Touching People Without Their Consent: Still A Problem Even If It's Not Sexual

Since I’m always blathering on about consent, including consent in non-sexual situations, I’ve noticed a common belief that a lot of people have. It can basically be summed up like so:

  • If you’re interacting with someone sexually, you need their consent. (Duh.)
  • If you’re interacting with someone of the gender to which you’re generally attracted (i.e. you’re a straight man interacting with a woman), you should be careful and get their consent before you touch them.
  • BUT! If you’re interacting with someone of a gender to which you’re not attracted, or you’re interacting with a family member or a friend and so the situation is, in any case, “not sexual,” THEN you don’t need their consent and you should feel free to hug them, touch them on the shoulder, or even grope them “as a joke.”

The reason this is on my mind right now are two articles, and my life in general.

One article is by Ginny over on the Polyskeptic blog. She recounts a disturbing incident in which another woman wanted to get a better look at the tattoo on the back of Ginny’s shoulder and proceeded to lift up the strap of her tank top in order to do so–without consent. A man nearby told the woman off, but she responded that it’s “just the shoulder” and “I just really like tattoos.” And then:

But something the guy said, or maybe just the way I was sitting there rigidly instead of turning around to engage in friendly conversation made the woman realize she was maybe being a tad inappropriate, so she let go of my clothes and patted me soothingly on the arm and said some half-apologetic patter. To which I didn’t really respond because I was still in my “I am so weirded out right now and your soothing pat is STILL YOU TOUCHING ME” frozen zone. And I think by this point she got that I was really uncomfortable, so she broke out the magic words to make it all better: “It’s okay honey, I didn’t mean anything by it, I mean, I like men, ha ha.”

She didn’t realize that which gender(s) she happens to be attracted to is completely irrelevant.

The other piece is on Role/Reboot, and is written by a gay man who witnessed the following scene:

Last Thursday night as I was coming home from work, I noticed a fellow gay man who I have seen around Washington, D.C., at various nightclubs and bars. As we both entered onto the metro, we sat in seats relatively close to a young woman. The woman, who appeared tired, smiled at both of us and put headphones in her ears. In D.C., this is usually a plea to subtly ask someone to allow you to reach your destination in peace without being disturbed. Since I understood this unwritten transit rule, I respected it and pulled out an article to read. Unfortunately, my brethren took this as an invitation to engage in a one-way conversation.

Slowly moving into the seat next to her—despite no one else occupying his space—he began touching her clothing and body and commenting on the “fit” of her dress. Then he proceeded to touch her hair since he “loved how long her locks were” and “wished he had hair like hers.” Unamused by his male privilege and what he considered to be compliments, she politely said thank you and asked if he could quit touching her.

Obviously not appreciating this young’s woman rejection of his “compliments,” he immediately referred to her as a “bitch,” and told her “it’s not like I want to have sex with you—I’m gay.”

Of course, women are not the only victims of this. On the June 14 episode of Citizen Radio, Jamie Kilstein recounts a scene he witnessed on the subway in which two white women–clearly tourists–sat next to a Black man who had headphones on. They tried to talk to him, but he either didn’t hear or ignored them (reasonable in New York City). So one of the women put her hand on his knee and made a comment about it being a “tight squeeze” on the subway, and he immediately responded, “Don’t touch me.” There didn’t seem to be anything sexual about the situation, but that doesn’t make the woman’s behavior any less inappropriate. (While I don’t want to read too much into this, it definitely makes me think about the entitlement that many white people feel to touch Black people, especially their hair.)

A slightly different but similar thing happens with friends and family. People–especially children–are often shamed and guilt-tripped for choosing not to show physical affection for family members, even ones they do not know well or necessarily feel comfortable around. The assumption here is that being someone’s family member entitles you to physical affection from them, just like being someone’s partner entitles you to sex from them. While plenty of people hold one of these assumptions but not the other (generally the first but not the second), they are cut from the same cloth. And that cloth is the belief that social ties entail a duty to provide physical affection, and that if you do not provide it, you are being a bad friend/child/sibling/partner/etc.

How does this relate to the three stories I linked to? Well, many people apparently believe that once you take sexual attraction out of the equation, there’s absolutely no reason for someone to be uncomfortable with being touched (in nonsexual ways). If a gay man sits next to me on the train and starts touching me, I have to be okay with that because he’s not interested in me that way. If a straight woman starts lifting up my clothes to see parts of my body that I covered up, I have to be okay with that because she’s not interested in me that way. If a family member wants a hug and a kiss from me, I have to provide them because, well, obviously it’s not “like that.”

(False, by the way. While I am fortunate to never have experienced incest, plenty of people have.)

For starters, I’m really glad that some people have realized that you shouldn’t touch strangers without their consent if there’s a possibility that you’re sexually attracted to those strangers. But why can’t we expand that to people of all genders, whether you’re attracted to them or not?

There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with being touched, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person touching them. Some people have triggers as a result of past trauma. Some people just don’t know your intentions because they don’t know you or your sexual orientation, so they don’t know if you’re a friendly stranger expressing physical affection because…I don’t know, you like to do that? or if you’re someone who intends to harass and/or assault them. And, most importantly, some people–many people, I’m sure–just want to be left the hell alone by strangers. Sometimes being touched by someone you don’t know is just unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable.

Furthermore, if we accept “but I’m not even into [your gender]” as an excuse for nonconsensual touching by well-meaning folks, that also leaves it open as an excuse for actual predators to use.

Your desire to touch someone sexually or nonsexually for whatever reason does not outweigh their desire not to be touched. It doesn’t matter why they don’t want to be touched; that’s their business. Just like you wouldn’t touch a bag or a purse that belongs to someone else, don’t touch a body that belongs to someone else–which, by definition, is every body except your own.

Touching People Without Their Consent: Still A Problem Even If It's Not Sexual

94 thoughts on “Touching People Without Their Consent: Still A Problem Even If It's Not Sexual

  1. 1

    While I don’t want to read too much into this, it definitely makes me think about the entitlement that many white people feel to touch Black people, especially their hair.

    I totally expected that anecdote to end with them touching his hair without permission, because I’ve heard it from so many Black people.

    This is one of the reasons I don’t like to go to large, people-packed places, like busy malls, or huge concerts, or the like, because it’s nearly impossible for me to get through it without people touching me all the time, and with my history of sexual and anti-trans assaults, “people touching me without asking” has not infrequently been the opening act of a play I don’t wanna be in anymore.

    I’ve had (presumably hetero) women come up and poke my breasts to ask if they’re “real” – “Well, they’re part of my body, so I’m going to go with yes?” – or pull on my hair to see if it was a wig.

    And this is why my friends generally know enough to ask before hugging – I’ll usually say yes, unless I’m in a really freaked-out place – and why I don’t often go to places where people feel like hugging hello is a good way to start. Also why I ask people if it’s okay before I hug them. Some look at me weird, but others get that look of relief and say, “Actually, i’d rather not,” so I don’t. Easy.

    I don’t get why people find this hard. The family exemption, okay, I get where people get that one.

    But strangers? Yeesh. How is the stranger supposed to know, before you tell them, what your orientation is? How exactly, without having to interact with you (which they didn’t want in the first place!) are they supposed to determine this supposedly safety-enhancing property of you? How do they know you’re telling the truth, outside your obvious shiney-faced innocence?

    The ones I hate to see are not just touching kids without their consent, but tickling and ruffling hair and such. I HATED that as a kid. I still strongly dislike being tickled, because my dad, whom I dearly loved, had a horrible habit of tickling me until I was throwing up from laughing so hard for so long. Literally throwing up. Which he thought was kind of hilarious, so he’d do it some more, thinking, somehow, that he was making my life a better place by doing it. :/

    1. 1.1

      JFC, that story about your dad is so awful. I’m so sorry. Jeeeeez.

      The other day at a graduation reception I met a random adviser/professor who’s not from my department, so we’d never met before. We had a really great conversation and got to know each other, and when she had to leave she asked if she could give me a hug. I happily hugged her back and thanked her for asking first. I rarely have an issue with hugs and am usually happy to hug even strangers, but I wanted her to know that her attention to consent is appreciated. And it made me like and trust her even more, because even though I don’t have an issue with hugs personally, I find it easier to trust people who care about stuff like that.

      1. Yeah…he’s long dead, 1981, when I was just barely 15, and I do/did dearly love him, but that was abusive, even if he totally didn’t mean it to be. :/

        I do the same thing, with people who ask, because it feels like a gesture of respect to me, so I like it, and I compliment it when I see it happening. With people that I know, whom I know to be good folk, I’m more likely to tell them that they’re welcome to hug me without more than making eye contact first. But I do like it very much when people take a moment to ask.

