Saturday, March 12, 2011

Notes on Predation and Affection: When is a Hug not Just a Hug?

image is from here
I've been dealing a lot lately with this matter of how we communicate, physically and emotionally, and whether it is meaningfully loving or respectful to the recipient. How words or other actions are received does matter--it's not just the intentions (if good) that matter. And if my actions are received as abusive or hurtful when they are, to me, intended to be loving, then something is off somewhere. It may mean the recipient isn't capable of receiving love. Or it could be that they are so triggered when approached, due to past aggression and assault, that any kindness if physically initiated by someone else, can feel like another threat or an impending assault. Or it may be that I'm doing something I'm not aware of--subconsciously; I might be callously and selfishly disregarding someone's body language that is not welcoming me to come closer. Or it may be that the other person has a structural political relationship to me, with me in a position of power over them, that I'm unwilling to be appropriately away of. Breaches of safety and consent can happen in many different ways.

I know a woman, a white woman who is many years my senior, who likes to hug me. She comes right up when she sees me and hugs me. What is she intending to communicate? Probably some degree of affection. How do I receive it? As a kind of violation. Why?

Because I grew up feeling like my body wasn't really mine. I grew up feeling like it existed for others to use, to do with what they wanted for their own satisfactions. By age eight I had been molested. By age thirteen I had been sexually assaulted. And in my adult life I gave myself to a relationship with a very sexually selfish man who contacted me when he wanted sex--and that's the only time he would contact me, generally. He'd call from motel rooms and request my presence, which is to say, my absence. He didn't want me, really. He wanted my body to function to please him. To bring him to orgasm. That's what he wanted and that's what he requested. He never kissed me--not once. He never expressed love for me. He only thanked me for coming by when he was done with me.

I grew up in a generation where children were taught to obey adults; to do as they say. To hug if asked to hug. To let adults pick me up if they wished to. Whatever they wanted to do, the message to me and most children of my era was "adults get to decide how and when they have physical access to you". "To say no is to be rude and spoiled and selfish."

I grew up letting people have access to me. "Consensually". Except with the assault. That was in no way consensual, although the predator probably got to think it was because I was petrified and silent during the entire assault. Well, I did manage to say I had to go. I had to leave. He ignored me. So it was like I was silent. I was also afraid if I angered him he'd kill me. Or do something worse than killing me. But he kind of did that anyway.

There are different social rules depending on where one lives. Things are very different in Japan, for example, than in many parts of the U.S. And while I may send out hugs to many people in Japan right now, as they find out who among their friends and loved ones, relatives, neighbors, have died from the tsunami or earthquake, they may not welcome my hug. Men especially. But I'm a huggy kind of person. Unless I get clear messages from someone that they don't wish to be hugged, I'll assume they welcome one.

That's exactly how that white woman is. She is a very affectionate person. Very warm. Not predatory. Except when she was getting to know me she shared with me some things that made me uncomfortable. She shared things that I felt were inappropriate for me to know. She also touched me in ways that didn't feel okay to me.

I tried to express to her that I wasn't comfortable with some of what had happened between us. She seemed to understand. She had worked as a psychotherapist, so I didn't think it would take too much explanation on my part. But, whenever she sees me, which is not often as I don't go out much, she comes over and hugs me, no matter my body language. Is she being insensitive? Probably. Is she being predatory? No. But it feels a bit scary to me to see her coming towards me, whenever I see her. And it's partly because she was inappropriate with me, to me, in some ways in our past. I won't go into the details, but to me she crossed some lines and I was left feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. This doesn't mean she is an unsafe person to be around. These distinctions are tricky.

I am faced with having to write to her to ask her not to do that. I will ask her not to hug me because lately I am dealing with this whole issue of who gets to have access to me. To my body. And the answer is no one does unless I welcome it, explicitly. But I live in a society, in a particular collection of cultures--and there are several I live in--where people having access to me is assumed to be okay. For example, among many middle aged white gay men, kissing on the cheek or the lips when meeting is acceptable behavior for many. Not for me. I don't want anyone kissing me unless we are intimate friends. But culturally it is part of "what happens" that is supposed to be okay.

