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.