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?