        1. As I got into my teens and people started to get handsy with me, I started to get the whole consent thing a whole lot more, even if I couldn’t put it into words. I try to always ask for permission myself, even though I’ve negotiated that sometimes I can put up with my own boundaries being trampled. When I met my partner’s teenaged nephew and niece a few years ago (I stayed with the family for a few days), when my partner and I were leaving I explicitly said I was open for handshake, hug or wave, whatever made them feel best. I think that may have earned me brownie points with my partner’s shy nephew, who was happy with the handshake (and his bubbly niece, who nearly bowled me over with her hug!)

      2. I completely understand. I have done the same thing. I try to make a point of thanking anyone who asks permission to touch me.
        Moreover, finding this community back in 2010, I have had my eyes opened up in so many ways. Prior to this, I engaged in the very activity I now criticize. I hate that I did, but accept and admit that I used to touch people in non sexual ways. I recall one instance working with a guy and me, being playful would occasionally grab and twist his nipples. One day he finally snapped, and gently but firmly asked me not to do that. I could not understand why, but I did as he asked. Looking back, I think it may be due to not learning about bodily autonomy until I was an adult.
        Now I get it.

    2. 1.2

      My stepdad used to pin me down or sit on me and tickle me until long past the point where I stopped breathing, then get mad (like, really mad, furious, then threaten to never play with me again) at me when I cried, either because I was panicking or because I’d peed my pants and was humiliated. He just never knew when to stop and nothing I did– including saying no or stop or I can’t breathe– was a cue that he had gone too far. And of course I wanted my stepdad to love me, of course I wanted him to approve of me and want to spend time with me, so I felt like it was a character flaw for me to have boundaries even when I was in physical pain or was desperately uncomfortable. Did not help that his fury at me usually came with a helping of cutting words about how weak girls were which made me feel obligated to prove I was not weak by enduring things I found awful. What kind of person gets mad at a little kid for crying when he dominates and humiliates them? What kind of person threatens to remove physical contact and approval from a child because they are significantly smaller and unable to endure being crushed past the point of breathing? I still can’t answer those questions as well as I’d like. My mom would tell me it was because he felt bad, and I should forgive him and go easy on him. Why couldn’t he forgive me and go easy on me? I was the kid and he was the adult, after all.

      1. OMG, I had a family member who would do stuff like that. When we were little he’d hold us down like that. If we freaked out or cried, he was “just playing” and we had bad attitudes. He was a total asshole and the older I got, the more he creeped me out. I remember being 15 and he patted me on the butt as I walked by him and from that point on, I was sure he was a jerk. My parents thought nothing of it. It wasn’t that he was “just playing” and didn’t know people’s boundaries, of course. He had a history of abusing women. I found out that he’d once broken his wife’s arm and that he terrorized his stepdaughters. The family knew this, but they still let him treat us kids like that….icky stuff.

        My kids do not have to hug people or kiss them. Some of my kids don’t like hugging very much, and others find kissing on the mouth gross and germy. That’s fine. I’d rather my kids learn that their bodies are their own and other people’s bodies are their own than worry about offending some creepy adult.

        1. *Nodnodnod*

          It’s just way, way too common. With my stepdad, I wasn’t allowed to fight back. I would get in trouble for hurting him or for being “disrespectful” if I fought back. It was a stark contrast to the relationship between our neighbor and his son of the same age. When they would grapple, both of them would be throwing elbows, the dad would hold back so he didn’t hurt his kid and the son would be going all out. Sometimes the dad ended up with a bloody nose, but still nobody got mad or got in trouble, when a time out was called, it was respected. My takeaway was boys are equal in value to adults, girls are just there to be used and dominated. Gee I wonder how both my sister and I ended up in abusive relationships.

          I love babies. If I had my druthers, I would scoop up all the babies and cuddle them and coo at them and wiggle their little toes, but I don’t. I ask before I touch someone’s baby and a lot of the time I get a look of relief from the parent/s but a troublesome amount of the time I get weirded, like of course a total stranger can touch my baby, what, babies have feelings? It is my experience that the belief that babies don’t need personal space translates into a belief of children not needing boundaries or space, either. That is how I was treated, when I would get upset about an injustice against me, my mom would tell me that kids are resilient, they forget a lot of what happens to them. So that made anything an adult did to me okay, somehow, and if I was not resilient and if I did remember then I was not following the script. It’s a self-perpetuating pattern.

          I can’t even get into the expectations my family has surrounding how all the now grown grandkids will behave around my nasty uncle. Let’s just say that moving my children a couple thousand miles away was a relief.

          1. I ask before I touch someone’s baby and a lot of the time I get a look of relief from the parent/s but a troublesome amount of the time I get weirded, like of course a total stranger can touch my baby, what, babies have feelings? It is my experience that the belief that babies don’t need personal space translates into a belief of children not needing boundaries or space, either.

            When I have children, I’ll consider it my job to enforce their boundaries until their old enough to do it themselves. So this means I’ll need a lot of scripts like, “Actually, I’d like you to ask before touching my baby” and “Actually, she doesn’t like being tickled, so please don’t.” And people are going to be pissed and I’m going to give no fucks.

          2. @ Miri
            Big, pregnant bellies and the babies which come out of them seem to be considered by a lot of people to be public fucking property. What fresh hell is this I cannot even? I will say that by pregnancy #3 I had all but perfected the touch me or my baby without asking and lose a hand body posture, which doesn’t deter everyone but is usually an effective shield. Certainly kept old ladies on the bus from grabbing my lower belly/crotch unannounced (pregnancy #1).

            Adding onto touching babies: taking pictures of other people’s babies and little kids. Had a pair of tourists snap my eldest’s photo while we were having lunch one day, and they did not understand why I got confrontational with them. “But he’s just a baby and he’s so cute!” “Yes, he is, but he is also a person, not a puppy, my family is not a tourist attraction, and I don’t know you or your intentions at all. You need to ask permission first.” “Sputter/indignation/why I objectify people like this all the time and I never” I guess they didn’t expect a teenaged appearing, hippy looking mom to have, like, firm boundaries and shit. They were wrong.

  2. 3

    I heard that piece of shit “Tosh” was encouraging his audience to grope fat people and insult them. First thing this article made me think of.

    I’m a cis/straight seeming white dude and this sort of thing bothers me too, even when it’s really mild – back slaps, other “encouraging” gestures, etc. Of course, my first memory is of being punched by an older kid, so maybe I got a complex about touch somewhere along the way.

  3. 4

    Also related: Straight guys who grope other guys as a joke. Usually, if you object, you’re a homophobe and if you don’t you’re gay, which is hilarious, even if it is OK.

  4. 5

    Thank you for this. It’s really good to see some of my unformed thoughts (in this case “no, I’m not an unfriendly bitch but I still don’t want you touching me”) put more coherently.

    I tend to wear the yuckiness a bit. If someone goes to hug me I do a quick mental calculation of whether the horrible feeling of being hugged when I don’t want to be hugged is greater than the potential drama that’s stirred up if you reject being hugged by someone. I’m kind of spectrum-y (it’s complicated) and quite introverted, so I don’t like physical interaction from those outside my inner circle, but most of the time I think the drama resulting from saying no to a hug is more worth avoiding than the horrible feeling of having my boundaries trampled on. I hate that I have to do these calculations, and I wish society didn’t make it painful to enforce boundaries, but it’s the way I get through the fact that many people (mostly well meaning, close but not that close) have no idea that they’re doing the wrong thing. (I also talk about these things in the abstract- I’ve just shared this on Facebook- but less people are likely to explode at me about “yes, I need consent before you touch me, no matter what, unless we have a pre-existing arrangement” than “actually I have PMS and I’m not that close to you to make this ok, back off today please”)

  5. 6

    This is an excellent point. I hate being touched, so much so that I really have no desire to continue living in the city after I graduate. Just getting jostled on the subway or sitting through crowded bus rides make me antsy and uncomfortable. Fortunately, most all of my friends are straight males, and straight males seem to be extremely attuned to the concept of personal space, almost to the point of paranoia. Around men, I think this is mainly homophobia; around women, it’s due to the fear of being labeled creepy or lecherous. Non-straight males don’t really understand that dynamic, IMO.

    I’d guess this particular kind of presumption seems like it would be a bigger issue among straight women. Maybe gay men too, because anecdotally, a lot of gay men seem to think they can put their hands wherever they want. Not even just with women, but with other men too. I go to a school with a fairly visible gay community, which is great, but I’ve had to deal with really pushy individuals on a number of occasions. The worst was the time I was on the bus, and this random kid sits next to me and- to the background noise of an almost completely one-way conversation- starts touching me, breathing down my neck, telling me I had a “nice mouth”… and I don’t even think he saw anything wrong with that stuff. IMO, it’s supposed to come across as all “teehee transgressive gay sexuality”, but it doesn’t. It’s creepy and invasive. Get your fucking hands off of me. I finally basically said that, and he did, but Christ, I shouldn’t have had to. I haven’t seen the same kind of behavior from straight women, but that could be because I am unattractive. Other men may have a different perspective.

