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There’s a growing awareness of consent culture, but it’s still a pretty controversial issue when it comes to the more subtle stuff. For instance, the reason that people don’t think that Joe Biden sniffing a woman’s hair is a big deal is because that behavior is normalized — women’s bodies are in a constant state of consent unless the woman says no.
But I’m here to tell you that really, it’s the opposite — for all kinds of physical contact.
Why do we think touching someone is OK until they say no? As podcast host Jaclyn Friedman said on one of her episodes of “Unscrewed,” a lot of men don’t see women as possessing bodily autonomy; they see women in a state of waiting to be touched, waiting to be acted upon, unless the woman says no and stops them.
“When I walk around in the world and interact with people, my body is in a state of no until you get a yes, just like everybody else’s body,” Friedman said. “I’m here to say for the 47 millionth time, women’s bodies are not in a state of consent.”
Some of my friends have been saying stuff like “Biden allegedly kissing a woman’s head isn’t a big deal, that it’s harmless.” But touching people in ways that make them uncomfortable shows an incredible amount of entitlement over something another person should have zero entitlement over.
It’s a pervasive idea in our society that women don’t have a right to their own space — and along with that idea follows behavior that people can use to instill the idea of “You don’t have agency; I take what I want.”
Instances like an awkwardly slow kiss on the top of a head are relatively small, but they point to the main issue of a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, which is much larger, and the ultimate cause of every kind of sexual assault. And if you don’t see this kind of entitlement in your day-to-day life, that’s pretty ordinary, because it’s been invisible to the point of seeming normal.
Besides dodging the occasional unwanted kiss and then fearing the reaction, I can think of tons of examples where entitlement over women’s bodies is an issue.
For instance, I was walking around downtown with my best friend and his brother, and they were cracking each other’s backs. My friend’s brother came up behind me, said “Here, put your arms like this,” and lifted me up in the air to crack my back too. As it happens, I do like my back being cracked, but the simple fact that he didn’t ask if that was something I wanted made me feel weird, even though I like the guy. If it had been someone I was slightly less comfortable with I would have been really unsure how to handle the situation, and even so, I would have preferred to have been asked. Is that so hard?
It’s a pervasive idea in our society that women don’t have a right to their own space — and along with that idea follows behavior that people can use to instill the idea of “you don’t have agency; I take what I want.”
Of course, a lot of people say that women in other countries have it way worse and that we should be grateful for the rights we have in this country. This is true. Gratitude is a great thing, but unwanted touching is still something that shouldn’t be happening, and there’s no reason that we can’t care about that at the same time as other issues.
“We shouldn’t give a pass for consent violations large or small,” Friedman said. “Just because it’s not intentionally making someone uncomfortable, that’s not an excuse.”
That’s because, if left unchecked, these small instances of assuming women’s automatic consent can and do turn into something much more grievous, every time a woman (or a man) is sexually assaulted. And just to be clear, women aren’t exonerated here —I’m sometimes guilty of hugging people too quickly and then stepping back and realizing they look kind of uncomfortable.
I’ve recognized that it’s not difficult to ask, “Aw, can I hug you?” and hopefully we can work together to create an environment where people don’t have to be afraid of saying “Actually, I’m not really a huggy person.” It’s possible to enjoy casual physical touches and at the same time respect that everyone has the right to decide whether they want to partake in a hug, a kiss or an awkward hair sniff. How we treat these small issues goes a long way to how we treat the bigger ones, so let’s start here.
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