A recent Miss Conduct column featured a letter from a person with a common problem: Unwanted touch.
How do you convey that you’re not a touchy-feely person without coming across as rude or a prude? Ever since starting my freshman year of college, I’ve encountered a startlingly high number of males who think it’s appropriate to massage my shoulder in class, put their hand on my leg when we’re eating lunch together, or pat me on the head when they walk by me. I find this uncomfortable and would like to tell them to stop, but at the same time I know that not everyone has the same physical boundaries. In regard to innocuous things like hugs, is it ever polite or reasonable to say “No, thank you”? T.S. / Chelmsford
A perfectly reasonable question to ask, and one of particular relevance to me because I don’t really like being touched by people I do not know well, or people I know well, honestly, except in set circumstances when I can prepare for it. I know that some FWD readers have sensory issues surrounding touch, for a wide variety of reasons, and I thought this letter would be a good one to highlight for Dear Imprudence before I even read Miss Conduct’s answer.
Of course you can say no to a hug; it’s your body. Keep in mind, though, that those “males” you are in school with are figuring out their physical boundaries and social selves as well. I’m not saying this to tell you to put up with being touched in a way you don’t want, but to point out that college is a big social experiment lab, and the guys don’t really know what they’re doing, either.
So, as long as you’re all working in the same social laboratory, be a good lab partner. Assert your boundaries bluntly and with humor: “It’s hard enough to concentrate in Econ 1 – one more back rub by ‘the invisible hand’ and I’m going to pass out in there, OK?” “Did you seriously just pat my head? Oh no you didn’t.” People will get the idea that T.S. isn’t so much a touchy-feely type and will start leaving you alone. Maybe some folks will think you’re rude or a prude. The others will think you’re a nice, slightly bossy person who doesn’t like to be touched by strangers. Trust me, you could do worse.
Ok, so, the first sentence is strong. Go, Miss Conduct, go. That’s the way to lead things off with a bang. You are absolutely allowed to express your bodily autonomy and to say ‘no, please do not touch me,’ and that doesn’t make you rude or a prude. It just makes you someone who prefers to not be touched, for whatever reason, particularly by random people.
But where Miss Conduct goes from there? It’s a locomotive hurtling down a hill without any brakes on. Are you telling me, Miss Conduct, that college-age ‘guys don’t really know what they’re doing’ when they force unwanted intimate touch on people? Were they tuning out for the ‘keep your hands to yourselves’ lesson in kindgergarten, perhaps? Au contraire, Miss Conduct, they know exactly what they are doing, because the hand on the leg/spontaneous backrub are two moves straight out of any number of men’s advice magazines telling college-aged men how to ‘get chicks.’
You can’t tell me this is a social laboratory. By college, the same social attitudes and norms present in society in general about bodies and who gets to control them are well established. Young men handling their classmates are joining a long and venerable tradition. It’s called ‘rape culture,’ and it absolutely starts with an ‘innocuous’ backrub in some cases.
I like that Miss Conduct came up with some snappy comebacks with the goal of getting people to stop touching you without making A Scene out of it, a common problem in environments like classrooms. But even this advice leaves me with a sour taste, because it puts the burden on T. S. to fight rape culture by being ‘nice,’ if ‘slightly bossy.’ I personally favour a ‘pardon me?’ or a ‘what are you doing?’ or just a snarled ‘don’t touch me’ when I am not interested in being nice to people who are violating my personal space and exerting ownership and control of my body and I do not appreciate being told that I am under an obligation to be nice to people who are touching me without my consent.
It’s bad enough that I feel constantly forced to ‘accept’ things like handshakes and hugs when they make me deeply uncomfortable because to do otherwise is to Make A Scene. A thousand little cuts occur as I allow my boundaries to be violated in the interests of making nice, of facilitating social interactions, of just getting through an interaction so I can move on to the next thing. There’s a very limited circle of people I enjoy hugging and even fewer people I will initiate hugs with, and if some random person started rubbing my back, they would do so at their own peril. I bite and I can move pretty fast when I want to, you get my drift?
How do you respond when people force unwanted touch on you? Do you find yourself compromising your personal boundaries in order to avoid drama in social interactions?