Hugging, Rape Culture, and Child Sexual Abuse

It’s pushed on us from a very young age. It’s depicted and shown in movies and advertisements and television and all over the internet. It’s glamorized, mythologized into a physical act that brings two people closer together, and is always a positive thing of beauty with no realistic messiness or awkwardness.

It’s widely assumed without discussion that it’s inevitable in a relationship after a certain period of time, and for many, not a particularly long time.

Some people seem to be addicted to it and do it with strangers and people they only meet once.
If you don’t want it, you’re treated to enormous scrutiny and interrogation, treated as though there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, that needs to be fixed by doing it more, or with the right people.

A lot of people don’t seem to care whether you enjoy it and take it as a personal rejection and insult to them if they don’t get it from you. You’re pressured to do it even when you don’t want to, and it’s assumed that if you’ve allowed it once then you’ll allow it anytime the other person wants it.

Hugging is the sex of friendship.

Your Science Doesn’t Dictate My Boundaries

I’m sick of scientific studies cited at me about how hugging activates oxytocin and the pleasure centers of the brain. I’ve never been asked to participate in any of these studies. No one who hates to be touched would want to participate in such studies. If you didn’t like olives, say, you probably wouldn’t want to participate in a study of the health benefits of olives.

The problem with a lot of social science is that universal conclusions are drawn where they shouldn’t be. We start to think of humans as being scientifically alike, when that’s patently not true. Even two people with the same bacterial infection may not both find the same antibiotic effective. One of them might even be allergic.

The even bigger problem is when people abuse these studies to rationalize helping themselves to other people’s bodies. Particularly those who have been abused or traumatized and had their agency over what happens to their body taken away by another person. For their own good, of course.

It’s a problem when people go around thinking they can heal people from rape and assault with hugs—I have actually heard this said to a roomful of people—and that Hugs Are Always a Good Idea and people who don’t like hugs are pitiable. Pity isn’t respect. Pity is a downward-looking sentiment.

I hate hugs. Hate them. I wouldn’t hate them so much if they weren’t non-consensually pushed on me in almost every social setting, and if I wasn’t treated so disrespectfully when I say ‘no.’

Hugs don’t give me pleasure. Hugs are triggering and induce stress hormones for me—cortisol, not oxytocin. And I know I’m not the only one, but we’re shamed into silence and compliance, to shut our eyes and grit our teeth against how awful it feels, what someone else is doing to us.

I hate it when people want to hug me despite my dislike, to pleasure themselves at the expense of my discomfort. With this sort of utter incomprehension in their eyes. It makes my skin crawl. Hugging, for me, couples unwanted (and sometimes painful with my fibromyalgia) touch with mild restraint, when even the merest hint of restraint is a huge trigger for me.

Entitlement

“…if being touched makes you want to scream (as is often the case with traumatized children and adults), the entire organism is thrown into disequilibrium.” —Bessel van der Kolk, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’

I have a problem, too, with the phrase ‘withholding sex.’ Sex isn’t owed to anyone, and not having sex when you don’t want to shouldn’t be taken as manipulative and cruel.

The reason this is relevant is because in friendships, a lot of people take the same attitude to hugs. That if I don’t hug someone, I’m withholding something they’re owed. Hugs, like sex, should be mutually beneficial gifts, privileges earned through trust and love, not mandatory requirements of being in physical proximity or acquaintanceship. Seeing you a few times at a place we both frequent shouldn’t obligate me to give you access to my body, or make it okay to shame or interrogate me if I say no, or lead to expectations and demands.

Many people take ‘no’ really personally, but that’s a whole other blog post and shall be blogged at another time.

I know people who like to hug do feel closeness with others when they do it. But it’s a problem when they’re feeling that and I’m feeling ‘get away from me!’ I get that my friends want to be close to me. I want to experience closeness too—but I want to do it in ways that are beneficial to both of us.

Child Sexual Abuse

I think consent needs to be taught starting age 0. Like, way, way before sex education. For Child Abuse Prevention Month (April, also Sexual Assault Awareness Month) I got a rubber wristband that says, ‘Your Body Belongs to You.’

I wish I’d been taught that. Others have written more eloquently than I about how forcing your child to hug people when they don’t want to can lay the groundwork for child sexual abuse. It teaches children viscerally to let grownups do physical things to them that they don’t like. What I can offer is my own personal experience that this is exactly what happened, and why I was set up to have my body used like a toy by adults and other children throughout my childhood and most of my adult life.