    I’ve strayed from the original topic, but I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to universalize “don’t touch”- put it alongside things like “don’t interrupt” and “don’t pick your nose in public” in the kindergarten curriculum.

    I’m sure as hell not diving into this can of worms at 10PM, but it occurs to me that the frequency of this kind of behavior could be obliquely connected to the overall lack of respect we have for bodily autonomy in this country, what with the anti-abortion movement. Conscription, too. (Obviously I’m being Amerocentric here). I mean, if the US government doesn’t consider bodily autonomy to be an inalienable right (and they don’t), it seems plausible that that general attitude could trickle down and then manifest in individuals. But that’s just me speculating.

    What is with this new thing, capitalizing “Black”? I’ve been seeing it everywhere. Can someone explain?

  6. 7

    Oh my gosh.

    Yes, all of this, thank you.

    Every time I read a post like this, I think that I must have been extremely lucky in the people I’ve come across in my life. NO ONE touches me, and I have only rarely had to ask them not to do it. They just don’t. I don’t know if it is that I am physically intimidating, or my body language makes it obvious that I wouldn’t react well to being touched, or if I’ve just always moved in circles that give people a lot of personal space.

    And it is a good thing that they don’t, because one of the less fun features of my autism is that some of my senses are so sensitive that what seems like a normal, non-intrusive level of stimulus to most people is overpowering to me. Hearing and touch are my two senses that work that way. If you touch my skin, I will experience something like a chemical burn. Even standing too close will make unable to think clearly, because there will be a loud, angry buzzing in my head and I will be in fight-or-flight mode.

    Obviously, when I am in this state your motivations mean less than nothing to me. I don’t care, and likely can’t even spare the mental energy to grasp, what’s in your head when you, say, grab my arm or put an unexpected hand on my shoulder. (No one has done this; I’m just doing a hypothetical). I am in pain, and all I can think of is how to get out of that pain. I will probably just jerk away from you and quickly put ten feet or so between us so that I can breathe again, but if it’s bad I may shove you. I will do this regardless of whether you’re perving on me or not — again, I’m so agitated I’m not even thinking about you at all. Your motivations are no more relevant than the motivations of a downed electrical wire that you accidentally step on, or the motivations of a snake that bites you. You know (later, anyway) that the snake wasn’t deliberately and maliciously plotting to bite you, that biting you wasn’t the snake’s fault, but you still have to deal with snakebite.

    So, random people who don’t understand why people freak out when you touch them: it might be because IT HURTS WHEN YOU DO IT. You cannot know how another person’s nervous system works, and you can’t extrapolate how something feels to you to another person.

  7. 8

    Miri: THANK YOU. On my list of pet peeves, this is in the top three. Two things that people of any gender seem to love–touching/rubbing my shaved head and catching a glimpse of one of the two tattoos on my arms and deciding to lift my sleeve to get a good look. A few months ago, while sitting at a bar in late afternoon a woman walked right up and in the middle of talking about my tattoo, she proceeds to lift my sleeve. I pushed her hand away and told her I do not like people doing that. For the next hour or so, she whined and complained both to me, and other patrons about how mean I was. I wound up getting a slight buzz and snapping at her that it is disrespectful to just walk up to a complete stranger and do what she did. Though she was drunk, I still do not excuse her actions. I actually got pissed off enough that I wound up leaving after an hour or so. In years past when gay bars played music I like I would often dance for hours. If I got too hot, I’d take my shirt off. Why then, do many guys feel the need to come up behind me and start groping me??? Yeah I am gay, but that does not entitle a guy to grope me. Nor does being shirtless. Or walking through a crowded gay bar and having guys grab my crotch or ass. God damn. I am sick of that shit. I do not stay silent. Nor do I get aggressive. I *do* get firm. What is with this sense of entitlement so many people have? Also, I wonder if it is more prevalent with men

  8. 9

    Yes, it’s entirely of a piece with people thinking that other people’s food choices or health status, or even their own, are public property. I don’t care what crap you shovel into your pie hole, or don’t, and please return the favor. 🙂 That’s one reason I sort of wince when I think about socialized medicine, as necessary and desirable as it is. When “the taxpayer’s money” is involved, does our health, do our bodies, become “the taxpayer’s” property?

    1. 9.1

      Having lived under socialized medicine my whole life, the answer is quite simply, no. You’re in more danger of refused treatment from your HMO, which has a vested interest in always making profit, than under a system of socialized medicine.

      The same amount of money Americans spend on health insurance, if sent in taxes to the government for use in a socialized health system, would very likely result in similar (if not better) care for quite a bit lower prices, because of the power of a non-profit monopoly to set the price of goods and services is quite capable of being harnessed to getting good care for less money. The US media, in service to their corporate masters, has been…somewhat less than totally truthful with the US public on the topic.

    2. 9.2

      I’m Australian and have lived in the UK. At no stage have I ever felt that my body, health, or food choice became of national interest. (In fact, I’ve heard that insurance companies in the US take your weight into account when you get insurance? I don’t know if that’s true, but in Australia, at least, that’s not the case with private health insurance, and public subsidy towards your health is made without taking any of those factors into account)

    3. 9.3

      The difference (to me) is that socialized medicine is a part of government, in which we all ought to have a say. If I pay taxes, I should get a say in what type of services I get.

      I think it’s worse with employer based health care since your employer pretends that they’re dong you this huge favor, and can make all sorts of silly demands. A friend of mine told me that, in order to get special ‘wellness points’ that reduce her premium, she has to walk laps around or inside of the office building where she works. This is the only activity that can get you these points, and given that my friend is pretty fit, the ‘walking workout’ is about as strenuous an exercise to her as sitting behind the desk. Regrettably, if she runs a marathon or lifts weights outside of the office, since it can’t be properly documented, it doesn’t count.

      So in the end, it seems more like just a hoop she has to jump through that represents company control.

    4. 9.4

      Absolutely not. I’ve lived in Canada, which has socialized medicine, for the majority of my life.

      I’ve never had a medically necessary treatment or consultation refused to me – it’s a, “Oh, you need this? You get it.” thing. I’ve had to wait because my case wasn’t urgent and others’ were, but I’ve never had it refused. Nor have I ever had some government spook come try to fine me for forgetting my medication or having too much ice cream anything like that. It just doesn’t happen. I’ve also never been explicitly penalized in terms of healthcare I can access for unhealthy choices, nor has my diet or health ever served as a gatekeeping factor in whether I get a medical treatment I need. My health only matters to my healthcare in that I have to pay for what I don’t need – if I want a mole removed cosmetically, for example, I’d have to pay for that. But I don’t have to pay for lung function tests if my asthma’s seriously acting up and my doctor wants to see what the hell’s going on inside my chest. It’s less a, “Stay healthy or else,” and more of a, “What do you need?

      The other thing I’ve noticed is that socialized medicine systems tend to put a heavy emphasis on patient education and preventative medicine. I’ve got American asthma friends with moderate or even severe asthma who’ve never heard of asthma education programs, for example, but here in Canada, they’re supposed to be part of the standard approach for anyone who averages >1 ER trip or oral steroid-worthy flareup a year, because every dollar spent into asthma education saves at least $3 in ER costs among such patients (and that’s ignoring associated costs such as medications, doctors visits, etc) by teaching them how to spot triggers, things they can do to reduce exposure, and how to properly monitor and treat flareups to avoid going to the ER or needing a burst of steroids, and as such the province looks on it as a good investment.

      And, speaking from experience as someone who’s gone through such a program, the education programs not only save money for tax payers, but also give patients a greatly improved quality of life. The training I received from my asthma education program helped me control my asthma and reduce my severe flares from 3-4 a year to… my last one was over 2 years ago. Chronically ill people like being as healthy as possible, so give us the tools to control our health, we’ll control it. So the medical attitude here seems like it isn’t as much crisis management as it is crisis prevention.

  9. 10

    Yes, I’m black and I hate, hate, hate, when people walk up to me and touch my hair. I would never think to do the same to them. When I was pregnant, people seemed to think my abdomen belonged to them, I hated for them to pat my abdomen and would get crazy looks when I objected. I would never and have never done the same with out permission. And when I ask permission, also tell them I won’t be offended if they say ‘no’, because pregnant women don’t seem to think they can. I also NEVER told my children they had to hug or be demonstrably affectionate with someone they do not want to touch. And they were allowed to change their mind.

