Thursday, February 14, 2013

Extending Consent

I'm a member of some really touchy-feely communities.  It started when I was a camp counselor for the Girl Scouts, it extended into the Pagan community when I finally started attending in-person events, to a degree I see it in the queer community, and it's definitely a part of the furry community.

I hate being touched.

There are few things that grate on me more than any unsolicited gesture that involves touching me.  And people keep on doing it, whether it's grabbing my shoulder while I'm at an ATM to introduce me to someone, "affectionately" scratching me on the head or neck while I'm watching TV, drunk people attempting to kiss me, hugging me from behind, one time while I was eating somebody began giving me an unsolicited shoulder massage.

Again, did I mention, I hate being touched?  Because a lot of people don't understand... it takes one of a few very specific relationships with me before I don't really hate being touched.  If we're dating, if we're planning to/having/have had sex, or if we're a very specific sort of really good friend, and OK, I'll make a concession if you're really depressed and need a hug, but being touched by anyone else makes me very uncomfortable.  I even dread hugging my grandmother.

Really, though, I'm talking about consent.

Consent is an issue that most reasonable people are into superficially, but will come up with a bunch of exceptions for.  People will say that of course sexual assault is an awful thing, of course all intimate acts should be based on consent, but the idea of consent in many contexts is severely degraded.  In the Pagan community, for example, there is a very real problem of sexual assault... there's a very real problem of sexual assault pretty much everywhere, of course, but in the Pagan community the relaxed sexual atmosphere and the reluctance to bring the "outside world" into anything makes things tricky.

This is also one of those communities where, when I go to a major gathering, it's a given that somebody is going to attempt to hug me without asking.  It's something I've basically learned to grit my teeth and bear.

The problem?  I shouldn't have to grit my teeth and bear something that feels like a violation of my personal space, especially when people don't even have the common courtesy to ask me first.

Some gatherings have gotten around this by having things like "no touch buttons," which is a pin with a design that signifies the wearer is not comfortable with physical contact.  Sometimes it's just a red button, and people at the event are expected to know that, other times it has a picture of a hand with a cross mark through it.  As somebody who thinks the concept of consent really needs to be expanded beyond sexual intercourse, I find this unsatisfactory.  Why?  Well, first off, people don't always acknowledge the "code."  But more importantly:

This makes the default condition consent.

And I refuse to concede that somehow the fact that a community is "huggy," unless you're referring to a small group of close friends that already has that agreement, makes unsolicited body contact appropriate.  The fact that we're Pagans--or queers, or furries, or camp people, or whatever--does not mean that we are all OK with this, or that we should all be OK with this.

I don't feel that it's too much to ask for people to start taking measures to facilitate better consent in these communities by asking--preferably in a frank, verbal manner--if such physical contact is OK with the person it is being offered to.  For many of us, this isn't a small matter.