with what I’m saying and how, in practice, some white people are treating the physical boundaries of other people when they come up. Because when you go in for that hug, or pregnant belly touch, or feel of a black woman’s hair or head scarves, and we say “no,” or “please don’t,” or “I’m not a hugger,” or have a problem with you touching us—there’s often (if not always) an emotional response that happens a lot faster and is stronger than the logical intellectual process, and for some people it’s plugged right into the feelings of shame and rejection. Especially if that person has experienced a lot of painful shame and rejection that hasn’t been adequately dealt with. (I’m one of those, though my shame and rejection are triggered by different experiences, so I can sympathize—those feelings hurt in a very intense and immediate way.)
That’s a problem. And while it’s not the problem of we who said “no,” it becomes everyone’s problem really quickly because of what certain white people do and say after we set those boundaries.
White women, some (not all) of you are particularly bad at this. I know, astounding, but at least some (not all) white men are starting to understand why it may not be okay to feel up everyone and everything they want to touch, but a lot of white women have in my experience been some of the scariest and weirdest in their responses to me saying, “Don’t hug me.”
Case in point: earlier this year I said “I don’t like hugs. I’m not a hugger,” in mixed company, setting this boundary, and got from a white woman standing nearby (a white feminist at a social justice event, no less) a white-woman response I absolutely hate: “Well, I may just hug you anyway!”
I froze. I usually either do that, or my fear response ratchets up into a much stronger “no! I don’t like that!”, because what I’ve been told is that this person does not care about my physical boundaries and discomfort, and for their own physical gratification will grab me anyway. This by far was not the first white woman who had said this to me.
Later on, when she got me alone on a darkened city street, she came up to me and angrily bawled me out about how she felt ‘rejected’ and how ‘it was a joke’ (ugh, another typical white response I hate; MY BOUNDARIES ARE NOT A JOKE; please stop angrily saying ‘it was a joke!’ when you have hurt or frightened me and accept the unintended consequences of what you said because saying that only makes it worse like pouring salt on a wound and saying my pain is funny to you) and kept harping on her many ‘experiences of rejection.’
She sounded exactly like some of my past male stalkers. I did not know how to respond and keep myself safe. Especially since we were going into the same hostel, into a shared dorm room, and she would have access to me while I slept, which is always terrifying for me when someone is yelling at me. I mentioned I’d had lots of experiences of molestation, though I didn’t add that many of those experiences were at the hands of white women as well as white men. I did not want to escalate things, being in a strange city all by myself and about to sleep in the same room as this angry entitled person.
I’m still really upset about this. While she never made good on her ‘joke’ (threat) to hug me anyway, it deeply traumatized me to have to sleep every night in the room with her and be with her at that same event. And to know I didn’t have anyone to articulate it to whom I felt would understand. I knew I was dealing with someone who was completely absorbed by her own needs and feelings to the point where nothing I could say would get through to her about how unsafe she had become, irrevocably, for me.
To say it was a bad first impression was putting it mildly. I knew she had seniority in this group, was older than me, and more privileged in the sense of not being either disabled or so poor as to be homeless. The fact that she was a woman might have had her feeling, as many women do, that she was incapable of harassing another female, and that there’s nothing sexual about hugs or unwanted touch that isn’t explicitly sexual.
And that’s legally true. Hugs aren’t sexual and there’s a lot of unwanted touch that isn’t sexual. It’s not legally assault to hug someone no matter how much it bugs them.
But I have severe Complex PTSD. People who make jokes about my physical boundaries or disregarding them set off flashbacks for me. People who actually go that far and hug or fondle my clothes double ditto. Especially because a great many ‘friends’ who escalated into sexual abusers started out that way.
Hugs particularly feel like and remind me viscerally, intensely, of being restrained, and pushing someone else’s body against me. I don’t want that from someone unless I am sexually comfortable with them, and in private and actually giving them permission as part of a sexual relationship, and since I don’t want that at all right now from anyone, it’s absolutely my right to say, “no.”
Hugs mean something very different for me than for other people. They certainly feel different, and put me into a horrible nightmare place—not to mention demonstrating that my “no” and boundaries and physical comfort and feelings don’t matter to them—and for someone to do that to me in order to get their warm hug fuzzy physical gratification and not have a problem with how it is for me is a problem. I believe hugs and touch should be mutually enjoyed expressions of affection, and not one person getting their jollies while making the other person feel violated and used.