  10. 11

    A thousand times, yes. I have always hated being touched without permission. I rarely hug anyone but my closest friends and family and even then I’m alert to signs that say “no” because no one in my family is particularly touchy-feely either. It happens to me a lot less now, but when I was younger I had cultivated a quick, probably a bit violent response to people who touched me from being groped too often.

    I live now in a place where people who barely know each other greet by kissing. It makes me hugely uncomfortable, but it’s cultural and I don’t know how to avoid it without being rude.

  11. 12

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with how people feel entitled to touch a pregnant women’s belly. I’ve seen people cross the street to paw at a baby en utero. I have no idea what drives people to think they have the right to do so without asking, as if the mother got pregnant just to get strangers to molest her. Fuckin’ people are so creepy.

  12. 13

    Interesting from the kids point of view as I responded to a tweet from Radi (@AnuTrophy) with this link in it ->

    The tickle thing was well timed as my 4yr old daughter has just started getting grumpy sometimes when tickling her. She tells me off and switches instantly from happy to grumpy. Immediate knee jerk reaction is to complain about her being too sensitive as it was fun a moment ago and fun for the last few years! But I have been trying to be better about apologising and changing play to something else. For some reason moving to play fight with her toy sword and whack me with it for a while or get the nerf guns out is usually appealing to her after getting grumpy.

    Having read CaitieCats posts and remembering how much I hated having my hair ruffled as a kid let alone tickling it seems like something that can definitely be overlooked. Play can easily move into being unpleasant and unhelpful for development.

  13. 14

    TW: fat shaming, assault, eating disorders, suicide attempt

    Here’s the story I was told about. Not exactly what I’d heard, but close enough, and still – legally in many states – assault. This Tosh dude needs to get his ass kicked up and down the block:

    Someone in the comments there was talking about a teacher they had in junior high who was harassed into quitting by students making fun of her weight. I remembered a (very beautiful at 200+lbs) junior high teacher of my own who confessed to having bad anorexia. One summer she had an episode over some abuse from students, complete with a suicide attempt.

    I couldn’t really understand that pain until years later, going out with someone else and finding out all the inner workings of an eating disorder. I feel like I’ve been living in hell my whole life, but lucky enough to have special male privilege glasses that make it seem like Earth instead.

  14. 16

    I was just thinking about this the other day. I wore a new dress to work that has a soft, long ruffle that hangs from the top of the bodice. A female co-worker, while admiring the dress reached out and picked up the ruffle. The ruffle covers my breasts and in the process she almost touched my breasts. While it didn’t upset me to a great extent, I thought about how invasive it was and how if it’d been a man doing it I would have freaked the hell out. Which made me feel a bit bad because I should have told her not to touch me. It’s not okay even if she didn’t have any sexual intent behind it. And not all men have sexual intent behind what they do either.

    Thank you for writing this Miri, it’s like you read my mind.

  15. 17

    Yeah, this happened to me at a party once. Dude grabbed my breasts out of the blue. “It’s okay, I’m gay!” Look, the reason I don’t want people touching my breasts is not because I’m concerned about them wanting to fuck me. The reason I don’t want people touching my breasts is because I don’t want people touching my breasts.

    Excellent point about respecting children’s bodily autonomy, too.

  16. 18

    I love it when black people touch my hair. It’s one of my favourite happy things in the world. When I look back on my life, I’m going to remember the times someone black touched my hair as some of my fondest life moments. I never touch theirs back though, for fear of being patronising and ruffling my privilege in their alpha keratin. (that’s me being tongue in cheek, but it’s also true).

    I think some close circles of friends get used to hugging / touching each other and it spills over into other circles spontaneously. Which I quite like because it makes the world feel less cold and fearfully regimented sometimes. A welcome change.

    People who grew up in touchy feely families tend to be touchy feely with their friends also, it spills over again, or reminds them of home. My family aren’t cold, but we’re not as touchy feely as others either. Straight male boundaries are what I’m used to. With female friends (whatever orientation) if they’re touchy feely, I feel like I need to return as much touchiness back in order to avoid being perceived as unfriendly, wooden or autistic. But if you force it, it just feels awkward, so it’s best not to feel obliged to return outreaching affection even if you feel comfortable receiving it. Same the other way. If someone doesn’t return your outreaching affection, no need to feel awkward, rejected or fearful, unless they’re frowning, looking awkward, saying no please ask / don’t or staring daggers at you. If you have a mutually agreed unspoken flow of touch (as friends or strangers) it’s very special.

    I’ve had many instances where I keep silent but am ready to explode with annoyance, and my none return of touch is an unspoken hostile message to back off, yet other times I am grateful for the spontaneous touch and unspoken closeness. Some people I would rather they ask, others I’m happy they don’t.

    No one likes rejection, but creeps, creepy strangers, spoilt adults, annoying drunk people tend to take advantage of people’s innate want to be polite and please also. I agree with the article, I will assert myself when annoyed and ask if in doubt more in the future. But creeps / pushy / sleazy folk shouldn’t ruin things for the rest. I don’t want people to always ask because I’d miss the special times when they didn’t. A random hug / touch can really make someone’s day much brighter, bring them back from the brink of isolation and help them feel more accepted and loved by random humanity.

    Jonathan Richman’s song Affection is touching. It takes courage sometimes, and loving courage shouldn’t be discouraged too much in this harsh world.

    1. 18.1

      But creeps / pushy / sleazy folk shouldn’t ruin things for the rest. I don’t want people to always ask because I’d miss the special times when they didn’t. A random hug / touch can really make someone’s day much brighter, bring them back from the brink of isolation and help them feel more accepted and loved by random humanity.

      I think you’re exaggerating the inconvenience of asking. Among my social circle, it’s standard to say a quick “Hug?” before hugging someone, allowing them to say, “No thanks!’ I can vouch for the fact that this does not in any way impede my enjoyment of the resulting hug. In fact, it makes me enjoy it all the more knowing that the person cares enough about my comfort to ask, that this is NOT just about them getting physical affection FROM me, but also about them providing it TO me in a way that I’ve indicated I’m okay with.

      1. This. Further anecdata from my involvement in the kink community, where it’s quite clear, it’s inappropriate to touch someone without consent in any way.

        I don’t get it when people argue that getting consent ruins things. I really just don’t get how someone prioritizes “I want to touch you” over “I don’t want to be touched!”. Like your friends, Miri, it can even be as simple as making eye-contact and quirking an eyebrow with some of my friends, because we know each other pretty well. I know the people who are okay with me hugging them without asking, and I know the people who aren’t okay with it, or may sometimes be not okay with it. It takes almost no time, and lets everyone feel safe and happy in their own way.

        It’s just like sex: I’d much, MUCH rather have someone give me an enthusiastic “YEAH LET’S!” than rely on what I think his eyes are saying, or how much cuddle-time So-and-so got with her, or whatever. So much easier to just say, “Hey, wanna?”

        1. But other social circles enjoy implicit consent as the norm too. I didn’t mean to imply explicit consent – asking – detracts from enjoyment. You’re right it can make enjoyment much greater knowing they paused to make sure and they weren’t relying on their mind reading skills.

          I was trying to illustrate that I value implicit consent just as much. Sometimes not asking is fine. If my friends can successfully “read my mind” and pick up correctly on my implicit body language and mood signals then I’m just as happy.

          If someone is grieving or telling my something heavy, I will reach out and hold their hand with both of mine without thinking. To hesitate or ask in that situation would make no sense, and would not comfort them as much. The immediacy of the touch is the comfort.

          I wouldn’t want my friends or RARE strangers to doubt themselves and feel they couldn’t trust their intuition when deciding to provide me with affection (for my sake/needs not forceably theirs) without asking . I want them to feel relaxed in an unspoken understanding, trust their instincts and not feel out of touch with where I’m at or second guess my mood. I don’t want them to think I am assuming they’re creeping or really don’t care or are being intrusive on purpose if they don’t ask.

          BUT this is NOT a RULE. If they get it wrong, I may well assume those things. There are many exceptions. Sometimes my friends are way off and I have no idea why they couldn’t “read my mind” or pick up on my ‘do not touch my arm or shoulder’ or ‘do not drag me across the room by a vice grip of my wrists’ body language. It obviously makes me doubt the friendship. Asking would AVOID any doubts surely. Yet what I’m trying to get at, is sometimes the point of touching is to communicate immediately powerful non-verbal understanding. You risk getting it wrong, and if you get it wrong quickly stop and apologise, but if you get it right it’s powerfully enriching. If someone else spontaneously, yet gently led me across a room with a light holding of my hand, and the following social situation was also positive, that would enrich our friendship instead.