My parents’ approach to sex education was allowing me access to R-rated movies with lots of sex scenes, a copy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’ and ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *but were afraid to ask.’ I don’t remember either of them ever telling me not to get into vans with strange people, or do things that didn’t feel good with other people.

In fact they didn’t teach me—or model for me—how to protect myself from other people. They seemed to assume that I already knew all I needed to know. I remember times when one would sneer at me if I got hurt because I lacked knowledge they already had, as they stood by and watched it happen and then made me feel as though I deserved it for not knowing better.

From where was this ‘knowing better’ supposed to come? They treated me as though I had the intelligence of an adult, and capacity to care for myself, from a young age. This was most likely an unconscious way to rationalize all the neglect, and the fact that the only style of parenting they’d ever learned and practiced was shame-based parenting.

Yes, I do have a chip on my shoulder about that. And maybe I wouldn’t hate hugs so much if they hadn’t been forced on me by people who violated me in so many other ways, with whom it was just one more demonstration of their domination and lack of caring about my feelings and needs. Most parents aren’t that abusive.

I’m Not Broken. Rape Culture is Broken. Fix the Culture.

The fact remains that I’m far from the only person who doesn’t like touch. Even more than not liking touch, we don’t like to be treated as if we need to be ‘fixed.’ Let’s face it: pressuring us to ‘fix’ ourselves so we do like hugs isn’t about what we want, it’s about changing something that’s different about us for others’ comfort.

If I change, I want it to be for my reasons. I want those changes to reflect what I want for myself, not what would be convenient or comfortable for people around me who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer and see me as flawed as I am.

Tearing down rape culture is also about building consent culture. It’s about reminding ourselves and each other regularly that each of us has a body that belongs to us, and we get to decide what we want to do with it, and what we want done to it.

Consent culture means coming to grips with the fact that what feels good for you, and for everyone you know, may legitimately feel terrible for someone else. And that’s it’s okay. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

When I state this boundary right up front there are so many people who think it’s funny to hug me anyway just to see what I’ll do. There are people who ‘forget.’ Or people who ask over and over again every time I see them. There’s ALWAYS someone who wants to know why, and you know what? It’s none of their business. I don’t ask someone who hates olives why they don’t like olives, or make someone justify why they’re not comfortable wearing skirts.

And that’s consent culture, too—not demanding explanations when someone says no to us. I have good reason for red flags to go up when someone asks ‘why’—many times it’s not because they want to know why but because they want to start an argument with me. They want to coerce me into changing my ‘no’ to a ‘yes,’ or at the very least make me feel wrong and invalid.

No one is entitled to touch or hug me, and no one is entitled to an explanation either. The problem is that knowing this doesn’t stop other people behaving as if they are entitled to those things, and making things uncomfortable or even dangerous for me as more attention is drawn to my boundaries and needs than is necessary.

As individuals and as a culture we all need to get better at coping with and handling the various expressions of ‘no’ and ‘stop,’ and respecting other people’s boundaries. But that’s a whole other blog post and shall be blogged at another time.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for addressing this issue. This was always a point of contention between me and my ex-Mother-in-Law. She would insist on grabbing, restraining and kissing my daughter, even as the kid was clearly struggling and saying “No” in a loud, clear voice. And ex-MIL said I was making a big deal over nothing, and to get over myself. It still makes me furious. Fortunately, my daughter seems to have grown up with a good sense of boundaries, and knows her body is hers to be in control of. Now my concern is my son, who loves touch and hugs etc. He has grown up with the same attention from ex-MIL, so he seems to believe that it is OK to do that to other people. It has been an uphill battle getting him to understand that it doesn’t matter how much you love someone, or how great you think hugs are. If your sister/friend/whoever doesn’t want one, then you are in the wrong by hugging them. Still working on it, but getting there. I hope one day he’ll be that guy who stops a potential assault by telling some guy at a party “Hey, man, she said ‘No.’ End of story.”

  2. Thank you SO much for this, Kassi. This is one of the BEST articles ever written about this topic. I also write about this topic in my blog, but not as good as you have. This is where I mention “consent/boundaries” https://placeinthisworld224.wordpress.com/category/consent-culture.And I don’t understand why people get so offended when someone doesn’t want to hug them. It’s not like you are rejecting them or something. I know several people at work who don’t like to be hugged, and it’s OK. I know they care about me in other ways, and I don’t feel the need to question or violate their boundaries. I wish other people would read your article too, so they understand that they need consent before hugging or touching someone else in any way. Especially you-know-who.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *