Good Touch, Bad Touch
Rebecca wrote about parents, consent and touch here. It was well-written and moving. I see this from the parenting end of the spectrum. It is my job to make sure that my children can can access a sense of boundaries. Bodily autonomy is rationed, the most to the cis-het-white able adult men, and everyone else’s body is less private than that. In various ways, our culture puts everyone else’s bodies up for debate, examination, and nonconsensual touching. Kids more than adults, folks with disabilities more than folks without, folks with trans histories more than folks whose current identities match their assignment at birth, and women more than men. So I worry about all my kids; I worry most about my daughter, but I can’t know when and how they will encounter people who think they can’t or shouldn’t have boundaries, and I have to prepare them without knowing.
[UPDATE: I didn’t have it in mind when I was writing this, but my excellent coblogger and cocontributor Cedar Troost covered precisely this issue in zir Yes Means Yes essay, which I don’t have handy to properly reference. I found Cedar’s writing on this very influenial in my thinking at the time, and so I am indebted to Cedar for this piece.]
What Rebecca describes is a fight that cannot be won in a single engagement. It is a constant. Grandparents and aunts and uncles press in with their sense of entitlement to smooch and pat and kiss. If we teach our children to go along to get along, how is that differentiable from the gym teacher or the school nurse?
Many parents teach about “good touch and bad touch”, but what’s the point of alerting children to how they feel about inappropriate touch if we also teach them that there is nothing they can do about it? If the answer is, “if it makes you feel bad, suck it up,” they’ll learn it. They will learn to remain silent about the aunt’s intrusive kiss, the friend’s father’s inappropriate touch, and the thing that happened with that boy that they won’t call rape for months or years after.
The Shapely Prose link above links to this at Fugitivus. Harriet Jacobs wrote there:
If women are raised being told by parents, teachers, media, peers, and all surrounding social strata that:
it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)
it is not okay to appear distraught or emotional (“crazy bitch”)
it is not okay to make personal decisions that the adults or other peers in your life do not agree with, and it is not okay to refuse to explain those decisions to others (“stuck-up bitch”)
it is not okay to refuse to agree with somebody, over and over and over again (“angry bitch”)
it is not okay to have (or express) conflicted, fluid, or experimental feelings about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your desires, and your needs (“bitch got daddy issues”)
it is not okay to use your physical strength (if you have it) to set physical boundaries (“dyke bitch”)
it is not okay to raise your voice (“shrill bitch”)
it is not okay to completely and utterly shut down somebody who obviously likes you (“mean dyke/frigid bitch”)
If we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways.
And we should not be surprised when they behave these ways during attempted or completed rapes.
Women who are taught not to speak up too loudly or too forcefully or too adamantly or too demandingly are not going to shout “NO” at the top of their goddamn lungs just because some guy is getting uncomfortably close.
Women who are taught not to keep arguing are not going to keep saying “NO.”
Women who are taught that their needs and desires are not to be trusted, are fickle and wrong and are not to be interpreted by the woman herself, are not going to know how to argue with “but you liked kissing, I just thought…”
Women who are taught that physical confrontations make them look crazy will not start hitting, kicking, and screaming until it’s too late, if they do at all.
Women who are taught that a display of their emotional state will have them labeled hysterical and crazy (which is how their perception of events will be discounted) will not be willing to run from a room disheveled and screaming and crying.
Women who are taught that certain established boundaries are frowned upon as too rigid and unnecessary are going to find themselves in situations that move further faster before they realize that their first impression was right, and they are in a dangerous room with a dangerous person.
The ones who are going along to get along are us, the parents. Let’s be honest: we don’t want to have to explain to our parents and siblings that their sense of entitlement is wrong. We don’t want to have to say the things that Rebecca says in her letter.
I’m tempted to say this is men’s job, but that’s oversimplified, and a product of my experiences, which are not everyone’s. Family structures are not all the same, and neither are family dynamics. But I’m a cis man raising children with a cis woman, and her relationship with family is more delicate than mine. I’m the one who can be an asshole. I’m the one who can say, “I’m their dad, and I told them they don’t have to kiss anyone they don’t want to.” I can’t say in every family who can do this job. I know in mine, it is me. And so I will do it.
The first person who must recognize and respect the right to say “no” is the self. Internalizing the ethos of going along to get along kills autonomy before it is ever communicated. If we teach the next generation that they can’t really say “no,” and mean it, they won’t even try. They’ll stifle that “no,” and swallow it, and it will rot there. And then our children with pay the price for our timidity.