          Groping, dragging people around, stranger touching on a train, talking to someone with headphones on, forcing yourself onto someone sexually, should be common sense toxic no-nos. The line with other nurturing touching is more blurry (like the grieving / distressed example above).

          Friends have told me they rarely like people touching them, so I always remember to ask them. Some friends always say no, or never have the right body language, so I stop asking or never reach out in the first place. We call my brother a ‘prickly hedgehog’ out of respectful understanding and non-touching affection.

          I think consent dynamics (implicit / explicit) between pairs, groups, strangers is very subjective. It changes with the dynamics of the friendships and moods. Objectively always asking, should in theory avoid all misunderstandings and eliminate mind reading intuition errors. I wonder though, if there will still be times where you ask them ‘hug?’, but they still feel obliged to say yes even though they don’t really want one.

          Here again you will unavoidably have to rely on your intuition about other unspoken signals alone, to work out if they were being honest with themselves and with you.

          If you look at cats and dogs (any non-human animal), they can’t ask each other, but they will intuitively know when not to touch each other. When they misinterpret signals, they’ll be quick to know and correct themselves due to the other animal’s body language. It’s partly a behavioral evolutionary trait. To know instinctively when and when not to touch someone.

          Some people, such as creeps are so out of touch with their instincts of other’s personal spaces, that it will always be more to their own social / evolutionary detriment in the long run ( like the gay man on the train harassing the headphone woman, and the white women on the train touching the headphone black man’s leg. ) They’re not going to make any new friendships that way anytime soon. Other people, who have better (non-asking) touching instincts will make new friendships just as well as people who always ask.

          I don’t think asking will become the norm across all social circles, but I can see how it can be a beautiful well received norm in others. I hope I’ve clarified my overall agreement, it is safest to always ask a stranger, gender attraction binary is never an excuse, family ties aren’t either, really glad you called bullshit on that, and explicit consent does not diminish enjoyment. I’m glad when friends/strangers ask me sometimes, glad when they do not fear not asking at other times.

          1. If someone is grieving or telling my something heavy, I will reach out and hold their hand with both of mine without thinking. To hesitate or ask in that situation would make no sense, and would not comfort them as much. The immediacy of the touch is the comfort.

            to whom? I mean fine, if you already know ahead of time that this is something they find comforting, that’s one thing.

            But I assure you, I wouldn’t find sudden grabbing of my hand in the slightest comforting. In fact, I wouldn’t find any sudden touching comforting. I dont’ like that at the best of times, and when I’m teling you about something horrible and therefore feeling vulnerable, touching is just not something you should be doing at all, whatsoever O.o

          2. If you look at cats and dogs (any non-human animal), they can’t ask each other, but they will intuitively know when not to touch each other. When they misinterpret signals, they’ll be quick to know and correct themselves due to the other animal’s body language.

            Er… no, they actually don’t typically ‘correct themselves’. When cats and dogs and other animals ‘misinterpret’ another’s initial signals, they get ‘corrected’ by the other animal, not by themselves. They won’t be ‘corrected’ by mere ‘body language’, either, but by growling, hissing, and screaming, followed by either fleeing or full-on physical attacks. There’s no detectable difference in responses based on whether the initial signals were ‘misinterpreted’, ‘ignored’, or ‘deliberately contravened’.

            Animals as a whole are actually pretty lousy at interpreting ‘body language’ in anything other than a very general sense; i.e. “wow that other animal sure is upset/aggressive/defensive” rather than “wow that other animal sure is upset/aggressive/defensive about…”. ‘Misinterpretation’ in animals leads to a lot of what get labelled ‘behavioural problems’ in pets, when animals previously living together peacefully suddenly and without (apparent) warning start acting very aggressively towards each other.

            All of which is to say: Humans have the capacity to ask and be sure, and to not just rely on an imprecise system of ‘body language’. There’s no excuse to claim ‘misinterpretation’ when it comes to whether someone else wants physical contact with you.

      2. “But creeps / pushy / sleazy folk shouldn’t ruin things for the rest. I don’t want people to always ask because I’d miss the special times when they didn’t. A random hug / touch can really make someone’s day much brighter, bring them back from the brink of isolation and help them feel more accepted and loved by random humanity.”

        Okay, great. That’s true for you. But for other people, the sentence might look very different:

        “A random hug/touch can really make someone’s day much worse, provoke a PTSD attack, throw them over the brink of isolation, and make them feel less accepted and cared for.”

        Or “A random hug/touch can really make someone’s day much worse, reminding them that they are seen as less than human by other people.”

        Or “A random hug/touch can really make someone’s day much worse, making them panic, and then feel silly for panicing, and provoking an anxiety attack.”

        Etc. etc. etc.

        I’ll stick to asking.

      3. Or, ya know, just do the sort of open arms shrug invitation thing, and let them step into the hug instead of taking the hug to them.

        That’s how a good friend of mine who is very touchy-feely does it. She wants to hug people when they are down, so she starts from about a foot or so away and just sort of opens her arms a bit. If you want the hug, step towards her, if you don’t, she’ll drop the position after a second and go with strictly verbal communication. After the first time or two, the dance is sort of unconscious. She’ll do the same thing with hand holding. Instead of taking my hand, she’ll just put hers near mine in an open gesture, and let me take her hand if I am interested.

        Another friend of ours who has a personal space bubble about the size of Texas has responded to this by actually becoming physically affectionate with this friend. As she put it, ‘realizing the choice was totally mine made me actually want the hug’.

        Consent is sexy even in totally platonic ways.

        1. That “having a big bubble” thing, I came to call my “FOALMA-wave generator”: Fuck Off And Leave Me Alone. Ididn’t even realize I was still giving them off (I’d been on the street for a while as a teen), until someone at a dinner responded to my whiney “Why won’t anyone offer to hug me?” with “Well, every time the hugging starts, you bristle up like a big angry cat, and everyone knows better than to touch you.”

          I was…stunned, honestly. That bristling was my attempt to be open and huggable. I had a lot to learn.

          Having friends who respected that made it a LOT easier to learn.

  17. 19

    I thought I posted something else…

    I find that a lot of people use alcohol consumption as an excuse to start touching people, and I really think it’s more the excuse that comes with drinking that the person actually being drunk, since I’ve seen people take a few sips and then immediately start invading people’s personal space. It’s just another example of people inventing a post-hoc rationalization for obnoxious behavior.

    This is kind of why I started getting a preference for drinking at pubs instead of private residences – if someone touches me or won’t leave me alone, they can get ejected from the premises, rather than your friends telling you to ‘chill’ because ‘it’s all cool’ because it wasn’t sexual or meant to offend.

    And the whole ‘it’s not sexual’ – by the time you’ve grabbed me or whatever, my mind and body have already reacted in a very negative way. It isn’t like I’m going to instantly recover by finding out that the person lifting up my shirt from behind totally wasn’t doing it for a sexual reason.

  18. 20

    Doing anything to a person without their consent should be a no-no.

    I coach singers and sometimes I need to touch them in order to move them into proper alignment or to demonstrate how something should “feel”. I always ask, even though the students know this is part of the drill.

    Although, there’s a favorite guy of mine who I have hugged without asking. He’s 67 and sometimes gets a little frustrated. A hug does him wonders. Funny, he’s one of my favorites even though he’s a retired (and still very religious) preacher.

    And to talk about the other side of the coin, a couple of weeks ago, I was on “death watch” with my father. The pastor of my mother’s church came in and said a little prayer (which I actually believe helped speed things along — but that’s a different post). In any event, all the tension from this gave me an intense neck cramp — which the pastor made worse by touching my neck and back without asking. He was definitely not a respecter of boundaries.

    TL:DR — No permission, no touch.

  19. 21

    I’m a touchy-feely person, if I know you. I like hugs, platonic cuddles, that kind of stuff.

    But I still expect people to ask unless they know me and my body language really, really well.

    I despise “It’s okay, I’m gay!” so much. (TW: sexual assault) when I was at a queer bar, and a man came into the bathroom, it was “okay, because he was gay”. When he cornered me, and groped me, pulling up my skirt, I told management, who said “Yeah, but he’s gay.” OH. THAT ACTUALLY DOES NOT MAKE SEXUAL ASSAULT OKAY.

    When I was at my province’s Highland Games years back, I was wearing a short tartan skirt, because it was hot, and I have my family tartan in skirt form. I was chatting with a friend, when all of a sudden, a little boy came up, and lifted up my skirt. having PTSD, I freaked out a little, then saw his father nearby, who was laughing, and said he just wanted to see my tattoos on my thighs. The kid kept coming back, with his father laughing the whole time. Parent your damn kid, and teach them about fucking consent and boundaries.

