Consent to be touched

By , December 19, 2010 3:10 pm

EDIT: Welcome to all the lovely folks from reddit.com’s MensRights section, from which this post was linked to with the desctription A example of how consent laws will turn everyone into rapists. Seriously, how long until a feminist claims rape because a guy touched her on the shoulder to tell her she dropped something? I’ve responded to some of the comments in a new post, Consent Redux.

Last night, the friend I’m visiting hosted a Christmas party. It was lots of fun: tons to eat, delicious deserts, pretty decorations, huge number of drinks, and good people, some who I knew and some who I was meeting for the first time. But around 12:30AM, as the party was starting to wind down, I came upstairs to hear “I said don’t touch my back!” screamed as a girl rushed past me and to the basement, followed quickly by the host.

Walking into the living room, I saw a guy, J, standing there sort of confused, asking, “What the hell was her problem?”

I couldn’t help myself, and snapped, “Well, did she say not to touch her?”

“I only touched her once,” came his obviously frustrated reply.

This made me pause, because I didn’t want to unfairly assume that he’d been a dick, if she actually had overreacted. Nonetheless, I asked, “Yeah, and when she said ‘Don’t’ did you apologize or act like a jerk?”

“She didn’t need to be such a bitch about it!”

We went back and forth a few more times, until the host came back and asked us to stop arguing. The girl in question, who had “freaked out,” had a medical condition (it turned out) that made touching her back very painful. She was crying in the basement, and ended up going to the hospital.

There’s a hypothetical situation that someone told me a while back, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. (Don’t worry, this’ll get around to consent eventually.) Suppose two people are told by their mechanics that their brakes are on the way out, and could go at any time. One of them, Alice, drives for six months with potentially deadly brakes, but no accidents, until she’s finally able to afford fixing them. The other, Bob, drives for only one month before his brakes give out, causing him to slide into an intersection and kill a pedestrian. The question is this: Who behaved more dangerously? Alice or Bob?

The answer is that they both behaved in the same, dangerous, manner. Alice was lucky enough not to have to pay for her poor decisions, while Bob wasn’t so lucky. But they both made the same poor decision, and both could have ended up with the same awful result.

I don’t think touching without consent is quite so extreme – patting someone on the back will almost never result in injury – but you never know when someone might be physically or emotionally fragile, and whether your touch will hurt them in unexpected ways. And even if the touch doesn’t ‘hurt’ them, it may simply make them uncomfortable. Early this year, I wrote about someone at work who hugged me without my consent, and my thoughts about it. I linked to a letter to an unwanted toucher, posted at City of Ladies, which said:

I know it “hurts your feelings” when I get annoyed at you touching me without my consent. It hurts my feelings when you touch me without my consent. It hurts my feelings when you yell at me for being annoyed when you touch me without my consent. It hurts my feelings when you touch me without my consent in a way that I’ve asked you not to do more times than I can count. It hurts my feelings when you yell at me for being annoyed when you touch me without my consent in a way that I’ve asked you not to do more times than I can count. It hurts my feelings when you promote rape.

Because, ultimately, touch and consent exist on a continuum. Patting someone on the back is not the same as rape, I’m not saying the two are equivalent, and I’m not saying this guy last night was a rapist, or the girl was raped. But I do think, in general, assuming nonconsensual touch is acceptable is a bad thing, and can be one of the factors which – on a cultural level – leads to people thinking sex without explicit consent is OK.

That said, I know I’m not perfect. I can think of a few times in the last month alone that I touched someone I didn’t know very well, without their consent, on a shoulder or back or leg. (And I’d imagine there are more times that I’m not remembering.) I hope it’s possible to find a balance between asking for and receiving consent and feeling comfortable around people who make me feel safe, and make me want to reach out to them and engage in physical contact. It’s a balance I’m still working on, though.

21 Responses to “Consent to be touched”

  1. Carolyn Ann says:

    You have a typo or two: “brakes”, not “breaks”…

  2. RadDyke says:

    Oooh, interesting post, yet again, Rebecca! I’m not a touchy sort of person. In fact, I tend to move far away from you if you look like you’re going to touch me. That being said, around people I know very well, I’ve been known to swish your ponytail as I walk by you on the couch, or something of that sort.
    That being said, there are also situations in which I am pressured into touching that feel extremely uncomfortable for me, partly for the reasons you mentioned above. An example: at a feminist lunch at my college, we (a group of about 15 women-identified people) were talking about sex, and the girl next to me, who I didn’t really know at all started to cry (she had just broken up with her boyfriend the day before). I politely handed her a tissue from my bag, but my professor said “RadDyke, put your arm around her or something!” I was very uncomfortable doing so, not sure whether this girl wanted my arm around her, or how she’d feel about the fact that I was gay and I was hugging her.
    So yeah, delicate balance.

