Boundaries.

A classmate I had just met and I went down to one of the university coffee shops during our break, and she ordered an iced chai latte with soy. I stood patiently at the back waiting for her, and let the both of us out as she emerged.

“You didn’t get anything?” she asked while we walked along the grass back to the room.

“Nah,” I said.

“Here, want some of mine?” and she held out her drink to my face.

I stared at it in astonishment. “…From–from the same straw? You don’t mind?” We’d just met a couple of hours ago and hadn’t quite reached whole here-drink-from-my-cup-I-don’t-care-we-share-everything-including-germs comfort level of friendship.

Her eyes twinkled. “If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered.”

“Just making sure,” I said happily, accepting a sip of the drink and feeling flattered. And as we walked back to class, I thought about personal boundaries and feminism. I thought about our brief little exchange, insignificant perhaps, but how it was essentially an exercise in consent.

I love hugs. I hug everyone. I will tackle my best friends when I see them and hug each one as tightly as possible. But I also had a friend who, until recently, was not very comfortable with hugs. And so I didn’t hug her, because I love her and respect her, and even though that’s how I display my affection, nothing is worth sacrificing her comfort. For a while after high school I hadn’t seen her, because she attends a different university, but I was pleasantly surprised to run into her a couple of weeks ago, and even more surprised when she opened her arms as we approached each other.

“Do you do hugs?” I asked, before I hugged her.

“Yes!” she said.

Consent is not only important in sexual situations. It is also important in everyday situations. When I wrote this post a few months ago, someone commented (unpublished) that feminists are attempting to make the world a cold, hard place devoid of any intimacy. But the exact opposite is true when we check whether the people with whom we are spending our time are comfortable, and that respect and communication is extended to strangers. We learn to put aside our desires and instead consider the desires of those who are potentially at the receiving ends of our actions.

And in certain, even nonsexual circumstances, consent can keep us from actually physically harming others. Check that your friend who’s dropped by for a visit isn’t allergic to anything you’re cooking before you drive a spoonful of it into her mouth, “Here taste this.” Because if it just so happens that she is, it can literally mean the difference between life and death. Ask her if she’d mind testing a fragrance for you before you spray it all over her only to find in horror that suddenly she is wheezing and coughing uncontrollably.

We like to smother each other with affection and communicate our own comfort levels through physical contact, whether it’s pulling people in for a hug or forcing them to eat what we’ve cooked. And that is a great thing! But your comfort level may not be the same as another person’s, and while even the most subtle displays of passion can mean a significant deal of love on your part, it can make the other person uncomfortable and even hurt him/her. Understanding that you are not entitled to someone else’s space no matter how well-intended you may be, that you are not entitled to someone else’s yes, and that this someone else is a whole and complete person with different needs, creates not only a deeper level of intimacy, understanding, and love amongst friends but forges a genuine respect of the bodily autonomy and rights of strangers.

Edit: Awesome article–Importance of Consent in Everday Situations. Thanks Jadey!

13 thoughts on “Boundaries.

  1. I completely agree! I hate it when people– nice people, feminist people, people who would never pressure someone into sex– pressure someone into hugs or cuddles because "it's harmless." No, it's not. I have the right to decide who touches me; that is a basic part of my bodily autonomy.

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  2. someone commented (unpublished) that feminists are attempting to make the world a cold, hard place devoid of any intimacyI've heard this claim before as well. It's such BS because it's always coming from the kind of anti-feminist asshats who busy themselves defending rape culture. Like ensuring consent is such a HORRIBLE BURDEN for them. Caring about a woman's feelings?!I love the way Jadey put it in the first comment. Every kind of physical contact is just better when you know the other person is enjoying it just as much. That's assuming you're not a sociopath, of course.

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  3. almostclever

    Yes! Love this and wish the world would read it. I think this is especially the case with how we raise our children. Telling them they are able to consent about who does what with their bodies (hugs, kisses, etc) also empowers them to say "NO!" Which is a huge component of education of children in sexual assault prevention. I have two nephews who my sister-in-law insists "give hugs" to everyone in the family before they leave. One of my nephews clearly hates it but does it anyways because his mom wants him to. I know she is trying to teach him to be polite and affectionate but without his consent the real message to him is "whatever adults want me to do I must listen." Now imagine a sexual perpetrator who asks for a "hug." Every family gathering when we say goodbye I tell my nephew "you only have to hug aunt sarah if you want to." We have got to teach our kids that their consent is powerful and important. This topic is a hot button for me, especially in the realm of what we are teaching our children. BTW, I am a hugger also, I am very touchy feely when it comes to other women in my life. When I really like someone they will know it because I am poking them, wrapping my arms around them, playfully pushing them (I am a child in a woman's body, Haha!) It is definitely trial and error with adults and I definitely think it is all about adapting ourselves to what is comfortable for the person in front of us. And you are right, all we have to do is ask. I ask this all the time with my co-workers. Many times hugging or touching can be a trigger for sexual assault survivors – so we should always ask for consent. Not to mention, children who have been sexually abused are actually very touchy feely because they have been taught they have no boundaries. For us adults, when we see this we need to not touch or hug so we can reteach a child that their boundaries are important and real and respected.Excellent post Sis!! You are amazing as always.