Men at a gathering, at a party, who feel free with their kisses, are not free to kiss me--which hasn't stopped them. I don't want to be kissed or hugged unless... unless I want to be. And honestly that can be welcomed by me one day and not on another. That's how it goes with me. I try not to go outside if I'm not feeling like being touched at all, because when I do, let's say to go grocery shopping, and someone--anyone at all--bumps into me, I feel physically violated and emotionally triggered. So rather than inflict that on myself and give others the sense that they've committed some great offence when all they did was sway too far in a supermarket aisle, I'll stay home.

On the macro scale, adults feel entitled to have physical (and sexual) access to children; men feel entitled to have physical and sexual access to women; whites feel entitled to have people of color meet their needs in various ways--for example to have people of color do most of the hard labor in the world so that whites can purchase inexpensive clothes and eat food from far away. There are whole systems--economic, social, and sexual--that are built on these entitlements and which operate with these assumptions of who should have access to whom, and in what ways.

On the micro level, it can be hard to see the larger patterns and the political imperatives that underlie them. I feel threatened by a very warm woman who probably means me no harm. And I don't mean my friends in Japan harm when I see them and hug them. But there it is: invasion of people's bodies happens regardless of anyone' intentions to not be harmful. I'd say it is my responsibility to find out what someone else is comfortable with. Because the Japanese woman I know who is married to a Japanese man might be comfortable with me hugging her, but he may not be comfortable receiving my hug of him. So when I communicate to her, I might say that I'm sending a hug. But I won't say that to him. There is likely to be a lot of grief happening in the next days in Japan, as many people find out friends and relatives and loved ones perished in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. I hope on the non-material level, I send what is useful and requested. Too often, I think, we send what occurs to us to send--materially and emotionally--because it makes us feel better to do so, or because it is what we are accustomed to doing.

It is for me, I think, to write to the white woman who likes to hug me, here in the U.S. and to let her know that unless I open my arms to welcome an embrace, I'd prefer she not do so. It's about the best I can do, for now. If she asks why, I'll try and explain that it is because I need to have more control over who has access to me physically, if and when it is possible. And that because she is someone who does respect boundaries that are established, I know I am safe to express this need to her. That wasn't the case when I was a child. But it is now. I'm male, after all. And my body isn't targeted, usually, for others to touch and violate. The white woman's body is targeted, however. So even while I may be uncomfortable with her hugs, she more than likely has to contend with being physically approached and violated far more than I do.

On the macro level, girls and women worldwide are being physically and sexually violated often. Daily. Hourly. Minute by minute. This is acceptable to many men; it is wanted by many men; it is desirable by many men. If it weren't, many men would stop it. Many men do not stop it. So it continues, because it meets the needs of those men.

What is tricky is that for those people--people such as children, people such as women--who are structurally, politically expected to do what others ask of them, how do we approach and answer this question: When does acceptance of a seemingly consensual hug or other physical or sexual act, become a way of appeasing someone who might reject you, insult you, hurt you, or kill you if you refused? What if the current person won't kill you, but you're triggered when hugged into a time when someone might have killed you, or where you felt paralysed and unable to speak out to say "No!"? And if someone shows no objection to contact, should we assume no harm or invasion is ever occurring? Should we assume that those macro political patterns aren't being reinforced when men behave as men are socialised to behave--too often taking what is wanted and not bothering to find out what is genuinely welcomed and wanted?


Dark Daughta said...

i don't really hug people much anymore. it's so complicated...especially, as you point out - for wimmin. your description of your interactions with men, as a survivor, remind me of so many different fuk'd interactions i've had over time in wimmin's community. but with me on the other end. i was probably a lot like that woman, the psychotherapist, you mentioned. i was a big hugger once i discovered that hugging could be okay and good...expressing emotion and affection. but i remember literally being surrounded by survivors in wimmin's community. i'd say that probably over %85 of the wimmin i encountered were survivors of child sexual abuse and/or rape. i didn't really understand how this could influence their understanding of even the friendliest touch, how this influenced their relationship to seeing a lot of flesh on another woman, how this influenced their relationship to sexual wordings, to sex. there were survivors i encountered who were completely shut down physically, completely shut off sexually. there were survivors i encountered who had no physical or emotional boundaries. there were survivors i encountered who were completely without boundaries when it came to sex. there were survivors who demanded care, who manipulated to get affection and attention. there were survivors who would do anything to not be seen or heard but who silently screamed when their boundaries were crossed. there are survivors who harm other survivors. there are survivors who reach out and...harm people who weren't survivors who then become survivors who reach out and harm other survivors...other wimmin.
disaster. complete utter disaster. consumed from the inside out.
julian, i left wimmin's community. i don't go in much. the last time i went in was because i was going in search of one of the men who is now my partner, to let him know that i wanted to have more interaction with him. i didn't go there to interact with any of the paradoxical, contradictory, charged energies i just described. i shy away from it. i avoid it. there is no understanding it, making sense of it, finding comfort within in it for me. walking among so many survivors hasn't been a place of solace for me, though it started off being that before i actually started to understand the havoc abuse and rape and domination combined caused not just in the personal/micro but also in the collective/macro. i...can' with it. i am aged and grey and stressed and anxious and blooded and bloodied because of those dynamics unexplained, ill defined, nonverbal, awkward, diseased, deficient...draining. tears and hurt and confusion sit jumbled in my chest driven by memory of what i've seen, what i've done, what i didn't understand, what i did understand but could not move from theory to praxis. julian, my spirit is compromised and so dirty, so disgusted with me, disgusted with oppressive dynamics i can't even begin to understand how to solve, rectify, change, positively impact any of this. it is horror, insidious, on a scale i...can...not...manage. memory. memories. tears. i run. i am running. i have been running, completely unable to deal. on fire...i'm on fire, bleeding...some of the's not...mine...tears...i'm running...don' doesn't matter. i have memories aplenty. even if i never look again, even if i never even consider entering...haunting. julian...your blog...rips me open. it hurts. it's will be okay...never...

Julian Real said...

Dark Daughta, I'm sorry you are feeling torn, and I know we are all torn.

I know we are all bleeding, or that we all have blood on us: our own or the blood of others. Micro/macro: we all wear blood, don't we?

There's nothing really all that innocent going on. I've hurt people, I've behaved in ways that people later identified to me as abusive. I didn't learn sadism because no one around me was sadistic. If someone were, I'd have learned that too.

What horrifies me about abuse is that one learns not just how to be abused but also how to abuse.

I have spoken with many wimmin about wimmin's communities and wimmin's spaces. I know the stats. We know the stats. Many wimmin have been raped in childhood or later or both. And many wimmin have been preyed upon by someone or by many people. And, yes, some wimmin learn, of course, how to be predatory, how to be abusers, how to assault.

But there's no community I've found free of this. Certainly not any community with men in it. I do find that among some men there is less loading of a certain kind. Some combo of privileges, entitlements, power, and not having been incested/molested/raped in childhood means that men can behave differently, with a kind of casualness. I've seen it and marveled at it. I don't much understand it but I have tried, at times, to participate in it.

Julian Real said...

I think many people are yearning to be free of what haunts us. And so we draw to us people who will help us re-enact old trauma-dramas. And then we can either locate their source, or just pretend the only problem is in the present.

Are you saying, Dark Daughta, that you do not know what it is to be physically violated in childhood? You'd be one of very few wimmin I know for whom that is the case. No hand hit you? No words scorched you? No one's hands or bodies touched you in ways that were inappropriate, abusive, or violating?

Are you saying you struggle with what you learned from society about how to be abusive, violating, and hurtful? Who hasn't? Haven't we all learned most of that--how to hate others or hate ourselves? Isn't that what we're all supposed to learn and practice against anyone who isn't the most powerful in society?

I've known people who are very wounded, very hurting, from past abuse and present abuse, who are still very capable of hurting other people. I don't see people as either victims of perpetrators. Most people I know are both or have been both.

If you care to, tell me more about what you are wrestling with currently. And you can write to me privately if you'd prefer to. I don't want you to make public something that would be better shared privately.

I have been emotionally abusive, usually unintentionally; but I know how to be abusive--I learned how from being bullied for seven years.