    1. 21.1

      A friend of mine got sexually harassed by a kid who was probably under 6 the other day while she was leaving a mall. I’m thinking a lot of these kids are just picking up on adult attitudes. I would freak out if I had a child who was going to violate someone’s personal space or body – it’s the type of thing, like running into the street, that you just don’t do, but when adults laugh at shit like this, they teach the kids it’s okay and that the clear discomfort of other people is funny.

      1. Yeah, I wasn’t like mad at the kid, he was a tiny kid, but I was pissed beyond belief at his father, who was laughing and condoning this shit. He’s learning young that people coded as women don’t need to consent to being grabbed and having their skirts raised, and that will lead to nasty shit.

    2. 21.2

      I had a kid in my martial arts club smack my ass once. I told him it’s never okay to do that, made him sit out for ten minutes and told him that if I ever saw him do that to someone again, he’d be sitting out a full class because it wasn’t okay to touch people there without their permission.

      His father later complained to our head instructor (something about the kid just joking and me being a over-reacting bitch), who replied that if he’d seen it, he would’ve suspended the kid from the club for a month so the kid got off easy since sexual harassment is not okay, funny, or cute, even if a six-year-old does it.

      1. I’d say that first, the kid’s parents have a responsibility to teach their kid that behavior like that is inappropriate. Six is plenty old enough to understand personal boundaries. The real issue shouldn’t have been ‘harsh punishment’ but ‘why haven’t you taught your kids you don’t grab people’s asses?’

        1. I agree with you there – I think why the head instructor exaggerated talking to the parents was because the kid’s father was all, “hurr hurr wimminz, y’know?” about it and he wanted to send the message that it was absolutely not acceptable.

  20. 22

    I remember a time (years ago) when I was a computer engineer working on an especially difficult problem. When I finally got it working, I ran into my nearest friend’s office and cried “It worked! It worked! It worked!” while with each excalmation banging his shoulders with my fists. (He had his back to me.) He turned around and we discussed the bug fix… and I slunk out of his office, realizing I shouldn’t have touched him.

  21. 23

    Uhm… what about things like tapping a person on the shoulder/elbow to get their attention?

    I’m in a wheelchair, and people just don’t look down. So I end up in this situation where I can either wait for the oblivious people to finish their chatter and move on, or I can politely tap them on the elbow and ask them to please scoot over so I can get through. I don’t want to violate their boundaries, but dammit, I’ve got places to go and things to do, too, and it’s often the only thing that works, because my polite “‘scuse me” has gone ignored, several times!

    What do ya do?

    1. 23.1

      I think it’s clearly different when 1) you have no choice, and 2) the purpose isn’t your own personal gratification. The examples I used were all about people touching others for no practical purpose and in ways that are clearly invasive for many people.

    2. 23.2

      Totally agree with Miri here – that’s a pretty reasonable request for accommodation, I’d say, and frankly, if they’ve been ignoring your words, I don’t see as you’d have much choice.

      It’s as much a violation of your boundaries as it is theirs; I’m sure you aren’t inclined to go around touching people without permission, so requiring you to go outside your own bounds before they’ll make space is a pretty passive-aggressive act on their part, to me. If you’re using a chair and are that close that you could touch them, and they haven’t paid attention to you possibly needing to get by? They’re clearly not doing much with their empathy.

      1. And there’s always the possibility that the person whose attention you’re trying to get isn’t ignoring you but has partial hearing loss or is Deaf, so in that instance a polite tap on their elbow might be necessary to get their attention.

  22. 24

    A very interesting article, and one with which I generally agree, I’m British, and we are SO not into the casual touching.

    That said, to add a little context to what you say, in some cultures physical contact is more common, my experience of living in France and visiting some other European countries is that they are far more permissive of casual physical contact. You only have to look as far as the French ‘bise’ which is often (but not always) shared between acquaintances and sometimes even strangers. Spanish people I have met are very likely to rest their hand on one’s arm as a casual gesture. (Note: I am perfectly willing to accept a cultural norm does not speak for everyone, or bow to superior insight on this)

    So being in these other countries, encountering their citizens or being in places where two cultural groups mix adds a level of complexity to the idea that means, unfortunately, an expectation to not touch or not be touched is one which cannot be assumed. Don’t touch in some cultures = offense, do touch in others = offense.

    Obviously, I understand that the author is living in the US, so I sympathise and agree with her expectation of the people around her, because US culture is generally don’t touch. As is my own. Just thought this might be useful.

    1. 24.1

      My brother is a translator, and he said he didn’t like living in S Korea because placing a hand on someone while talking to them was considered okay over there, and it never stopped bothering him. He’d always thought he’d had a high tolerance for physical greetings, but found that just to be more than he could adjust to, but luckily, he moved to China soon afterwards, where it seems people around where he lives are less inclined towards casual touch.

      In my own experience, I find that my strategy to avoid physical contact is that I extend my left hand for a handshake. Then people have to adjust to me, and I often end up reaching around (turning my hand upside down) so that I can shake the person’s right hand with my left hand. It’s not really all because I’m left-handed, it’s just that throwing out a form of ‘touch’ that is confusing tends to reduce touch overall.

  23. 25

    Even an extrovert like myself, (i have an almost pathological need to be around people, I love crowded spaces) can grok the simple concept of asking before contact. Especially when dealing with people who are at at disadvantage, like children. It’s simple empathy, but it is something that a lot of people have to learn through negative experience first.

  24. 26

    So much yes to all of this. Naturally, I’m pretty much the opposite of a touchy feely person. Add in my history of abuse and bullying and my history of unnecessary and traumatic medical restraint (because spending 30 seconds to explain to a kid having an asthma attack that she needs to hold the neb mask to her face is apparently harder than spending several minutes wrestling her into a restraint hold that restricts breathing when she’s already having breathing troubles and strapping a mask to her face so hard she has bruises from it later whilst provoking a panic that makes her breathing worse, thus ensuring that she’ll have anxiety attacks whenever she has to have a mask of any sort strapped to her face for at least the next 20 years*), and I strongly dislike unexpected touch.

    There is one person in the whole world who is the exception to that rule, and I guarantee you, Mx Random Person on the Street, that you are not that person. I do make an exception for occasions when someone’s trying to get my attention since touching me is the only way to break my hyperfocus, but then, I prefer the person to touch either my shoulder or arm. Do not touch my back, poke my ribs, tickle me, poke my stomach, touch my leg, tousle my hair or pat my head without my permission unless you know that you are the one person who I trust enough to let touch me unexpectedly.

    *Protip to those whose kids have asthma and other breathing problems: Insist that medical staff not restrain them unless all other options to get the kid’s cooperation have been exhausted first. It’s traumatic as hell to be restrained, especially since the holds they use make it even harder to breathe, and if your kid panics and struggles like I did, they can be injured by it. I was. And yes, your kid damn well will remember it. I did.

  25. 27

    Hearing other people’s anecdotes of times they’ve had to deal with this, I was reminded of my basic training in the military. It was the early 80s, and the CF were just beginning to get a little social-consciousness-raising. The rules now were that the instructors could not lay a finger on you without getting your permission.

    It led to some slightly odd situations, like being on a range and having the instructor asking for permission each time they so much as shifted the weapon around, let alone touched you. But it was a simple heuristic for people to use: is the person I’m touching me? If no, ask first.

    Always seems odd when the military leads society in a social-justice area, but this was one where they really did get it right. It reduced a LOT of the physical microaggressions formerly used in basic, and made it possible for people who’d been through traumatic stuff as kids to still serve in uniform and maintain personal boundaries some.

  26. 28

    Towards the end of my pregnancy, I was both cranky and showing. We were at the supermarket, and some lady walked up to me doing the outstretched hand I’m about to rub your belly thing. I noted her coming, bared my teeth, and growled. The other two bystanders about fell over laughing at the shocked and offended look on the lady’s face, and I will be forever grateful that instead of condemning me as ‘overreacting’, they took my side. The gentleman bystander gave me a line I’ve since reused several times, ‘hey, respect the bubble!’.

    I stopped believing in god several years before I quit going to church. One major factor in my putting my foot down with my parental unit about going to church was that the elders kept touching my hair. I hated it immensely, and hated even more that if I dared to object or complain, I would be lectured about not being ‘nice’.

