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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.
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:
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:
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.”
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