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Good Touch, Bad Touch

January 4, 2010

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.

[Emphasis supplied.]

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.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2010 12:18 pm

    This reminded me of when my son was born…speaking of family’s sense of entitlement. I had a horrid labor and delivery which I will not recount here. It ended in a csection. was the week after New Year so many family members had the time off since they new I had the baby. They came in every day at the start of visiting hours and left when I had the nurses chase them out. I told my MIL once that I needed to get some sleep and she sat there and said that she didn’t mind, go ahead and sleep not realizing I was trying to politely ask her to leave so I could rest. When I had DH ask them to leave so I could rest, FIL got angry and said he had not right to ask them such.

    Later I was told I was selfish because we didn’t want family at the house the first few days to a week after we got home (did I mention my labor and delivery was horrid and SCARY and emotionally scarring?). All I wanted was to rest and get to know my baby…but all this time my boundaries were constantly being pushed. They held thanks to an amazing husband…but still.

    They still have issues with boundaries in that sense and I find that sometimes I get that weird hackles-up-annoyed-leave-me-the-hell-alone feeling that I did with my ex-husband after years of emotional abuse and rape.

    It makes me angry…and I am determined to instill in my kids that they don’t have to take it. That their boundaries are to be respected…and damn what society thinks about it.

  2. January 4, 2010 1:03 pm

    Indeed. Friends make such a huge fuss whenever my goddaughter stands up for herself and says she doesn’t want a hug, or to be tickled, or whatever. But I’ve worked hard to help teach her that she has the right to say no and maintain sovereignty over her own body.

    I’ve taken some of the guys aside and asked them specifically to help me teach her that she even gets to say no to men who are much larger than her, and that even they are required to listen to her when she sets rules about who has access to her body. It’s a lesson that has a bit more meaning come from some of our larger male friends than from a short woman like me.

    When I put it that way, and explain how they in particular could help teach her that confidence, they’ve overwhelmingly responded with understanding and willingness.

    • January 4, 2010 2:19 pm

      Now that’s a great way to get people on board with the program!

  3. January 5, 2010 7:06 am

    One of my New Year’s resolutions was to remember to ask before I touch people…

    I actually had a fairly positive experience with asking family to respect boundaries… when I was about six all the kids in my class were given a ‘how to say no’ talk. I probably would have forgotten it all by now except the next time my (scary) grandfather tried to pick me up and tickle me I firmly told him no, I didn’t like it, and he instantly (rather shocked) put me down and he never did it again. I felt rather guilty, actually, when I realised that that was his way of trying to show affection for his grandchildren, but my mother was hugely proud of me for at six being able to stand up to someone she at thirty still had trouble standing up to.

    I think the ‘how to say no’ talks actually do work and are very, very valuable, especially when backed up by both school and home. Especially if they start young and keep coming all the way through. The fact that I had that confidence is still a valuable fact to me now. In my mixed class, too, the fact that the same talk was for all the children meant there wasn’t any implication (there at least) that the girls should be quieter.

  4. January 6, 2010 10:58 am

    It is so important to teach our children to be comfortable and outspoken about their boundaries, whatever they may concern, smooching aunts, overly touchy friends, etc. We need to teach them to speak up for themselves and respect their decisions about what feels good or bad for them as individuals. Surely the adult aunt, teacher, parents are emotionally equipped to handle the cuddle rejection of a child.

  5. kaiori permalink
    January 8, 2010 11:18 pm

    I need to learn to say no…
    thank you

  6. PatriarchySlayer permalink
    January 10, 2010 9:19 pm

    I think that saying no is like anything else, it requires practice and awareness.
    Its sounds simple and sometimes silly, but before we can say no, we need to be aware of what our desires are, and to recognize what feels good and feels bad. We need to be more attuned to our instincts to realize when something feels off, or when someone isn’t respecting our boundaries.
    I know for me personally, I find it difficult (especially with men) to be able to recognize what I’m feeling, acknowledge it and then vocalize it. I guess a part of me is still stuck in the, “I don’t have a right to my own body” mindset. It’s getting better, but it takes time. I wish I hadn’t been cultured to be a “good girl”. Maybe then I’d be ahead of the game!

  7. Katie permalink
    January 10, 2010 9:53 pm

    LOVE this post. Thanks for it. So important to talk about. Asserting bodily autonomy is really hard when one has been coached from childhood to bypass one’s boundaries.

  8. Katie permalink
    January 11, 2010 11:57 am

    Also, I think “with” in the last sentence was meant to be “will.”

  9. January 26, 2010 3:44 am

    Ah, the contradictory teachings of parents.

    My mom gave me the good touch/bad touch talk, and yet if someone infringed on my personal space in a way that felt yucky (not actually touching my “bathing suit areas”, but still) she would totally override my feelings and tell me the person was just being friendly/nice/whatever. The important thing, you see, was that we avoided social awkwardness at all costs.

    You can probably tell I’m still angry about this.

  10. Rachel Coleman Finch permalink
    February 15, 2010 6:36 pm

    Yes! I agree completely with the need to teach our children that their bodies are theirs. I’ve had to intervene with pushy grandparents and aunts/uncles and back up my child when he indicated he didn’t want to be picked up, held, cuddled etc. Now he can talk it’s a bit easier – it’s harder to pretend to ignore a piercingly clear NO than wriggly body language. I don’t like arguing with family, but I do find my protective-mama instincts kicking in strongly. The funny thing is that at least some of the time I’m just reminding my parents of the lessons they taught me.

    I think it really helped when I made my point explicitly: I explained I never wanted my son to be confused about people touching him without his consent. Suddenly Granny’s kiss didn’t seem quite so important.

    Of course there are times when you have to override a child’s wishes, e.g. teeth cleaning, getting dressed, giving medicine. I try never to do this without explaining my reasoning, and only if it’s really important to have that confrontation. For example, if we’re just hanging out at home and my son is having an anti-clothes day, then fine, I won’t make him wear clothes.

  11. July 23, 2010 2:45 pm

    Hey man, I was looking online, looking for some info and came across your blog. I am impressed by the stuff you have on this blog. It shows how well you understand the matter. Bookmarked this page and will come back for more. You, my friend, ROCK!!!


  1. The simplest way to teach children about consent | It Starts With Me.

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