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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Personal Boundaries, Sovereignty, and Consent Culture

  I was recently reminded of an older blog post by John Beckett about boundaries and it got me thinking. We all have personal boundaries, of course, but I think too often in interacting with others there is a default assumption that others share either our personal boundaries or else wider cultural boundaries. To me, when we talk about personal boundaries I immediately think about consent culture and the idea of personal sovereignty.
     Whether we like to admit it or not we live in a society that assumes our bodies are not really our own, especially if you are female*. From a young age most of us are taught to hug people whether we want to or not, because it's "polite". Children learn quickly that it doesn't matter whether they want to or not, its expected. Of course some people enjoy this contact and do it by choice, but there is also an underlying assumption that it is a social norm. Women constantly fight against the ideas that being female means owing physical contact to other people usually expressed as intimacy. The whole concept of the "friend zone" exemplifies this because it carries the implicit belief that if someone likes a woman and tries to court her she is somehow being unfair or manipulative to deny that person an emotional or physical response they want. Many pregnant women experience having their belly touched by strangers, without their permission, as if being pregnant in itself ceded such consent away. I have had my hair, tattoos, and (yes, really) breasts touched in public by strangers who believed they had a right to touch me without my permission. In the pagan community there is also often an assumption that physical touch is wanted or accepted so much so that I have sometimes seen people refer to hugging as the pagan handshake, as if it were the default greeting.
   Here's the problem. Not everyone wants to be touched, especially by strangers or people they don't know well. There are many reasons why someone may not want to be touched, but honestly it doesn't matter. The point is that not everyone welcomes casual touching or hugging. For some people there is a strong boundary that exists at the limit of their personal space which says please stay out, in the same way that another person might feel about strangers or acquaintances going through their purse or wallet without asking. To me part of  our right to control our own body and what happens to it includes being able to decide where that boundary of personal touch is.
    What baffles me here is the offense people take when someone who doesn't want to be touched expresses that. People who want to hug seem to believe people who don't want to hug are rejecting them on a personal level, when that is not (generally) the case at all. It isn't a judgment on the hugging individual as a person (again usually) so much as it is an expression of the non-hugging individuals personal comfort levels. I'll use myself as an example. I do not like being touched by most people, and being hugged by people I don't know or don't know very well and trust causes me anxiety. You'll note I said most, so right off I get criticized because I say I don't like being touched but then I do let some people touch me - as if it's only acceptable for me to have this boundary if I make it all or nothing, again removing my ability to choose who I am and am not comfortable being touched by. Most people don't ask, they simply hug, putting me in the extremely awkward position of either letting them violate my personal space in a way that I find upsetting or of ducking away which they find offensive. I usually brace myself and put up with it, because in my experience rejecting unwanted physical contact that is socially acceptable, is ironically not socially accepted. And for those of you reading this and thinking I'm exaggerating, the next time you go to a larger pagan event try to enforce a strict "no touching" rule. When I was at Pantheacon I even wore a ribbon, bright red, which said "No touchy!!" and it made no discernible difference, although several people did apologize after hugging me, then asking permission, and being told I would really prefer not to (and I appreciate the apology, even retrospectively).