    • NWTreeOctopus says:

      RadDyke, I can understand not being much of a toucher and, as such, not having the natural urge to put your arm around the crying girl, but don’t let your sexuality come into play.

      A hug, by default, is not a sexual act, it’s a human gesture. If she has an issue with your hug because of your sexuality, it’s her issue, not yours.

      • Rebecca says:

        I agree that you shouldn’t feel bad about your response, RadDyke. But I also think NWTreeOctopus makes a good point that you can’t shoulder her (potential) homophobia.

  3. Vostran says:

    If you replace the word “consent” with the word “permission” then the article is an exmaple of why we all need to repect peoples personal space.

    However the moment you start to compare things like this to rape you dilute the meaning of rape in a very significant and dangerous way.

    • Rebecca says:

      I’m not sure if you’re referring to my post or the link to falserapesociet.blogspot.com above, but either way I agree that there’s a huge overlap between issues of consent and issues of respect. At its core, consent is about having respect for a person to make their own choices.

      I also do agree that it’s possible to dilute the meaning of rape by saying other things are the equivalent. I tried not to cross this line in this post, but I also think it’s important to be able to talk about non-rape behavior and how it contributes to larger issues of disrespect. (Which can, on a cultural scale, make rape seem less important.) That’s what I was trying to say, and it sounds like maybe I wasn’t clear enough.

      I don’t think patting someone on the back without explicit consent is at all equal to rape. However, I think that assuming it’s always OK to touch someone – hug, pat on the back, whatever – regardless of their reaction is problematic. In the example I gave in this post, I didn’t so much have an issue with the guy patting the girl on the back as I did with his reaction that she was being a “bitch” by freaking out, because it felt to me like he was lessening her ability to say “I don’t consent to that touch.”

      Does that make more sense?

      • Dominique says:

        I think it’s absolutely accurate to observe that all forms of disrespecting consent come from the same outlook and attitude, whether it’s a pat on the back or anal penetration. It’s exactly the same as bullying: slurs come from the same place, the same kind of contempt, as a kick in the head. The “she’s-a-bitch” reaction is very telling of the man’s obvious sense of entitlement to do whatever he wants to women, and to assume, and have others assume, that nothing he does can be “wrong”.

  4. kloo2yoo says:

    >>But I do think, in general, assuming nonconsensual touch is acceptable is a bad thing, and can be one of the factors which – on a cultural level – leads to people thinking sex without explicit consent is OK.

    Just like it leads to the assumption that bullying is okay? or murder? J was (we assume) causing your victim physical pain. Is that on the spectrum of rape, or of bullying, murder and genocide?

    There’s a reason you say “excuse me” when you bump into someone; it’s mildly offensive. Intent, however, is a huge factor here.

    • Rebecca says:

      Intent is absolutely important, and thanks for reminding me. I don’t think J’s initial behavior was crazy out of line, and (as I said) I’ve done the same thing. What really frustrated me was his reaction, that it was totally unreasonable for her to so vocally reject his touch. That really rubbed me the wrong way, and resulted in this post.

  5. Glew says:

    I’m not a woman. I try to keep that in mind when I share my opinion about things concerning women. I also am not a native English speaker. So I hope I won’t give the image of some retarded sexist guy.

    I am truly taken aback by this post. I never would have imagined anyone ever expected consent for touching. For me it is something that is more-or-less well defined by the “unwritten laws” of society and culture. So you should be able to trust your own judgement whether it is appropriate to touch or not. You don’t go touching anyone at any time, but patting someone on the back is the most innocent thing I can think of.

    I think I can understand that some (or many?) women/people are uncomfortable being touched. But just think of how ridiculously awkward it would be if you had to ask ALL the time, if you are to touch someone. Touching is Far More than just intimate physical contact. It is also meta-communication. Sometimes we touch others to alert them to our presence or to get their attention.

    Maybe I am wrong, but for me touching someone without their consent is the normal way in many situations.
    I mean “lesser touching” by that. And always with a respectable reason. Of course if a stranger would just hug me, I would feel uncomfortable, but I would survive it (I understand there are personal differences in tolerating strangers in your personal space).

