Dear Imprudence: Do I Give Up Rights To Bodily Autonomy When I Leave the Dorm Room?

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?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

22 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Do I Give Up Rights To Bodily Autonomy When I Leave the Dorm Room?

  1. I have sensory sensitivities that can make touch really really unpleasant especially if I’m not expecting it. Luckily for me the places I live in are such that touching except between close friends and family is considered socially inappropriate bar specific situations (eg people shake hands a lot in Germany) so it doesn’t happen often. Unluckily, when it does cultural WTF is added to the sensory WTF so I generally end up so shocked I don’t know how to react. (Also because I’m worried it’s a case of cultural differences…)

    A few months ago I met someone at a conference who intentionally touched me three times in four days. Touching my hair and putting a hand on my shoulder sort of thing. I was so weirded out and so confused as to how to react I ended up skipping the last day in part because I didn’t want to run into him.

    Policing my boundaries, I should do some of that. *sigh* on the “plus” side, I can’t easily suppress my reaction to the worse (from a sensitivity perspective) stuff. If someone tried to massage me I’d probably jump out of my skin and start screaming.

  2. I’ve always been very jumpy about people touching and hugging me. I usually try to sidestep the whole touch thing altogether if possible; if I’m meeting someone new in which it’s customary to shake hands I usually wave my hand and nod. My body language is usually very uptight and never laid back due to constant anxiety around people so most people can tell well enough not to touch me. I have run into a few odd encounters with people touching me when I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be touch. One of my friends (we were hesitant acquaintances on the brink of being good friends) actually asked me if I did the hugging friends, and I said sort of and felt like I had to give her a sort of hug. She was somewhat disappointed with the hug, but as we got closer to being better friends I felt more comfortable in hugging her and for a long time she always made sure to ask. Four years later we’re without a doubt best friends and although we don’t hug much (she’s worried about hurting me with the onsent of my crps) she still always asks. The thing is, this shouldn’t be considered odd. It shouldn’t be weird that people ask before invading someone’s personal space. If someone I don’t know even comes close to invading my personal space I get snappy and extremely standoffish and I don’t believe that anyone has the obligation to be nice to someone who is thoroughly invading someone else’s personal space.

  3. I’ve never liked being touched by people with whom I’m not close, so when strangers or acquaintances try to hug me or touch me, they usually get a cold stare. That’s been enough to stop them – I’ve been told I’m a pretty intimidating person, especially if I’m not smiling (something about my attitude says “don’t mess with me”, I guess).

  4. This is a little weird for me because I used to be the other person in these situations (although the dynamics were a bit different). I discovered in university that I can be a very touchy-feely person, and I did tend to break past those boundaries fairly often. The comment about university being a ‘social laboratory’ rang very true for me–I’d been very reserved in high school, and this was my first time feeling free to really be myself.

    That said, of course she has the right to tell people to back off. It took me a while, but eventually I broke myself of the habit of hugging people whenever. Oddly, the thing that got the message through was a bribe–if I didn’t hug a girl again by the end of the year, I would get a tube of lip-gloss. Not that I gave a damn about the lip-gloss–it was more the presence of a challenge. Again, the dynamics are different, but for some reason that tactic worked for me.

  5. I have MS, and my right hand is particularly affected. I don’t shake hands because it HURTS, especially from those people (usually but not always men) who shake so damn hard. It is amazing to me how many people feel completely justified in asking “Oh, why not?” when I say that I don’t shake hands. Well, b/c NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. This shouldn’t be so difficult to understand.

  6. My family expects and pressures me to kiss distant relatives & their friends on the cheek and for me to be kissed when we first meet, or If I haven’t seen someone in a long time. If I don’t do it, I get shit later.

    I hate it. I’m better with handshakes.

  7. I tend to ask, “Did you think about what you just did?” or, “Why did you think you could do that?” or some variant. Normally, people respond that either they didn’t think or that they wanted to be nice. If it’s the latter, I follow up with, “Thanks for wanting to do something nice — but did you check to make sure that would actually feel nice for me?”

