Forced Intimacy – hugs, personal information, consent, and space

Weather has halted my bug project and I hope to work on it over my days off next week. In the meantime I have continued the meditation series and I have a side piece I have written…

Forced intimacy – hugs, personal information, consent, and space

I have read several articles recently about forced intimacy from a variety of perspectives. Few of them were rape related or directly related to sexual consent although that is where most people’s minds first go. Instead the conversations were about forced physical contact, emotional contact, information sharing, and other types of intimate coercion. Several things have really struck me in this.

First is that for most of my life there has been the social expectation of many of these forced intimacy and forced consent situations on people. This is really the first time I have seen these discussions seriously entertained and continued not laughed off. While we have huge amounts of progress to be made we have at least gotten to where the discussions can start. For the first time people can say that children should not be forced to accept intimate physical contact and explain why. For the first time people can talk about the difficulties of living in the world as society has built it when they have disabilities hat require assistance or design considerations. For the first time employees like myself can discuss in serious terms with our companies how we can address the accessibility issues onsite and feel people are listening and actively considering the issue not risking our position.

Second is the impact on today’s society of the assumptions made previously. I often hear opponents of many topics say things about what their parents did as examples that it doesn’t cause damage or why it is good. But that very argument shows otherwise. they are demonstrating a lack of compassion and ability to be open to the discussion. They are demonstrating the continuation of the abuse cycle because it is just how they think it should be. They are showing they cannot conceive of a better way or a healthy society that renders these things obsolete. Damage has been done but the alternatives are still in flux and discussion so the issues are not clear to everyone and I don’t see them becoming so anytime soon.

What are people talking about when discussing forced intimacy that is not sexual or not considered sexual by observers? The first article that comes to mind is one that discuses the forcing of little girls to accept hugs and why it is not okay. Forcing them to accept hugs that make them uncomfortable teaches them they have no choice in who touches them, who is physical with them, how physical someone is, how they choose to interact on an interpersonal level. If they have compromised immune systems or are regularly in contact with someone that does then lives can be at risk. If they are highly introverted or have social anxieties then it can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable for them. If the people are subtly doing inappropriate things it is just wrong. I was a little girl and am now a woman that looks younger than I am. Men will often try to force a “friendly” hug on you. Hands stray uncomfortably close to where they have no business, they crush you in close as you cringe and pull away and they laugh.

I am open for hugs and happy to hug many people. I am an introvert but I am also a professional and know that it is an expected part of business and life in the south. But that is the point, I know it is expected that I will smile and pretend to be okay with it and not show that the not quite visibly inappropriate men make me uncomfortable. However, it has changed over the years, there is already improvement. Most guests do not reach in to hug instantly now, they may reach out to shake hands and more than a few actually wait to see what I will do first. So, we are making progress in understanding the issue. Women are more likely to lean in for a hug but are less likely to be as close and crushing about it as some years ago. I think most women expect that any woman is okay with a hug from another woman, which is likely typically true but still I would prefer to have an indication of what people want in their space prior to initiating close contact.

Another point of intimacy is personal facts, feelings, and medical information that people are asked to share. One of the articles discussed places, especially venues, that are only partial accessible and rather than posting details of what their accessibility is and how they accommodate needs, they ask people to tell them what their needs are. Some of those are probably trying to be nice and offer personalized help but that singles people out when it could just be a part of how things are done. It also asks them to share personal information when they should not need to. Beyond that, many places are not fully accessible so guests may be required to rely on other people. So let’s consider how that looks in practice.

When you see a person approaching a door that looks like they need help most people assume the polite thing to do is step up and open it. However, they are likely to prefer you ask “may I help?” first. Also, their needs may dictate how is best to open the door. I tend to open it so that I am behind the door with it between the person and I so that they have all the space and can avoid contact if they prefer. I would never reach my hand out and grab a person without permission. If they look like they need an arm I will ask if they want assistance and offer my arm waiting for them to indicate how is best for them. I learned this from my mother as she grew older and had more medical issues. She often required assistance but she was fiercely independent and had a strong sense of personal space. Recently in learning from friends and reading I have grown to understand even more and to see that even in that, there is assumptions on my part and that it is not my place to assume they need or that I know what they need. If I have the capacity I should ensure ease of access for as many as possible but I cannot assume the personal contact needs of others.

I work at a public garden still in transition, which means our accessibility is at best described as under development. Our founder lives on property, but as he grows older the garden is a challenge even for him and he designed it and built it. Being available to him as needed but not imposing has taught me a lot about how it is different when work space and home space intersect. I am often a buffer for him and help for others to understand the balance he prefers. The expectations of others is changing and they are more likely now to ask his preferences and agree we shouldn’t press him if he is uncomfortable.

I think this brings me back to my basic point. The question is one of comfort levels. If someone is uncomfortable then something is wrong and we have no right to force people into those situations. It isn’t necessary. they do’t need to hug in greeting or enter the home when there is a table and chairs on the porch. There is a growing understanding of the concept of personal choice and active consent.

What I am seeing now is a growing conversation about consent. In a culture that has normalized forced consent in so many areas this is a huge change is is both uncomfortable for many and slow to develop. Many talk about what rape culture means but often you hear a lot less about the details of that, like the casual moments of intimacy that are expected and the level of consent that people are expected to give. It is an interesting and very in depth topic that can branch in hundreds of ways.

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