Do You Wanna Touch Me?: Practicing Explicit Verbal Consent to End Harassment Culture

by Becca Lee

“Until and unless we challenge ourselves to own all of our bodies and to lay claim to no others, to find out what joys lie beneath the dull, accumulated numbness of hundreds of mini-traumas, we will never get all of our bodies back, and rape culture can never disappear; it can only shrink.” -Hazel/Cedar Troost

Let’s talk about touching. For real. Let’s talk about what touches we want, where we want them, when we want them, from whom, and for how long. Let’s talk about how we want to touch others, and how we go about getting permission to do so. Do we get permission? I sure hope so.

I want to talk about how we negotiate consent for touch, because we live in a world that doesn’t really require we do so. Think about it: are you ever put in situations where another person is empowered to touch you when you don’t actively want that touch, whether it be sexual or nonsexual? Consider unwanted hugs from distant family, poking and probing during a doctor’s visit, strangers or even people you know attempting to touch your hair, tattooed skin, or your pregnant stomach without asking.  Probably, yes.  These are all stories I’ve either heard from folks I know or experienced myself, and I imagine they happen more than we’re typically willing to talk about.

This is dangerous because harassment culture works by restricting individuals’ control over their own bodies and granting others a sense of entitlement to them, especially in public spaces. This entitlement is further compounded by politics of societal privilege, and ultimately it serves to treat subordinate groups as if they are public property, rather than autonomous individuals.

I want to propose that we confront and prevent unwanted touching (including, but not limited to “groping”) with two radical principles.

  1. First, we need to actively assert body sovereignty – the principle that every individual owns hir own body at all times, in all spaces. This philosophy has implications for several issues, including reproductive rights, sex work, fat acceptance, etc., but I want to talk specifically about its role in sexual harassment.
  2. Second, we need to stop thinking of consent as being necessary only for sexual intercourse. In reality, if we are ever going to end harassment, we need to require consent for all physical interactions.  This might seem daunting—difficult, if not impossible, and even strange to us. But frankly, isn’t it strange that we don’t already do this?

One way to think about actively engaging in consent, as advocated by Hazel/Cedar Troost in hir essay “Reclaiming Touch: Rape Culture, Explicit Verbal Consent, and Body Sovereignty,” is  Explicit Verbal Consent – the practice of asking for (and receiving) explicit verbal consent for all touching, even if you know the person in question, without pressuring for a yes.

Troost starts here, and I, too, want you to ask yourself:

  • What touches do you have to be asked permission for?
  • How do you distinguish between what touches require consent (and when), and which do not?
  • How do you stop a touch from happening when you don’t want it?

Troost explains that one way that our culture tries to navigate consent is by using unspoken “consent maps.” It might seem silly, but one way I think of this concept is like this diagram that’s been circulating the internet:

Consent Map

In the way that the author of this image has mapped out this cat’s body—where it will accept touch and where it won’t—consent maps are our subconsciously constructed assumptions about where we expect other people will accept touch, depending on levels of intimacy. Just like we often objectify animal bodies, we objectify human bodies as simply a bundle of “parts” and the part, rather than the person, too often determines what level of access we feel we automatically have to their body.

For example, is it “reasonable” to us that we can shake someone’s hand upon first meeting without explicitly asking? Is it reasonable to rub your partner’s shoulders without getting permission every single time? Is it reasonable to grind against another person’s torso and pelvis on a dance floor without permission? These are interactions that we have may have come to expect, and if so, it’s largely based on culturally accepted “consent maps.” But that doesn’t mean we actively want those touches when they happen. And if we do want them, why can’t we simply ask for and receive permission before beginning the touch? What would be so terrible about that?

Assumptive touching is so ingrained in our culture that it might be somewhat terrifying to think about requiring all people to get your consent before touching you (and to do the same for them). However, harassment is also ingrained, and I argue that in order to get rid of the latter, we need to dismantle the former. When you live in a culture of harassment and rape, like ours, assuming at any time that you have consent to touch becomes a game of what you can “get away with,” rather than a process of negotiating mutual pleasure with another person. (I don’t know about you, but I think the latter is way more fun.)

I also want to echo Hazel/Cedar Troost’s poignant question: “Can we really draw a sharp line between sexual assault and unwanted nonsexual touch?” And my answer, quite frankly, is I cannot. In fact, for me, there is sometimes very little difference between someone grabbing my ass and putting their arm around me, when neither touch is wanted.  I’ll explain:

  1. When I was 19, I worked at a video rental store. There was a day when, as I was shelving DVD’s, a customer hugged me, forcefully, without saying a word. I barely saw it coming, but he walked in the door, made a beeline for me, opened his arms wide open, and closed in around my body. I froze. When he released me, he grinned and thanked me, then said he was sorry because he “just needed a hug.” There was nothing overtly sexual about the hug, but I did not consent to it, and quite frankly, I’d never felt more violated in my entire life.
  2. A couple years later, when I was newly 21, a man grabbed my ass while I was ordering a drink at a bar. I turned around, enraged, and he was smirking, with his palm still firmly on my butt. This time, instead of freezing in terror, I grabbed his hand and threw it back at his body as hard as I could. Neither of us said a word and he left. This touch was clearly sexual, just as unwanted, and I felt just as violated.

These two incidents still really stick out in my mind when I think about harassment and the entitlement that, in my case, straight men have felt to my body. And even touches that seem more “neutral,” like putting an arm around me or a hand on my lower back, can be particularly triggering for me if I haven’t consented to it. My body is my body.

This is why harassment can never be defined by the act itself, or the body parts involved, but by the person who experienced it. Were they able to consent to the act, without pressure? How did they feel about it? That’s what matters.

We need to stop reducing people to their body parts. We need to reinstate authority for each person, autonomously, to decide what touches ze wants. I challenge myself, and I invite you to join me, to practice explicit verbal consent, if only for a week or even a day, to see if we can’t take back some of that  joy within our bodies that can only come from having sole ownership. Do it for yourself, and for all around you who desperately wish someone would simply ask, “May I” rather than demand, “Let me.”


4 Responses

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  1. […] Des Moines posed an interesting quandary on their site this week: when is touching okay and how do we prevent unwanted touching. Our Iowa hollas are partnering this month with Iowa Pride Network for the 10th […]

  2. Kurt says:

    I like this article. I also struggle with the idea that when someone else has touched you it means they’ve implicitly consented for you to touch them back in the same way. I’ve never been really comfortable with that because I’m just not used to touching people I’m not really close to.

  3. Paul says:

    I don’t mind hugging but it throws me off when people ask usually and my instinctive reaction is “no, get away from me”, other times I never go to hug anyone just in case they hate it lol

  4. WLC says:

    I have found that some people who presumably have good intentions like to rub my back a lot. This is especially common at my church, which is a rather touchy feely church. It’s the one thing I don’t really like about the community.

    I have noticed that when one rejects touch, people act as if they are shocked, they act as if their feelings have been hurt, and they sometimes act annoyed and as if you need to explain yourself–as if they have a right to touch you unless you have an excuse they can validate. I don’t mind hugs but i could really do without the “caring” backrubss.

    I think some people are under the impression that human touch is very important, crucial for well being, and that by touching you they are showing you they are there for you and are making you feel better. They do not recognize that is not the way all people feel at all times, and they feel they are giving you a wonderful gift of love, and behave as if you have violated them somehow if you shrink away, or heaven forbid, firmly say “Please don’t do that.”

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