I've sought out touch with people I shouldn't have. Not children. Actually, I've done this when I was a child, with a man who was ten or eleven years older than me. I sought out touch with him, from him. He abused the situation, but I was an initiator. I was acting out on him and he allowed it to occur for his own pleasure. Not much happened, thank Goddesss. (I mean compared to what can happen and what does happen, often enough. I don't mean "nothing happened; a lot happened and it shifted the trajectory of my life. That's a fancy way of saying it fucked me up.)

But he had some boundaries--far more than me. I wanted affection, really, but had already confused that with something sexual. By age eleven. He offered sexual stuff and no affection. He didn't impose himself on me except once, kissing me deeply. I didn't like it and backed away. He "respected" that, but the kiss had already happened and he did initiate that.

I learned from him a lot about how to seduce people in manipulative ways; how to choreograph abuse. I'm thankful that I've made amends with everyone I've hurt, except one person, who later hurt me. So maybe we're even, I don't know. I'd like to speak with him but I'm also very sexually vulnerable to him so it is not wise for me to be around him too much.

Julian Real said...

The world of sexual abuse survivors is a world I live in all the time; I have no choice. Every example of woman you wrote about above feels like my sister. I know her. I've spoken to her. She is one of my friends. Or I've shared some of those conditions and strategies.

What do you fear, Dark Daughta? Do you fear being abusive? Do you fear being abused?

I don't know how we get through given how abusive society is, while pretending it is moral, healthy, and good. That's quite a mind-fuck, eh? That's why I had to read wimmin's writing who told the truth about the macro and the micro--the social and the personal.

I don't know if that white woman, the psychotherapist, was abused as a child or not. So I don't know if she's moved through a place of not welcoming touch to a place of feeling free and easy with touch. That's possible.

I was engaged in conversation online elsewhere. The conversation was about "sex work". One white woman wanted to talk about how "sex work" can be positive. Another woman--I'm not sure of her ethnicity--came forth describing the horrors of it for her. The white woman kept telling her she was not engaging with the subject--how to do healing sex work.

What I've seen play out over and over is that those of us who are abused are told we must be silent so as not to upset or disturb the spaces of people who want to have conversations as if what they want to do doesn't have real consequences that are negative for some people somewhere.

The white woman seemed to refuse to accept that for any consensual sex work to exist, there has to be a solid foundation of non-consensual sex work. And I tried to navigate myself through that conversation, which I was part of. I welcomed the white woman to find a space to have the conversation she wanted to have, while also supporting the survivor speaking her truths. She recommended the white woman read up on "sex work", but the white woman seemed to not want to know about all the horrors. This came across as very privileged to me. Like she can afford to not know what some of us endure, while she wants to benefit from some aspect of the system that creates the suffering.

Kind of like someone wanting to know what the best Caribbean cruiseship company is, but not wanting to hear from anyone who is poor living on the islands to be visited. Not even wanting to SEE the poor people because that'll be a downer and will ruin their vacation.

I told someone recently that I have been on a cruise ship--some people took me along. And all I wanted to do was talk to the poor people on the islands. The rest seemed so fake and protected--a fantasy for the privileged.

I knew the only people who could speak truth about what the cruiseship industry does for island people were the poorer people who lived there. I kept up correspondence with a woman from the Southern Caribbean. She was learning a second language to be able to teach and be bilingual. She was raising children alone. She wanted to travel to some of the other islands where some of her family lived.

When people ask me about what it's like to be on a cruise, I try and tell them about the luxury and the poverty. Because one is utterly contingent on the other.

The world of survivors of sexual assault is a world that people who are not survivors can't really understand all too well, I find. Our incessant triggering is too much for many people. We are, as they say, high maintenance.

But rapist society is high maintenance for us. And if anyone with enough luck or privilege or power wants to figure out how to get through an abusive society unscathed, I just hope they remember that there will need to be millions of people harmed for them to accomplish that task.

There is blood and screaming everywhere. It's just invisible or undetectable to the most powerful people most of the time. That's my experience.

Julian Real said...

This is what I believe in terms of how to get us to the promised land:

We start with where we are. And we speak honestly about where that is. We begin from a place of acceptance of what is, knowing full well it must change radically. That is to say, we accept what is in order to face it fully. Because to have a stance of non-acceptance, some argue, is to not be able to see fully what is happening. And unless we can collectively see it all, and feel it all, we won't know how to respond compassionately and fiercely to remedy the situation.