    Also, it is unclear in what range you deem touching without consent inappropriate. Is it OK if family members/close friends touch you, even “majorly” (hug, caress or kiss)?

    I 100% agree that even a “small” touch can be inappropriate in certain situations. But I would assume that most people know those unwritten rules, and that said rules cover a good majority of inappropriate touching. Thus making asking for consent unneeded. In fact, in most situations you Are asking for consent, but not with words. Or did you mean that by asking for consent? Or do you mean explicit verbal permission?

    I don’t want to hurt anyone, but expecting people to ask for permission whenever they intend to touch you, is a bit paranoid. It phrases the message “This is MY body! It is NONE of your business! Stay away!!!” It is an extremely individualistic, “isolationist” way of thinking. Touching is a way to communicate in a way you never could with words (or signs). Nothing says as effectively “I am here.” than a touch, regardless of context (I’m here to help you, I’m here to comfort you, I’m here to talk to you, I’m here so you are not alone etc)
    ——————————————–
    And there is an other side to this coin. I’m not a woman, but you (if I’m right) are not a man. Through the years the gap between men and women have grown and been expanded on purpose. And also in general, the gap between human and human have grown. There is a lot to it and I don’t want to go into every aspect, but the thing is, people became isolated and lonely and depressed and alienated. We can’t trust each other any more, we can hardly share our lives (I just happen to came to this site from 6 billion secrets).
    So what I would like to say is that men might would like to touch you. Not to oppress you, not to intrude your zone of comfort, not to assault you; but to be close to you. There are loads of men out there thinking that women are crazy and don’t love them. Men might be hard and all, but they still need care, and they want to care about you too. If you restrict/deny touching, it might very well hurt their feelings. And then how do you decide whose feelings are “more important”? (rhetoric question)

    Do you wish to live in a plastic bubble? Do you wish people to poke you with a stick instead of their hands?

    I hope I made sense and did not offend anyone.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Glew. I’ll respond as best I can.

      As I said in my post, I think both touch and consent exist on a continuum. Resting a hand on someone’s shoulder is different than hugging, which is different than (say) jumping on someone’s back, which is different than kissing, which is different than… (etc, etc, etc). And I don’t expect explicit consent for every single interaction we ever have as human – every single handshake, pat, hug, and so on.

      That said, I do think that American culture (since I can’t really speak for any other) has tipped somewhat too far toward assuming there’s consent for physical contact, and being offended if that consent is not actually there. (Such as this guy at the party.) I don’t want to see a world where everyone is afraid of the merest brush of skin, unwilling to hug without a legal contract. I do want to see a world where there’s much more thought put into whether or not it’s OK to touch someone, and much more respect if someone’s answer is “I don’t want to be hugged” (at one end of the spectrum) or “I don’t want to have sex with you” (at the other).

      Does that make sense?

      I don’t want to hurt anyone, but expecting people to ask for permission whenever they intend to touch you, is a bit paranoid. It phrases the message “This is MY body! It is NONE of your business! Stay away!!!” It is an extremely individualistic, “isolationist” way of thinking. Touching is a way to communicate in a way you never could with words (or signs). Nothing says as effectively “I am here.” than a touch, regardless of context (I’m here to help you, I’m here to comfort you, I’m here to talk to you, I’m here so you are not alone etc)

      I absolutely think that there are situations where that line of thinking would be off-putting for me. With close friends and family, I am OK with a certain amount of physical familiarity, and appreciate a hug or hand on my shoulder. But when that relationship doesn’t exist (that is, with most of the people in the world) it is my body, and it’s not of their business. Even with people I do know, I should be able to reserve the right to change my mind about touching and consent.

      So what I would like to say is that men might would like to touch you. Not to oppress you, not to intrude your zone of comfort, not to assault you; but to be close to you. There are loads of men out there thinking that women are crazy and don’t love them. Men might be hard and all, but they still need care, and they want to care about you too. If you restrict/deny touching, it might very well hurt their feelings. And then how do you decide whose feelings are “more important”?

      I am sorry that this post (and the one that follows) fell into the concept of touch being about women rejecting me. To clarify, I think the same issues of consent exist with men being the touched and women the touchers, or two women, or two men, or whomever. There is often an additional charged component to gendered relationships or interactions, but I don’t think issues of consent and physical contact should be limited to issues of Men on one end and Women on the other.

