Trigger warning: consent, sexual assault, rape culture
Last year, I had the honor of being the maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding. It was perfect. It was her – steampunk, yet still traditional. Standing beside her and watching her marry the love of her life brought tears of joy to my eyes. I’m still amazed that I made it through my speech without a few tears escaping as I congratulated my best friend on the next chapter of her life.
As lovely as her wedding was, and as much of a privilege it was to stand beside her on this momentous day, her wedding isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about something that happened at the wedding. Something that happens on a regular basis.
I want to talk about consent. Or, rather, the lack of it that pervades our society.
There was something that happened about half way through the reception. I was chatting with an acquaintance at an event where I didn’t know many people. A gentleman stepped in to join the conversation. Abruptly, a moment or two later, he told me that he was going to hug me. I took a step back and said “I don’t want to be hugged.”
That was when it happened. Despite my statement that I didn’t want to be hugged, he stepped forward to wrap his massive arms around me in a giant bear hug. Without even thinking, I reacted the same way I would if a horse encroached upon my personal space: My elbow came up and I body-checked this guy (yes, I have been known to body-check horses. It works, in certain circumstances). In order to fully appreciate this scene, please imagine me, a whole 5’5″ with my stilettos on, wearing a corset and a formal gown, body-checking a guy who is at least a foot taller than me and probably double my weight.
I pushed away from him, ignoring the look of shock on his face, and said in a quiet but firm voice, “I said I don’t want to be hugged. I hate being hugged by most people.” I turned on my heel and headed away, not wanting to this minor spectacle it into a major disruption.
A short time later, I joined my roommate out on the deck so I could enjoy the nice October weather. The same guy was on the deck and shortly after I joined my roommate, he began loudly lamenting the fact that I refused to give him a hug and proclaiming that I made him feel bad. It was clear that he was trying to guilt me into hugging him. I replied evenly that I dislike being hugged, and added in the clarification that I can count the number of people I willingly permit to hug me on my fingers and have a few left over. My roommate backed me up and told him that I don’t even like hugging her, unless there are circumstances of considerable duress going on. He continued to grumble, but stopped making a scene about it.
At that point, I thought it was over. Much to my dismay, it was not. As the reception was winding down, I was resting my tired feet at a table and relaxing a bit. He came looming up over me, proclaiming that he was going to get a hug before he left the reception. Once again, I threw up my arm to fend him off, and an edge of anger crept into my voice as I repeated yet again that I do not like being hugged by people I don’t know well. He backed down, but not without muttering his hurt and disappointment almost all the way out the door.
Although this is a more extreme example, I run into similar situations on a fairly regular basis. I cannot count the number of times that I have flinched away from someone trying to hug me. People assume that they are entitled to my body and then act astonished when I gently (and in not so many words) inform them otherwise. The vast majority of the time, my quiet explanation that I dislike being touched and that it has nothing to do with that particular person is met with hurt expressions or harsh words. Other times, it is met with an attempt to physically force me into the hug.
And this entitlement isn’t just manifested in the undesired hug. It can be found in the uninvited touches that pervade everyday life; the slap on the back, the pat on a shoulder, or the casually placed hand on waist or back to steer someone. As someone who has learned to be keenly aware of touch and personal space from a lifetime of working with horses and also for whom touch is a major PTSD trigger, I find myself becoming increasingly aware of how casually we treat the bodies of others and behave as if touching them is our innate right.
We live in a society where the people with the most entitlement to your body is everyone but you. Where it is commonly accepted to try and force a hug on someone. Where you are expected to simply endure it, and where you are a divergent if you try to enforce your wishes to not be touched. Where people try to guilt others into unwanted physical touches because it “makes them feel bad when they are turned down.” Where it is okay to expect certain physical acts because you have done something for someone else (bought them dinner, helped them move, gave them a gift, etc.).
We live in a society where we teach children from a young age that their consent doesn’t matter. We teach them to expect to have their “no” overridden, whether it is by a command, or by cajoling or guilting them into giving a hug. We teach young girls that it is a sign that a boy likes her tries to look up her skirt, or unlatch her bra, or cop a feel in the hall at school. We tell them “boys will be boys” and advise them to ignore it. We ask what they did to incite these actions, or blame it on the way they are dressed.
We live in a society that teaches our children that others have a right to their body and that they have no say over it. Is it any surprise that teenagers are having sex simply because their partner wants to, even if they don’t? They’ve been taught from a young age that they can’t say no to someone else hugging them. They’ve been conditioned to give in to the guilting, or the orders, or the cajoling. A simple conversation to sit down and tell them that they have the right to expect consent isn’t enough. The lack of consent and bodily autonomy that has pervaded their lives for so long overshadows that message.
We live in a society where young girls are told that if a boy violates her body, it means that he likes her. We are teaching them that it is simply a thing that boys do, and that it is best for them to ignore it. Or, even worse, we teach them that it is their fault, because they did something to invite this violation, or they dressed in a way that invited it. Is it any surprise that many young women experience rape within a relationship and still stay in that relationship? We spent their childhood either teaching them that it is a good sign, or that it’s just how boys are, or that it is their fault (or a combination of all three).
I have had enough of this society. I have had enough of tolerating infringements on my consent and bodily autonomy. I am done indulging others and their perceived entitlement to my body. I am finished going along with a societal standard that contributes to rape culture. I am through perpetuating this disregard of consent in everyday life on the next generation. If I don’t want to be touched, I will speak up. If someone continues to try and touch me after I have spoken, I will physically enforce my “no.” (not in a violent manner, but in a manner that stops or cuts off the unwanted contact) If I don’t have time to speak before the contact is initiated, I will calmly inform the culprit that I do not like being touched without my explicit consent and ask them not to do it again. I will encourage others to stand up for their bodily autonomy and expect that others respect their consent, and I will stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. I will ask my niece and nephew (and other children with whom I come into contact) if they will give me a hug, rather than telling them to come and hug me. I will accept their “no,” if that is their answer, and tell them that it is completely okay if they don’t want to hug me.
If we can learn to respect the bodily autonomy of others, we can strike a blow deep into the heart of rape culture. It won’t destroy it completely, but it will wound it deeply. And if more individuals felt that the violation of their consent wouldn’t be excused or blamed on them for “inciting” the violation, perhaps they would feel more like they are able to come forward with their experiences. Perhaps then we could make some progress on prosecuting those who commit sexual assault and sexual abuse.
I know there may be consequences to taking this stance. Some people may think I’m standoffish or rude. Some may think I’m an extremist. But I don’t care. I am done indulging their entitlement and feelings, especially when that indulgence often comes at my own expense. I will stick to my guns and demand that my consent and bodily autonomy be respected. I will extend that same respect for the consent and bodily autonomy of others with whom I come in contact.
I will be a one woman revolution. It may not spread across the entire nation, or even across the state. It may not even spread through the whole city. But I will do what I can to make difference within my sphere of influence. I will challenge this entitlement when I see it and I will stand up for consent and bodily autonomy.
Will you join me?
If you have been in a situation where your consent was violated and you have been sexually assaulted or abused, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is a wonderful resource for help and healing. They have people standing by to help you, whether by phone (800-656-4673) or via chat. I’ve talked to them, myself, and they are truly amazing and caring people.