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  4. Me too, I'm exactly that way. Thank you! I totally want to hug you and wrap my arms around you and push you now (if it is welcome of course.) I've found a sister spirit. <3

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  5. I've actually had a lot of problems with this myself, in regards to body language, which is why I usually let people touch me first. Mostly though my problems have been with hair.It's not really accurate to say I like touching hair. I stim on touching hair. It relaxes me like spinning around does. Obviously the problem is that hair is usually attached to someone else and I try to respect that, but I've frequently gotten yelled at for touching someone's hair, although I don't do it if told not to.My best friend told me I should just assume I can't touch anyone's hair unless I ask, which makes sense, but often the people I try to do it with are in hugging or neckrub or close proximity okay categories, and this is as confusing as hell. How can hugging you be completely okay but hair-touching not, when I'm coming into contact with like 96x as much of your body when we hug? It's completely counterintuitive.Anyway this is a problem with a fairly simple solution, except I notice others will engage in physical contact, and specifically hair-touching (like, braiding) without verbally negotiating it first, which means there's a non-verbal negotiation of some kind that they can navigate easily. I seriously can't figure out how this works, so I just stick with the clearer verbal negotiation.

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  6. Haha I'm totally the girl who'll share my straw with anyone (not total strangers of course!), but any friend, even if I've just recently met them. But yes, consent is definitely important, and I'd NEVER just grab someone's drink (maybe the best friends, but that's different, she's been my best friend for 10 years, and she'd do the same to me, we know our boundaries).Same thing goes for hugs and that kind of stuff. Always better to be careful, and see what the other person is comfortable with. I LOVE giving hugs though, and am always squeezing the life out of my poor friends :P

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  7. almostclever

    Flint,I will guess 100% that the people hair braiding are woman to woman. This is how women form bonds with each other, not so for a man and woman. A woman "playing with" another woman's hair is like saying "hey, we are close with each other." In grade school whoever had the longest hair had girls asking to play with her hair (during reading time, lol) and that was me :) and whoever was my bestie had the privilege of playing with my hair. A man touching a woman's hair is very intimate, something I reserve for partners, no one else. It has sexual undertones to it when it is man to woman.I don't care what relaxes you, you need to ask. If you touched my hair I would slap the shit out of you, I'm just being real. I don't even think I would let close male friends caress my hair, that is like asking to be on a different level of intimacy. That is just my take on it. Hugs are culturally acceptable, running your hands through someone's hair is way more intimate. You have to recognize culture in all of this. I am also assuming you are a dude? If I'm wrong let me know, I'll give you another answer :)

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  8. Almostclever,Well kinda. I'm actually genderqueer but people read me as male, yes. I'm also Autistic which is why I have trouble seeing and recognizing gender cues. In retrospect it makes perfect sense that hair-braiding is a f/f thing, so I suppose I walked into this question, but I didn't make the connection last night when I posted. I frequently have trouble gendering behavior when I see it or remembering there's a distinction between how one is supposed to act depending on the other person's sex.I also don't really touch hair in the way you're probably thinking? I tend to touch the surface with my fingertips. I agree with you consent is important, but I was sort of giving an outline of how I've navigated hair-touching over time. It's more that I expected physical boundaries to be okay in a hierarchy (probably based on what I consider acceptable–like I'll accept someone leaning on my shoulder before they are allowed to hug me) and most people don't seem to think that way.I also know black women are usually the least likely to let me touch their hair (and yes, I've read up on why). Several (but not all) of my black female friends eventually allowed me to only because they saw I touched EVERYONE's hair if allowed so it wasn't a gendered/racial/exotic thing.

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  9. almostclever

    Flint,"It's more that I expected physical boundaries to be okay in a hierarchy (probably based on what I consider acceptable–like I'll accept someone leaning on my shoulder before they are allowed to hug me) and most people don't seem to think that way."That's an interesting way of looking at it. Where does that boundary stop for you, on the hierarchy? I do think you may be bumping up against a wall with women because you are perceived as a male. I think a lot of western women see it as creepy if a "random" guy touches their hair. BUT, I also think it depends on the person – honestly I've never had a guy touch my hair unless they were interested in me and trying to get closer.When women touch my hair it is for so many different reasons, and I really think this is a gender thing – not purely a sexual thing (because if a woman touches my hair and is sexually attracted to me, I'm still ok with it and not creeped out)… So good luck navigating this crazy area of etiquette between genders! LOLThanks for sharing your thoughts with me :)

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  10. I don't think I've thought about it that much. Generally I would assume any contact that involved a larger amount of body area in contact, especially for a longer period of time, is a more intimate one and reserved for people you're closer to. I guess the obvious exception would be sexualized contact, although straight men have this weird habit of slapping each other on the butt that I haven't figured out except being vaguely connected to sports and physical activity.

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