      That said, in terms of hurting feelings, someone else’s rights to comfort end at my skin. (In the same way that someone’s right to free speech only exists until it becomes abusive or threatening.) So while I acknowledge there are situations where my (or anyone’s) rejection of touch might hurt someone else’s feelings, my right to say what happens to my body – and how it happens – trumps any desire another person might have to feel close to me through physical contact.

      To answer your final question, I absolutely don’t want to live in a plastic bubble. But I deserve to be able to decide who is allowed to make that intimate (or even non-intimate!) contact with me, and under what circumstances.

      • Glew says:

        Thanks for your answer. As I have suspected, there were cultural and other misunderstandings on my part. So maybe as I’m from Central-Europe and you are from America, we can’t really discuss such questions very deeply, as we don’t really know each other’s situation. (I have little to no idea how manners actually work over there)
        Still, it was worth thinking about.

    • Dominique says:

      No you are not making sense and yes, you’re being offensive. The use of the word “retarded”, for one thing, is highly offensive and disableist. There are so many things wrong with your comment that it would take too long to list them all, so before you participate in feminist forums you should consult a Feminism 101 blog. This goes for anyone else who doesn’t have a clue. The one thing that needs to be said, however, is that WE ARE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO CARE IF MEN WANT TO TOUCH US, or do anything else. Too bad. Go away when we say so. This is life.

      • Ellen says:

        Dominique, Glew shouldn’t have used the word ‘retarded’, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine everything else he says. I’m pretty sure his post made sense – while I disagree with some of it, that doesn’t mean I have to dismiss it as nonsensical. I don’t think that creates a particularly welcoming environment for anyone who does not speak English as their first language (you know, most of the world).

        To be honest, I feel like your comment is the most offensive.

      • Rebecca says:

        Dominique – I agree, the use of ‘retarded’ was out of line, and I’m sorry I didn’t catch that. I’ll try to do a better job of moderating in the future. (Something I’m still working on!) That said, I do think I opened the door to a discussion about consent, so have no problem with Glew (or others) trying to work out why things are they way they are.

  6. Adi says:

    I also think that it’s important to say outright that this rule does not only apply to men making contact, but to women as well. Women are not the only ones that can be made uncomfortable by an unsolicited touch. While some imagine that there’s no way that a man would turn the touch of a woman down (particularly if she’s attractive), this is not the case at all. Men, too, have a concept of personal space. Beyond that, there are also a fair number of men that have gone through the trauma of rape.

    Not touching anybody in an unwarranted fashion and thus making them uncomfortable is a good rule to follow for everybody. It’s along the same lines as making rape jokes, to a certain extent. Don’t make them. You never know who you’ll offend or whose scars you’ll reopen.

    So to all your visitors from the MensRights section on reddit, don’t take it personally. It’s not just feminists that are affected. Men among you are affected as well, if you only look around you.

  7. mark says:

    This is a difficult issue to me. I certainly don’t want to touch anyone in such a way that they would be offended…. (yes I am male, and yes I guess I don’t worry about being touched), but do we really live in the kind of world where human touch is a crime. Do we really need to watch ourselves every step of every day, lest we should accidentally touch one another? I’m certainly not saying there are no limits to what should be considered appropriate and not appropriate… but honestly we should live in fear of touching someone? I actually like people, and think I would prefer to live in a world where it was okay if once in a blue moon people actually touched one another without fear of being accused of being, or even compared with a rapist(yes… that is hyperbole).

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think that accidental touch – bumping into someone on the street – is as big of a deal as intentional touch. There’s a cultural understanding that you’re not supposed to bump into strangers, but I think the murkier area is when is it acceptable to touch someone you know? Hugging, placing a hand on a shoulder, patting on the back, and so on.

      I’m certainly not saying there are no limits to what should be considered appropriate and not appropriate… but honestly we should live in fear of touching someone? I actually like people, and think I would prefer to live in a world where it was okay if once in a blue moon people actually touched one another without fear of being accused of being, or even compared with a rapist(yes… that is hyperbole).

      I think that’s something of a strawman. I’m not saying people shouldn’t touch. I like touch! I want to be hugged, patted on the back, have friends hold my hand. What I’m vehemently against, however, is non-consensual touch. I don’t want people to live in fear of touching, I wanted them to be conscious of (and opposed to) touching without consent.

      Likewise, I don’t think anyone in this discussion accused a non-consensual toucher of being a rapist. If so, please point it out so they can be corrected. Because you’re right: non-consensual touch is not rape. But non-consensual touch exists on a continuum, with patting someone on the back at one end, and (a long way down) rape at the other end.

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