    There are a few folks where it has taken actual violence to get them to understand that they must get some kind of permission before engaging in the touching. I got along with a particular man just fine, but he had a nasty habit of coming up from behind me and putting his hand on my shoulder. Eventually he did it one time where I was already a bit in ‘fight or flight’ mode and he took me totally by surprise, and he ended up on the ground with my knee about to drop onto his face. I’m sorry it took that kind of a lesson for it to sink in that ‘touching without permission/acknowledgement = not okay’, but he never did it to me again and as near as I could tell, stopped doing it to anyone else. And in spite of the whole ‘how can we possibly initiate anything if we have to ask for permission’ bullshit, I’ve since spent many an hour cuddling, rough-housing, and otherwise in platonic physical contact with that friend. For at least a semester, he napped between classes using my lap as a pillow.

    It’s not the touching I’ve ever really had a problem with. It’s the failure to obtain and abide by consent.

  27. 29

    I remember seeing this horrible video going around facebook. I and many other people left some pointed comments. Great way to teach your kid to feel they don’t have the right to respect for their bodies. That’s what abusers look for in children and adults. Sad to see so many people think this is “cute”. Sad the parents let this go on for so long. Children are not dolls for your amusement. I wouldn’t even let that happen to my cats.

      1. Sorry about that. Timid Atheist’s description is accurate. They look about 1.5- 2 years old She’s clearly annoyed and bothered by him and keeps pushing him away, somtimes knocking him down. The comments are all either “so cute!” “keep trying boy!” or “He’s going to be a rapist some day” or other objections. Nice to see that others object even when so many don’t get why it’s not funny. It goes on for 2 minutes!

    1. 29.2

      I reported this video under child abuse.

      Issue reported:
      Child abuse
      Timestamp selected:
      Additional details:
      This video shows parents allowing one child to constantly try to hug and kiss another child while the other child constantly pushes the other child away. This is abuse to allow one child harass another one.

      This gives a good description of what happened in the video.

  28. 30

    THANK YOU for this article. I fucking hate being touched. Some days I don’t want my husband touching me. When I protest about my mom hanging off me, or not wanting to hug family members, I get berated and talked to like I’m the lowest piece of scum on their shoes. When I dodge hugs from people I just met or anything like that from anyone, I’m called all kinds of names and publicly, verbally beat down.

    My own husband has scolded me about me dodging touches from people. That hurt worse than anything. He knows I don’t like it. I don’t touch him when he doesn’t want me to, why can’t I protest about other people touching me? He also tickles and play punches me to the point where I just get so pissed off I take a swing at his face. He then gets upset because I grazed his cheek or punched him too hard in the ribs. Well, don’t tickle me. I hate being tickled, by anyone, and he knows that. I don’t mind play punches, but when I ask you to stop and you don’t, don’t get upset when I bury my fist into whatever I can reach.

    I used to be touchy feely with people, and I feel bad because I’m sure not all of them liked it. Some of us were all over each other in school, but it was a mutual understanding that yes, you can grab my butt, but this person can’t. We also backed off if someone wasn’t returning the touches or made it known they weren’t in the mood. I wish more people were that understanding about boundaries. Just because person X can touch me, doesn’t mean person Y can. In school, teenagers could understand that better than all of the adults I’ve encountered.

    Ugh. The biggest response I get is being made fun of. I’m called germaphobe, a bitch, an outcast, told I’m on my high horse, all kinds of crap, just because I don’t like being touched. I’d like for those people that said those things to me (or anyone else) to be made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe and sickened by someone touching you and not listening to you and respecting your boundaries. It’s not about people being icky, it’s about not wanting some asshole to lay their hands on me without my permission.

  29. 32

    I don’t even like it when people touch my shoulder to get my attention when they haven’t even attempted to say my name first. I can understand doing it if the room is loud and crowded and they can’t get my visual attention. But if I am simply in the middle of talking to someone else, I would prefer the third person to first try to politely interrupt with words. Touching my shoulder is rude as both an invasion of personal space and as an interruption of the conversation I am having — and most of the time the thing the third person wants to say isn’t as important as the conversation I was having. If they attempt to use words first, I might be able to judge the relative importance. But simply touching my shoulder first is pretty presumptuous about what is important. And what if I chose to ignore the first tap? Will they keep tapping?

    I also don’t like when strangers put their hand on my shoulder as they try to squeeze through a crowded area. I am able to maneuver just fine around people without using my hands. Yes, bodies might bump, but that is unintentional. But placing your hand on someone’s shoulder is intentional, and it does not make it any easier to get around them, so why do it anyway? I’m a guy, and it is usually taller guys who do it to me, but I’m not sure if it is different for other people. But I can’t help but think the subconscious thought of the other person is something like “stay in place while I, someone more important, gets through”. If I have no room to get by, I first say “excuse me”, and if the person cannot hear me, I’ll tap their shoulder. Put I’ll never lay my whole hand on their shoulder.

    I also wish I lived in a bowing culture rather than a handshaking culture. In the U.S., men are expected to handshake every other man they meet for the first time, whether casually or professionally. Both men and women are expected to handshake both men and women in professional situations. To refuse a handshake is considered very rude, and in professional situations can cost you business. So there is really no avoiding it.

    Handshakes are also very unsanitary. Even if you wash your hands whenever you go to the bathroom and before each meal, you are unlikely to know when you will need to handshake someone, so your hands will not be as clean when you do. Politicians have to handshake constantly, and so most will carry hand sanitizer or have their aides do so. But this unsanitary practice is deeply embedded in our culture, so there’s not much they can do about it. Politicians even take body language classes, which teach them things about when to bring up the other hand for a more personal handshake, or when to use that hand to reach for the other person’s elbow or to pat them on the back to show “assertive friendliness”.

    In professional situations, handshakes are supposed to be welcoming. But when two professionals meet for the first time, or when one person is interviewing another for a job, the thoughts are either “I must handshake as a polite formality” or “I hope I don’t screw up this handshake”. Everybody has heard advice about how to do a proper handshake: make sure the palms and not just the fingers touch, don’t grip too hard, but don’t grip too soft. And you can’t even look at the handshake to make sure you are doing it properly, because you are supposed to maintain eye contact. So now what was supposed to be a welcoming gesture is stressful.

    I guess I don’t have a point to the rambling about handshakes. But for any other situation that involves touching, you should ask for consent or attempt to get the person’s attention through words first.

  30. 33

    Yes! Thank you! Even as a straight white man, I’ve had a few issues with this. I’d guess less privileged people have to deal with it far more often, but this disrespect is pervasive throughout our culture and affects everyone. Oddly enough, as someone with long hair, women are usually the ones touching me without consent. Touching me before even saying hi is a sure way to make me not want to know you.

  31. 34

    I’ve never had this problem in the town I grew up in, got married in, and am raising my children in. I’ve never seen this ‘inappropriate touching’ going on or happening. Ever. And I’m 50. Maybe you should re-evaluate your life choices and consider you made a few bad ones.

    1. 34.1

      Or, more likely, you are one of the folks guilty of ‘inappropriately touching’ other people and you refuse to acknowledge your actions as rude, thus you deny the problem even exists.

      Or, even more likely, you simply are being dishonest.

  32. 35

    Ugh. A guy once put his hand on my shoulder and asked me what I was drinking. When I asked him not to touch me, he went nuts, telling his friend what a bitch I was. His friend then said to me, “he’s gay.” Uhm. Ok? That’s an excuse for him to touch me when I don’t want him to? He got really mad then said, “I have a 3.9 GPA.” When I told him I didn’t care and that he shouldn’t touch people without their permission, he told me he was going to “smash my face in.” Needless to say, I was livid. Don’t. Fucking. Touch me. Entitled piece of shit.

    1. 35.1

      “I have a 3.9 GPA.” ROFLMAO!!!! What a ridiculous response. Yeah, I guess he knows how to fill in those boxes on tests at school, but he sure ain’t that bright …. I’m sure he’s the type that is headed for a successful career that will get completely scuttled when he sexually harrasses his coworkers.

  33. Ivy

    At the grocery store I work at this senior citizen customer, a woman, likes to to grab penises as a “joke”, even when the men are backing away looking horrified and embarrassed it is still apparently very funny to my co-workers and managers. When I get upset by this behavior I am told “shes harmless, its just a joke she doesn’t mean anything by it”, they seem to think I am the one with the problem, I guess they think it is socially acceptable since she is a senior and they are assuming she isn’t interested in a sexual relationship with the people she is touching as a “joke”. She occasionally touches breasts and asses too, she also stuffed a receipt down my shirt, which was also apparently funny to some people. She does this kind of thing to people of all ages, teenagers included.

  34. 38

    Here’s where I have my “yesbut.”

    I agree, but:
    Some people don’t grow up learning that, or come from cultures where people touch more freely, and I’m generally polite as I can be about telling them to stop.