    It does result some people re-thinking.

    That said, it also gets me plenty of reactions like I am unconventional or out-of-line. And really, given that we’re all immersed in a rape culture, I kind of am. Not that I think my reaction is at all inappropriate — but it does go against a lot of the other messages people have learned about bodily autonomy. I’m not going to stop doing it, but I understand how it will be confusing to some people.

  8. My mom left on Friday and I was outside, and she went in for a hug, before stopping and saying, “You don’t want to do that.” “Love you! “Love you!”

    I am so happy that she finally got it. She didn’t try to say, oh it’s too hot to touch (it so was), she acknowledged my feelings, and didn’t try to push me by saying, “But just once (ha) for your mom?”

    I freaked my sister out by just jumping and hugging her after seeing a really fun, feel-good movie (I felt good) and because she’s used to me not touching (and she was with a friend, when you’re with a friend, your behavior changes) she was well, WTF?

    I tutored a guy, we sat on my bed, and he never got touchy-feely. I don’t even shake hands that much.

    College is a social laboratory, especially if the majority of undergrads live on campus. (“Oh high professor…” *why am I in snoopy boxer shorts?!*) I’ve changed, I’m more aggressive, in a good way, more upfront about what I need and want.

    But yeah. Don’t effing touch me. Also, the LW didn’t reveal her race, but you don’t touch a black woman’s hair. You do not. Also, what is up with the guys at her school? They give me the creeps, just through her letter. Ew. Guys (and girls) tap me on the shoulder if they want to say something, that’s fine. But back rubs? EW, boundaries man!

    I’d be mean. “Please stop doing that. Do you do that to all the girls in your other classes? Maybe you need to see somebody, that’s incredibly creepy.”

    Of course, we don’t want to rock the boat, because what if he takes my “No” as a reason to do worse? That’s always in the back of your head.

    Also – you’re a prude if you don’t want men that you’re not dating to touch your leg and give you (unwanted) back rubs? That’s not being a prude, that’s… normal!


  9. I’m definitely on the other side of the spectrum. Physical touch is an integral and critical part of how I relate to other people and express affection.

    But certainly I don’t want to violate other people’s boundaries. I try to make clear offers for hugs (either verbally or by standing a distance away and spreading my arms, or both) so that people have a chance to reject, rather than just spontaneously hugging people. I think there are probably cases where I instinctively touch (if someone–male or female–is in clear distress, my first instinct is to comfort them physically with a hand on the shoulder, or similar), but I try to pay attention if it’s wanted or not, and adjust my behavior accordingly.

    Dunno, seems like there is plenty of room for physical and non-physical people to coexist. But yeah, clearly the more physical people need to pay attention, and create space for rejection.

    Most of the things mentioned in the question, though, are pretty clearly sleazy. Back rubs, for example, have pretty clear sexual/romantic connotations. And especially when unsolicited that’s just… creepy.

  10. One of my friends used to do this to assert his right to personal space: he would link his fingers, stretch out his arms above his head, and then swing them down (keeping his arms straight) fairly fast. If you were much too close you’d get hit on the head! It was pretty effective 😉

    More recently, I had someone touching me unexpectedly at work, but he was a consultant and left before I had prepared myself to say something. All he was doing was coming up behind me (when I was engrossed in my work) and putting his hand on my shoulder to get my attention, but because it was so unexpected (work is strictly NOT touchy except for handshakes, and not usually even handshakes between people that see each other regularly) I was too surprised to say anything. I didn’t say anything after the fact because I’m a huge believer in saying something AT THE TIME so that people actually realise they’ve done something wrong. If you say something much after the fact they don’t even realise they’ve touched you wtf, let alone done anything wrong.