I also really don’t want to have to explain that to someone I just met. I don’t like disclosing all that to someone I don’t know. It’s a lot of sensitive information that could easily be used to hurt me a great deal more than just with a hug. It almost always leads to all kinds of levels of conversational and relational intimacy I don’t want—unsolicited advice (criticism), questions and pressure for additional details about the assault or my psychological care which is not anyone’s business, reciprocal confessions, presumptions of emotional intimacy I don’t want yet. I shouldn’t have to explain why I don’t want to be hugged, why I don’t want people feeling up my velvet clothes—which also means I’m being felt up, since I’m wearing them, hello! I’m not your pet or your teddy bear. “No” is a complete sentence and I don’t owe anyone any explanation for my boundaries. It doesn’t stop people asking “Why?” but it does make me very uncomfortable when they do, and uncertain where this is going, why they asked, if this is the opening volley of an argument.
Consent culture is about more than just men stopping when a woman says ‘no’ to sex. Building consent culture means people in everyday situations becoming comfortable with being told no, becoming comfortable with rejection, and not harassing someone for something that isn’t owed or due them. Especially when that something really clearly belongs to someone else, and especially when that something is someone else’s body, their hair, their clothes that they are wearing, their hair or headscarf. That’s something we all can work on—children, men, women, everyone.
And here’s the thing, white people. All the people I have this problem with are white. Definitely not the majority of you, but the ones who do have a problem with me telling them ‘no’ are really scary about it. They take it personally. They whine that ‘it’s only a joke.’ They harass me.
Other people stand by and don’t say a damn thing, or if I bring up the issue, try to minimize my feelings and minimize the behavior of the person who has turned my boundaries into an argument, or even try to play peacemaker, as if I’m actually an equal combatant in this argument. Especially because I’m triggered and getting more upset the more other people are pushing me, or siding with the aggressor, because they don’t understand my point of view, aren’t empathizing with me.
The less privileged people are, including white people, the more likely I find they are to be respectful of my boundaries, empathize with me, and share their own stories of their boundaries being violated. It sucks, but there it is. Privilege means ‘private law.’ For those who have been somewhat sheltered, who spend most of their time with people of similar levels of privilege, there’s not a lot of challenge to whatever is normalized, which can make it hard to understand and empathize with people who are different. As someone who grew up middle-class with almost entirely white middle-class privileged people, I know this very well. Anything that challenges this can evoke feelings of defensiveness and shame—and oh yes, I feel them all the time!—but to get past that, to really understand people who are different and accept those differences, requires overriding our strong emotions of shame and breathing through the defensiveness and not feeling blamed or attacked when people try to explain things to us. Even when said people are upset, as I previously mentioned I still am about this.
My core thesis is this: My body belongs to me and I don’t have to share it with anyone. I’m allowed to set physical boundaries. And not explain them.
But how am I to enforce them when privileged people don’t want to respect them, act like they are jokes or mere obstacles to be overcome to get what they want, to get the physical gratification they want even knowing that I don’t want it? Because them not feeling rejected is more important to them than not making me feel violated, and because they don’t feel that my feelings of feeling violated, of not being able to say “no” to them are valid?
If I can’t set this simple boundary of my body, my person, being mine to say what others are allowed to do to or with it, how am I to know what else this person will decide to do? If I can’t say “no” to this person without them reacting violently, that is really scary to me. I can get upset when I don’t understand why other people don’t get why now I have two problems: my boundaries being dismissed or violated, and being around someone who is now aggressive and entitled toward me, with whom I cannot safely say “no” without fear of them attacking or harassing me and possibly doing what they want anyway, maybe even harder and more intensely and thoroughly.
This creates a third problem: now everyone around me is on the side of the aggressor, either by minimizing my feelings and boundaries and refusing to see this as a problem, or by doing and saying nothing and expecting me to sort it out when I don’t have the power to do so because the other person will not take “no” for an answer and aggressively corners me alone and/or harasses me. I don’t know how far this will go. I have seen this escalate all the way to violent assault, more times than I care to think about.
This is a scary trend, and not just for me. People who aren’t good at hearing “no” or respecting boundaries, or who take rejection as a personal challenge, might be just a little pissy, or they might have a truly scary streak in them, and it may not be limited to me. Others who stand by and do and say nothing may find themselves on the unfortunate receiving end of this frightening behavior if they’re between such a person and what that person wants.
Wanting to see the best in everyone is a nice idea but can be dangerous; but neither is the solution seeing a potential assailant in everyone who gets in a tizzy over a boundary that rubs them the wrong way or triggers their feelings of shame and rejection. There has to be a happy medium. But as the target in these situations, and as someone the aggressor isn’t listening to, I can’t de-escalate this, and what I say and the boundaries I set already aren’t being respected. This, to me, is where I would want someone in authority who is cool-headed but understands this dynamic can step in and help support my boundaries without making the aggressor feel ganged up on or attacked—which only escalates things. But also not making me feel more unsafe and abandoned to the whims of the aggressor by telling me to work it out myself or minimize what’s going on. I can understand why most people would want to default to this, especially if it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to them, or seems like unnecessary drama. But I didn’t start the ‘drama’ part of it, and I can’t deal with it on my own.