    Some folks on a crowded train recently were touching my kid’s head and saying nice things about him in a language I understood just enough to tell it was nice things and also to identify them as probably from a region where people are more touchy that way. Their behavior was inappropriate on my train, it might not have been inappropriate on their own — or not as inappropriate as on mine. They didn’t seem skeevy, just contextually inappropriate.

    So I very specifically asked my (very social and also touch-friendly) kid if he minded that they were touching his head. He said it was fine, so I told them, “He says it’s fine, but some kids, and some parents, really dislike it.”

    He deserved the choice and I wanted him to know it was his choice, and they deserved the polite information.

  35. 39

    I believe this is an important ethical topic.
    Ethics is not about creating a society in which everyone acts as you like, or a society in which you never feel uncomfortable.
    It’s about making a clear cut between the discomfort you are responsible dealing with and the discomfort others are.
    Here’s my ethical model with respect to touching, which I believe is reasonable.

    As with many things, there’s an escalation to touching.
    It’s a gradual thing, it depends on the established intimacy.
    Touching the arm isn’t the same as touching the neck or a breast and so on.
    It’s OK to touch the areas that belong to an acquired level of intimacy,
    AND it’s okay to ask to get less intimate.
    It’s OK to touch the areas that signify moving to the NEXT level of intimacy,
    AND it’s okay to refuse, verbally or nonverbally, to go there.
    Approach and rejection, both have to be respected, be they verbal or nonverbal.
    A nonharming level of discomfort might follow by both, and that’s OK.
    NOT OK is when you skip levels of intimacy, because you don’t allow for consent to be expressed,
    NOT OK is when you ignore the feedback, because you are not respecting the expressed consent.

    By this ethical model it follows that there is a certain type of touching that is ok to be done without consent.
    The expression of consent follows the deed, but its OK because of the graduality of the approach.

    See the following examples (replace “he” with “she” at will, this ethical model is gender neutral),
    where consent is never asked for explicitly, nor rejection is made explicit:
    “He started talking to me, I ignored him. He went on with his life.”
    “He touched my arm, I moved away from his hand. He took his hand back and continued talking.”
    “He tried to kiss me. I turned my neck. We went on dancing.”
    I believe these interactions are all ethically acceptable, and part of what creates good relationships.
    There’s some type of touching happening without consent, but still it is ok.
    That’s the level of discomfort I believe people should be able to deal with (and the huge majority of folks is).

    The reason I write this is not because I’m 100% sure that this is the right model, but just because it seems more rational to me than what I’ve seen until now. Looking forward for dialogue.

  36. 40

    True story from Whitireia Community Polytechnic in Porirua, New Zealand…

    We had a compulsory first aid class. There was an exercise that required doing a quick pat-down to check for injuries to a hypothetical injured person. One person had to lay on the floor, face-up, and it was very similar to a police frisk. Including touching the inside of the person’s thighs, and under the arms (sides of breasts.

    I didn’t have any personal friends among my classmates, and was freaked out by this. Especially since numerous people were being very immature, yelling, etc.

    A totally creepy male classmate practically ran up to me, and demanded to partner with me for this activity. I told him, Do it with one of the boys. He replied that he didn’t like boys. And continued repeating his demand. As I continued refusing. As I told him that I shouldn’t have to get angry to get him to understand the word No. He then continued repeating his demand as I was walking away. He laid down on the floor, saying, Oh, Oh, Rescue me!

    The instructor told me that I had to find somebody for the exercise, so I very politely asked a female classmate, saying that it would respect if she said no. She was OK with it, and I did the exercise quickly and superficially.

    Later, I told three different Whitireia staff members, including two managers. On had the gall to tell me that the harasser was just looking for an intellectual connection, and that I should take it afs a compliment to my intelligence, and that I should be personal friends with the harasser. Another staff member told me that I would be forced to tolerate physical contact from this guy in the future, and would be failed out of the school if I refused. And a third one told me that, sexual harassment is just something that people have to tolerate in school and at work. They all said that I was a bad student and a bad person for daring to resist.

    Whitireia was, at that time, soliciting me to spend another three years there, and pay them tens of thousands of dollars. Their arrogance was mind-blowing.

  37. J

    When I am saying hello to someone or introducing a topic to someone standing very close to me, I sometimes touch their shoulder for like a second while talking. At times when I am sitting in a crowd, I touch a person’s knee to wordlessly signal to them, men and women alike, that I need to ask them a question or that I need to pass through where they are sitting. I’ve never thought of any of these as sexual. And up till now, I haven’t actually forced myself to think of these innocuous and mundane instances of touch. I’ve never thought about how my being a lesbian may affect the perception of those very nonsexual instances of touch. However, from your article, it seems we have to make some changes in some of what feels natural to us. It’s strange personally, but it is necessary, respectful and trust-inspiring.

  38. M

    This article is a great help for me especially this sentence…”Your desire to touch someone sexually or nonsexually for whatever reason does not outweigh their desire not to be touched. It doesn’t matter why they don’t want to be touched; that’s their business.”

    My sister-in-law is from another country (Far East) where people especially females touched and hold hands. Since we met I had nonverbally indicated to her that I was not interested in holding hands or being constantly touched. Sometimes she complies, sometimes she make little attempts to touch me.

    I had hugged other family members and given them a light touch and felt fine. But my sense with her is that she’s making an issue of it. Maybe it’s coming more about power play. Therefore I don’t want to encourage touching at all. If she did not make a big issue of it I’ll treat her the same.

    So anyway thanks for this eye opening article.

  39. 45

    Hi. I have a question. I have a family member who has temper issues. During one of her fat shaming talk she touched me without my expressed consent making me feel violated. I was offended she was taking photos to show me how “fat” I looked but took a step too far when she had pulled my shirt up and was trying to pull my shorts down. I did try to stop her in tge beginning but she was getting more aggressive about it so I ceased attempting to stop her. She then proceeded to take a couple of photos of me and was showing me them to “show how disgusting I looked.” My question is what can I do as this unsettled me mentally and has made me a bit depressed. I know she is family but it us not right when you do that sort of thing and I would like to know what sort of action I can take.

  40. 46

    I just found this thread when using the search term “unwanted non-sexual touching”. Being very short (4’9″) I have been on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour numerous times and suspect that height may play a role, which may tweak some “maternal instinct” feelings in some people that they insist on indulging – which is intrusive and embarrassing for me. Like other instinctual feelings, such as sexual ones , people need to filter them rather than just act them out. Too many times, attempts to set boundaries get met with some kind of guilt trip like,
    “I was just being nice” or “why do you have to be that way –
    I like you”, or “lighten up”, etc. Not only are you supposed to not mind this unwanted attention, but it’s as if you should be grateful for it! So their hurt feelings at being told no are more egregious than the indignity you’ve experienced (in other words, their feelings are more important than yours). Someone here used the phrase “power trip” and I think that’s exactly what it is. Even if there is some good intention accompanying such affectionate impulses, it’s still coming from a selfish place that’s more about the giver than the receiver. I can’t find any research to support these hunches, though. Any thought?

  41. 48

    I had an experience that rocked me to the core. Now, more than 10 years later, I’m still upset over it. This article really hit home for me as well as many of your comments. I’d post what happened, but I’m very afraid the offending party and/or family members would run across my post and recognize it as me. If the author would like to hear it without it being posted on-line, I’m happy to share. Just reading what everyone has written has been very validating for me. Thank you.

  42. 50

    I know this post is old but thank you. I am not a touchy feely person but my in laws are. They do not understand that I do not need to hug and kiss them or sit so close to them my mother in law can constantly touch my leg. I’ve talked to them about it but it doesn’t seem to matter because they ARE touchy feely. So apparently that makes me the weird one.
    And so many articles online blame the non touchy feely person like there is something wrong with us. No, there’s not. I just don’t need to be constantly touched by my extended non blood family.

    1. Li

      I know. My MIL doesn’t even touch her own sons, but she constantly wants to hug me, touch my face, squeeze me and hold my hand.

      I know she just wants to be nice and make me feel loved, but I can’t STAND being touched by people I don’t reciprocate.

      And I take a long time to include people in the touch me wherever circle. I enjoy hugging and being affectionate with a love crush or my husband, but I never enjoyed social physical contact, not even my friends hug me or touch me.

      I hug them back sometimes they never force me maybe that is why they are my friends, I prefer mental over physical. Like talking and so on. I don’t need a hug to feel love.

      Btw I tried kinda avoiding unwanted kisses/hugs by kinda pushing or swerving but she never gets it which makes me more annoyed.

      But I like her and I really don’t know how to avoid it but showing is not because of her but in general. She prob sees as my 2nd mom, but even so.

  43. 51

    This really helped me I was wondering how to express my feelings towards my friend without insulting him or crossing boundaries and this helped a ton!

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