I’ll be honest: I’m a toucher. If I like you, I’ll reach out and touch your shoulder or pat your knee. I used to be a lot worse at it – I’d put my arm around your shoulder, force a hug, or otherwise invade personal space.
And growing up in an evangelical environment that encouraged this kind of weird physical intimacy didn’t help matters. Rejecting a handshake or a hug was seen as rejecting a brother in Christ – being uncomfortable with physical intimacy was tantamount to sin. I remember one particular exercise in youth group where we practiced servanthood by washing each other’s feet – I got a talking to because I didn’t want to wash the giant hobbit feet of my assigned male partner.
Consent in physical activity – not just sexual, but all physical contact – is one of the hardest things to incorporate into one’s feminist and theological praxis, but it is absolutely the most necessary.
In American culture, we think nothing of a handshake or a pat on the back – indeed, these are often social cues of acceptance. In churches, we “stand and greet one another,” which can mean anything from a hug to a high five or a handshake. It wasn’t until I’d become involved in victim advocacy that I realized how incredibly hard such moments can be for survivors. It’s utterly terrifying to walk into a church on a Sunday morning and have to steel yourself for a potential panic attack because someone decided to hug you without your consent.
And non-religious culture isn’t much better. Last year, there was an episode of the TV show New Girl in which Jess (Zooey Deschanel’s character) tells the story of how she lost her virginity. And the story starts out with her and her prom date – the only other member of the Gender Equality Club – going through a painful process of asking “Do I have your permission to …” The scene turns consent into a joke, and unfortunately this sort of thing doesn’t exist just on television. Such a scene couldn’t exist without an extant cultural understanding of explicit consent as “silly” and “weird.”
So what we need to start doing in order to implement a feminist praxis is to ask for consent. But because it’s so unusual in our culture, it can feel very weird and awkward to start. But it’s so necessary.
Before you initiate a hug, ask, “Are you a hugging person?”
Before you touch someone’s belongings, ask, “May I?”
Before you kiss/pat/do anything that could be sexual, ask, “Are you okay with this?” (It is not a mood-killer!).
Implementing simple questions – nothing more than a pause, really – into every day life can make the physical world that much easier to navigate for so many people, whether survivors or people who just don’t like to be touched. Asking for consent, respecting people’s boundaries, understanding that boundaries exist for a reason is a reasonable way to add intentionality into one’s physical praxis. It really does make a difference.