College kids these days love a lot of things. We love beer, according to the movies, and we love starting riots, according to the media. More frequent than a house party in Allston on a Friday, however, is the constant demand for college students to be ready for a hug, handshake, pat, or poke whenever one is possibly involved in a social interaction. In greeting and parting, in conversation and in passing, we touch each other. A lot.
This would be super-awesome-times if we thought about asking for permission for all of this personal-space-bubble popping. However, the ratio of times I have been asked, “May I have a hug?” to the times people have claimed the right to touch me is about the same ratio as palatable to unpalatable vegan options in the Warren dining hall. People don’t ask for a hug or to touch. It’s gotten to the point where we have built a culture in which we can actually pressure each other into getting touched, such as the ubiquitous “holding arms out in silence and waiting for a hug.” You can’t verbally refuse without a verbal initiation, and if you want to say no, your only option is to awkwardly squeak out an excuse or even more awkwardly walk away.
You shouldn’t have to make excuses for not wanting touch in this moment. You could be the most touchy-feely, outgoing person on the planet, but you might be having a bad day or feel gross. You might also be an introvert who may prefer not to be touched by acquaintances. This doesn’t make you a freak, or an outsider; it makes you normal. Somehow, though, if you don’t hug and you’re a college student, you aren’t within the norm. You’re cold and unwelcoming, and heaven forbid you be either of those things for even a second as someone in college, a constantly social environment.
Furthermore, there is an implied comfort with yourself and often your sexuality integrated into giving and receiving touch that not everyone enjoys. I could tell you story after story of being pressured into hugs that felt like the other person was feeling me up, hugs that went too long, and times when people have touched me without my permission as a way of displaying both their familiarity with me and, more subtly, their sense of power over me. When a large guy, for example, puts his hand on my shoulder to greet me with no verbal cue, I feel incredibly threatened. Harder still is trying to explain that his friendly gesture sucks for me; how can a little pat be a bad thing, he might ask? Well, I live in a society where the size, strength, and general forwardness of men are all used as means of displaying their physical power over me. It freaks me out, and I’ll call you out on it, but there are a lot of people who are made to feel terribly for refusing these “loving” gestures.
I’m here to tell you that you absolutely must ask before you touch someone and that you have every right to demand that everyone do the same for you. As “huggy” as I may seem, there are times I’d rather not be touched, and I expect that to be respected, whether you are my best friend or my most recent acquaintance. It can never be said enough: consent is sexy.