    While I realise that telling someone to be nice to someone who is crossing their boundaries is problematic, I think a lot of people have been socialised to be nice, and feel seriously uncomfortable thinking about being seen as ‘not nice’. So I think it is good that some ‘nice’ options to get people to stop were given, though I think it would have been better if the reply had said that if somone ignores your polite “please stop” then you have every right to get angry at them.

  11. Thanks to exactly this kind of bullshit when I was a child, I freak out when men touch me randomly in a sexual way (I’m fine with handshakes or hugging guys after we’ve talked for awhile, though, and even a light touch on the shoulder won’t bug me). What part of “I AM NOT YOUR GOD DAMNED PETTING ZOO” is it so difficult for men to grasp?

  12. Tori, I’m a bit confused by this:

    “That said, it also gets me plenty of reactions like I am unconventional or out-of-line. And really, given that we’re all immersed in a rape culture, I kind of am. Not that I think my reaction is at all inappropriate — but it does go against a lot of the other messages people have learned about bodily autonomy. I’m not going to stop doing it, but I understand how it will be confusing to some people.”

    Why does it go against other messages about bodily autonomy to say, no, I don’t want to be touched? I would think it would be a good thing to do, immersed in rape culture as we are. (And because it’s hard to tell online, I’m really sincere.)

    Making offers for hugs by holding your arms open reminds me of romantic movies, where the woman (always the woman) makes it to the man, and he stands there, arms out, and she runs the last 10 feet into his arms.

    Also, we should just substitute the namaste for handshakes. Put your hands together, and make a slight bow, almost a bob of the head. Though that may cause the same physical problem for people who can’t shake hands, but it would be easier on those of us who don’t know how to shake hands the right way (for our culture).

  13. I hated being touched as a kid. Handshakes were okay, but not hugging. It was pretty upsetting when people (almost invariable adults) wouldn’t take me seriously, and would just hug me regardless of what I wanted. When someone was willing to just take the handshake, it made me feel happy and accepted.
    Now I love touch, and I have to learn to negotiate interactions with other people so that everyone’s comfortable. It’s not always obvious how to do that, but it’s worth doing.

  14. Kaitlyn,

    I meant that rape culture sends us a lot of messages about how it’s okay for privileged groups of people to ignore the bodily autonomy of non-privileged groups. I’m not suggesting those rape culture messages are at all right, but they are very much present. Leg-touching, back-massaging, shoulder-hugging, etc., as mentioned in the original pose, are “moves” that many guys are taught they can and “should” make on women.

    I can remember a couple of instances in college where, in the dining hall, guy acquaintances of mine threw pieces of food into my cleavage. They joked that I must have been “asking for it” by wearing something low cut. Regardless of how I felt and regardless of the actual moral rightness, their actions were reinforced as normative and permissible — because the people sitting with them and the people sitting with me laughed with them and at me.

    Similarly, a few years ago, I was at a bar and had a guy grind his groin against my ass. (There was dance music and a dance floor, but we were not on it.) I asked him to stop; that worked for about 10 minutes. When he repeated the action, I complained to security. Security told me, “You don’t come to a bar unless you want a little bumping and grinding.” Again, as a separate issue from actual morality, social code reinforced to The Penis Grinder that he was right and I was wrong.

    A lot of the population is unobservantly immersed in rape culture. Many folks haven’t critically examined it and may not even have a term to name it. Many of the bodily autonomy messages they’ve internalized — consciously or not — is that people in less privileged groups (women, PWDs, queer folk, etc.) do not have a right to bodily autonomy and/or that it’s okay to disrespect personal boundaries. I mean, yes, that’s wrong — but right or wrong, it’s still hard to fight against: a) social norms; b) people with power.

    And that’s what I mean when I say it’s accurate to call my reactions sort of unconventional. They shift the responsibility to the touch-er to process hir actions, possibly — if the conversation gets to continue that long — from the point of view of the person who received the unwanted touch. To folks who’ve internalized but maybe never recognized or criticized some of the messages sent by a rape culture, that shift may be a pretty revolutionary thing.