  I have seen an online discussion about this subject in a pagan group where people argued that hugging shouldn't require consent and that non-huggers needed to conform. One person even went so far as to suggest forcibly hugging people who expressed a desire not to be touched, because they needed to get over it. I've also seen people who don't want to be touched called un-pagan, mean, and heard it said that if you don't like hugs you're missing out on some essential aspect of community building. In the same way that people who are very open to touching are judged negatively, so people who don't like to touch are judged.
   Not wanting to be touched has nothing to do with me judging you. It has everything to do with me needing to feel like I am controlling what is happening to my own body. This is where personal sovereignty comes in, because personal sovereignty, to me, is the idea that we as individuals are in control of what happens to our own bodies; you are the supreme authority of your own flesh. I decide what I am comfortable doing and not doing, and I decide who can and can't enter my personal space and what they can and can't do there. To put a twist on an old saying, however, my sovereignty ends where the next person's begins. Some people have permeable boundaries, and that's fine if that's what they are comfortable with. Some people have rigid boundaries and that should be fine too, if that is what they are comfortable with. The key here is that we each should have the ability to decide for ourselves what happens to our own bodies*.
   Another vital aspect of this, which could really solve many of the problems caused by the assumption that touching as social norms are okay, is the idea of consent culture. Simply put, ask first. If you want to hug someone, ask. And respect their answer, even if it's no. Don't take that no personally or assume anything about why the answer is no, because likely it isn't about you at all. Consent culture is rooted in respect and the idea that by asking first we are acknowledging the other person's sovereignty over their own body, just like we would their car or purse (I hope).
       Consent culture is not something we have right now, it's a work in progress, but it is something we can make a reality. In the same way personal sovereignty is something we each must work to understand and establish for ourselves, because no one can give us sovereignty it is something that we must learn to stand up for. I highly recommend JD Hobbes"The Hug as a Personal Greeting" for guidelines on good etiquette on touching other people at public events. And hopefully as we move forward we can learn to respect each other's limits, instead of judging those who have comfort-zones different from our own.

* cis-, trans-, or any other form of female identification are all considered female here
* you can pretty much guess from this view how I feel about most subjects relating to body-choices. I admit though that children are a grey area because they should be raised with a sense of personal sovereignty but also must, by necessity, fall under their parents decision making processes in many things. That's a topic for a blog on it's own however


  1. This is a great article. It made me step back and think about a lot of my own actions. I'm a very open hugging kinda person, though I generally feel out the situation like as in a "good-bye" before I attempt to act upon such customs. It is so hard to tell sometimes if someone is shy and not verbal about such boundaries. I'd dislike offending someone but in some respects tip toeing around everyones unknown feelings is hard. Part of me is like FFS its just a simple hug, and the other half is hey, you have your own dislikes as do others so respect them. Maybe we should all sing the Brak song, "Don't touch me!"

  2. A true pagan understands "energy" and that sometimes you instinctively do not want to blend your energy with all who are "huggers." Also if your own energy is drained or you are banking it for say a "ritual" you may not want to release any of it in particular situations. I am a hugger, but only to those that I feel are reaching out to me in positive energy and WANT to share my energy. To "force" or "demand" that someone hug when they are not so inclined sounds personally violating of personal space to me! Good article.

  3. I think there's likely some overlap with the customs of SFF fandom communities. At the first such convention I went to, the fans (largely a mix of straight and gay cis men, with a much smaller population of women) insisted on hugging hello when I was introduced to them. I probably felt more pressure to accept the hug when the introduction was made by a member of the group I'd come with, but that was the usual situation where the open arms were automatic. When I introduced myself to someone, I was more likely to get a handshake or a simple smile. No idea why the dynamic was different.

    However, I feel like these soggy boundaries with regard to hugging hello were also a part of my being fondled nonconsensually (breast and butt) at a room party, where I had piled onto a bed with a group of men and women to watch a laser show. I had a friend's head more or less in my lap -- someone I'd known for at least a year -- and so I rested my hand on his shoulder. On the other side, I was leaning on a man I'd known online for some time, who ended up fondling me during the laser projection. I left the room immediately and spent the rest of the night coping with PTSD. The fondler said, by way of attempted explanation, that he "didn't think [I'd] mind." Everyone present knew I was married at the time. My then-husband couldn't attend the con -- but usually the mild variety of creep will back off if he knows you're property: cf. the street catcaller. I guess this particular fondler would have had to see my husband actually in the room to keep his hands to himself.

    That's what I object to as much as the socially forced hug-hello -- the sogginess of boundaries following that initial hug. After all, you agreed to hug the guy once, right? Why not again and again and...