This is right smack-dab in the middle of my biggest disability and this isn’t just a communication problem, this is an accessibility problem for me. I need safe spaces, and I need help to keep them safe. For someone as compromised as I am by my Complex-PTSD, I’m able to handle a whole lot. I can and do deal with triggers all day long. But one-on-one aggressive behavior, particularly in private, is over the red line, and for that I need external support and allies who get this, and understand that the solution is not to talk me out of my feelings, but to help me feel safe and supported. This means don’t tell me it’s nothing when someone’s already made me feel unsafe. It means help me find ways to feel safe and prevent future incidents with said person, and let me know that regardless of other people’s external assessments of the situation, I will have someone safe I can go to if I don’t feel safe.
White people, I know so many of you are super-cool with me not wanting to be touched and fondled like a life-sized stuffed animal, and recognize that I have a right to say “no hugs, can we fist-bump instead?” Can we hold each other accountable? When I have these experiences, and talk about them, can you understand? Can you help me get the word out that consent is awesome, but something we all need to work on as adults now that we don’t have parents or guardians or teachers telling us to keep our hands to ourselves?
I know it sounds super-tedious. For my part, and the part of other people who don’t like to be touched, we’re upfront about it. We tell people, and often wear clothes that explicitly say ‘touch me not,’ whether spelled out in words (as some of my clothes do) or in spikes. The problem comes from those people who take it as a challenge, who make jokes about it, who think it’s funny to ignore our boundaries and do it anyway, or those special people who have a special place in hell who decide we need to be ‘cured’ of how we feel by being touched and hugged a lot BY THEM. I don’t need to be CURED, I need to be RESPECTED. Because this ISN’T about the ‘healing power of touch’—this is about boundaries and me saying “no.” And boundaries, and “no,” are not things to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ about someone because someone else finds them inconvenient or strange (read: in the way of them getting what they want, or in the way of someone conforming to social norms).
My not wanting these things, in other words, is not the problem. Other people not accepting my boundaries is the problem. If I said I don’t want alcohol, that would not be a problem to be cured. If I said I don’t want to watch a horror movie, it shouldn’t be acceptable for people to physically strap me to a chair, tape my eyes open and force me to watch it. It’s not okay to force something physically on someone they don’t want, no matter how many other people want and like it. This isn’t about any theoretical or actual other people not present and what they like or want or don’t.
This is about letting everyone say what we’re each comfortable with having or doing for ourselves and our bodies and letting us set that for ourselves as individuals. Can we agree that that’s important, regardless of whatever the thing is, whatever our own unique comfort zones are, regardless of what the social norms are? Can we stop allowing aggressive people to pathologize their targets’ discomfort with what they want to do to them, stop allowing them to make the problem be the boundary, and keep the focus on “no means no, and you need to either back off and settle down or leave”?
My problem is not that I have unusual boundaries, or that I have trouble articulating them. My problem is that when I encounter someone who won’t take “no” for an answer, who doesn’t show respect the boundaries I set, I don’t get understanding and support from other people to help protect me from the aggressor, or at least help me restore a sense of safety after I’ve experienced feeling unsafe with someone and then have to continue to be around them. My problem is that I’m alone and don’t have allies to help me out when things get heated and the other person only escalates no matter what I say. If it gets violent I can and will defend myself, but I don’t like getting to that point, but neither do I like capitulating and saying nothing just because I know no one’s in my corner and in my experience no one takes it seriously after an encounter like the one I described above, when I have few options to distance myself from someone I feel unsafe with because we’re in the same group. And/or sleeping in the same room.
I don’t like having to be around someone I can’t safely say “no” to. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female. That “no” is a litmus test better than any other to tell me whether someone is safe to be around or not. It’s one that unfortunately a lot of people fail at in practice, even if we all agree in theory, because our emotions can get in the way of our ideals and values. If we want a consent culture, it’s not just the job of people to say “no,” it’s also incumbent on all of us to hear “no” better, and support those who say “no” to one another when these situations come up, regardless of what is being rejected and how we personally feel about it.
It’s not about the thing we say “no” to experiencing. It’s all about respecting the “no.” Without that respect for “no,” we have cruelty, oppression, rape culture, assault, harassment, abuse, exploitation—all the things we want less of.
…Although there’s also the way of perverting “no” where we reject other people’s boundaries or their identities, what they do in their own lives, their right to exist and live the way they want to. Which in a sense was what the woman did to me that night on that darkened street. She said “no” to my saying “no” to her. So context and critical thinking does matter. But it’s beyond me to write any more on the subject, this is long enough already, and I have to trust that people can work this out for themselves.
Anyway, thank you for reading. The nice thing about this blog is that I can write stuff down, and anyone reading can say “no” at any time by stopping. I’m not forcing these words on anyone.