    Does that clarify?

  15. I haven’t had much problem with unwanted touch from people I encounter, apart from a few bad assault-like cases. People just don’t seem to go there with me, I think I must be giving off a “don’t-fuck-with-me” vibe or something??? I’ve usually looked fairly butch, it’s when I look more feminine that I’ve had more problems. Also, I’m tall, I’m white, and I look able-bodied, so that might reduce some of it. And I’ve been known to step on men’s toes or ride up their arse or knock them, if they’ve tried something on me. As for women, women don’t touch me, unless we know each other very well, and I’ve loosened up. So I don’t really know what to say, but if I have been touched, I usually scream stuff, or jerk back or flinch, or get a red haze and fuck conventions. Might be because of physical abuse growing up, where I’d struggle and scream a lot. (Verbal intrusions are a different matter, I am much more likely to take shit without even giving myself the option to respond sometimes, it depends on the context, I’d like to be more responsive about this.)

  16. … reading that para, I HAVE had lots of problems with unwanted touch, but I’ve usually come out of it feeling okay, because I said something I guess. Or I avoided the impending bad touch on the dancefloor, or on a bike coming the other way to mine their hands outstretched, or something being thrown at me, by doing something first. (Which I’ve been lucky with, to be able to respond, and to get out of it okay.) Flirty social touch rather than gropey or haha-violence touch, I’ve had not so much, men avoid that thank god, and women just don’t. I dunno.

  17. It does, Tori.

    It should be shifted to the toucher, which is another part of rape culture – the victims are responsible, we must protect ourselves. But no one teaches people *not* to rape, to take no as no, to respect bodily autonomy.


    And the food in the cleavage thing? So creepy.

    Another thing analogous to rape – the guy who, it seems, molested you at the club. “What do you expect?” It was your fault for objecting.

    But babysteps. Don’t touch me, and respect my request when I ask you to stop.

  18. I can so definitely relate to this subject and to all the other comments. I am blind, so people feel entitled to touch me as a means of “helping”. Then again, I have sensory issues and can’t stand unexpected touch (although I crave touch in certain situations). It is so not okay to call on people’s ignorance as an excuse for inappropriate touching. Happens to me as a blind person, too: “Sighted people don’t know any better.” Well then let me educate them, but when I do, I’m told I’m rude and they “just wanted to be nice”.

  19. I love hugs like woah (read this as: I like being squashed, & hugs are more socially acceptable than asking people to stand on me) , as long as I know and trust the person hugging me.

    I’m also quite aware that some people hate being touched, so I ask people if they’re hug people, rather than assuming they want to hug me. It’d be presumptuous to assume everyone wants to touch.

    But, ugh, there are just some kinds of touch that scream WRONG. I about decked a guy who decided he could do the “hand on the lower back” thing that feels all proprietary. NOT OK DUDE, I BARELY KNOW YOU. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  20. Because of my connective tissue disorder, I don’t like being hugged or having my hand shaken. It’s too likely for people to dislocate things.

    I offer my hand in the ‘kiss my hand’ type position, because then people usually just lightly clasp my hand. It’s safer for me.

    I also tend to flinch away from hugs, because they might dislocate my shoulders.

    Explaining this to people stinks, because saying ‘I don’t shake hands’ makes people think you have some opposition to shaking hands with THEM. So I end up telling them why I can’t shake hands, and oh how I love gratuitous explanations of my disability. My favorite thing to do. *rolls her eyes*


  21. I’m not particularly touchy feely except with my boyfriend. He’s the only one that seems to know how to read what kind of touch I can handle at a particular moment without me having to tell him. When I get a migraine it hurts to be touched even lightly. I’m super dizzy most of the time too and even a small touch can make me feel like I’m going to fall over. It’s hard to explain to people.

    I had super long hair in high school and if I wore it down people I didn’t know would walk up behind me and start playing with it. It always made me feel so awkward especially since I couldn’t even see the person.

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