By Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha, Leas-Uachtarán don Gaeilge (USI Vice President for Irish Language)
I’m not a hugger, which I consider one of my innate personality traits. Thinking of coming in for a good old rib-crusher? To be honest, I’d rather the handshake, formal as that might be. Hugs to me signify something special, something shared, something that is not done as a casual greeting, but as something to mark out a special part of a friendship. I don’t just hug anyone. If I hug you, you’re pretty special. But hugs are kind of like sex, for me at least. Bear with me, this is going to make a lot more sense in a couple of sentences. Promise. Let me tell you a story first.
So I’m in Galway, looking for a restaurant with my partner. Neither of us are in particularly good moods, both of us having participated in a blazing row outside Electric Nightclub last night. Not the best place to have it out, I’ll admit, but this isn’t the focus of this story. I’m grumpy, tired, and November is sinking its teeth into my ankles. Suddenly a friend sees me from across the road. This friend is a certified hugger. A hugger with a most capital ‘H’. There’s a pause. A moment of destiny. Then she turns to me like a shark seeing a flailing seal. The hug begins from across the road, and she runs at me with arms outstretched, ready to envelop my body, which is an unyielding as a frozen willow tree, into her eager embrace.
As she approaches, I outstretch my arms, blocking her approach, and say a single syllable.
The word has a physical effect on my friend. She stops dead, an expression of hurt and confusion on her face. The act of saying ‘no’ was almost an insult to her. I was clearly upset. Hugs are good for upset people. I was just asking to be hugged in that moment. What kind of people don’t like hugs?!
In the culture that we live in, hugs and bodily contact are seen as the norm. Any refusal to be hugged, to take part in the tactile festival that is day-to-day communication with some people, is seen as weird and unfriendly. Cold even. I’ve found that most people don’t ask before enforcing the whole ‘let’s have a hug’ thing. They just kind of go in for it, and if they get rejected, as I did to my friend on that day, it’s me being the strange, pushy character, turning my nose up at perfectly normal human contact. I’m the one who’s hurting someone else’s feelings. But I didn’t consent to be hugged. And consent should always, in my view (as a committed non-hugger) be asked for, even at the fairly innocous level of wrapping your arms around another person.
Consent starts at these basic levels, and respect for another’s bodily space, autonomy, and personal boundaries needs to be enforced at these basic levels during childhood and youth in order to pave the way for a deeper understanding and respect for the other person during intimate and sexual activity, something that a lot of teenagers and adults will come to engage in. The thing is that no one really sits us down at the age of five and says:
‘Well, if grandma asks you for a kiss, and you don’t want to, you can say no.’
That’s a conversation that doesn’t happen in many households, I imagine. Even if kissing grandma’s cheek or force-hugging your sibling for a photo made you physically uncomfortable, you just had to get on with it. Rejecting unwanted touching was just you being your awkward self, and come on, don’t you want to say thank you for that lovely present you just got? And that, in my opinion, lays the shaky groundwork for what will come with more intimate levels of consent in the future. Indeed, before I attended my first consent class, the concept of ‘consent’ was presented by sexist media and pop-culture (I’m looking at you, Robin Thicke) as something that was very much a grey area: a blurred lines, shove-another-drink-into-her, she-was-asking-for-it mess of men’s voices defining a sexual activity that they demanded ownership of.
It’s often mens’ voices demeaning the concept of consent classes, a concept which to me doesn’t demand that men attend because they’re ‘potential rapists waiting to happen’, as I recall from one conscientious objector, but offers them a better understanding of what consent is, and how to be a better sexual and intimate partner: one who gives as well as takes, and one who understands that sex is a two (or more!) way street.
I went to the consent class, hosted by the Department of Psychology in NUI Galway, not believing that I was a potential rapist about to be accosted by some finger-wagging officials, but as someone who understood that consent was a simple, but frequently over-complicated idea. The class, I figured, would teach me better ways to ask for consent (because, you know, women want and ask for sex as well – note to all misogynists out there!) and to understand physical, verbal, and other cues, and well as active and passive versions of consent. We were greeted not with a negative, how-dare-you-need-to-ask-about-consent attitude, but rather with two smiling lecturers and 3 plates of sandwiches. The class predominantly identified as female; clearly we didn’t think that our attendance was us outing ourselves as some kind of criminals.
We were split into groups, and asked to discuss key words around genitalia, word-maps of phrases that signified consent, and then presented with ‘grey-area’ stories in which consensual sex had not taken place. The discussion was lively, and there was no sense of shame. Rather, it was an atmosphere of understanding and education. No one looked at the men present and decided that they deserved to have sandwiches thrown at them. Their input, as men, as creatures who supposedly cannot suffer sexual assault, and who are, in society, frequently presented as mere life-support appartus for their genitalia, was extremely valuable and showed us how many men lack the ability or opportunity to be vulnerable, to reject intimacy, or to unsubscribe themselves from the culture that demands their emotional lives as a sacrifice on the altar of their sexuality.
Men can suffer sexual assault, and many do. It is a shame that so many men view consent classes as an opportunity to blame them for crimes they have not committed, when in truth, the classes focused not on gender, but on the boundaries of the self, male, female, or non-binary, and how to protect and respect those boundaries. There is so much for all genders and none to take from a consent class, and I am delighted that some third-level institutions have taken the wise move to make consent talks, speeches and classes mandatory for all first-year classes upon entering college. It’s a great step, though I fear consent is a conversation that should be had when the topics of ‘don’t get into a stranger’s car’, ‘don’t play with matches’, and ‘don’t steal your sister’s toys’ come up. It doesn’t have to be a grey-area. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be inherently sexual; many fear that issues of consent are intertwined with issues of sex and sexual assault, but not so. Hugs are not usually viewed as sexy-time, but sometimes I want my personal space to be respected and not infringed in that respect as well.
It is as simple as learning that your body belongs to you alone, and that anyone who touches or enters it is a guest, and just as guests knock before entering your house, so to must those who we chose to be intimate with, at any degree (our friends, family, lovers, etc.) ask our consent before entering or touching the most hallowed and inviolate home we will ever have: ourselves.