Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Consent is King

Miri over at Brute Reason wrote a post that particularly resonated with me this morning. In it, she takes a look at the role consent plays in touching that is not overtly sexual (or at least, is not intended to be). As someone who experiences a lot of comfort issues both with touching and being touched, I appreciated that this discussion was being given some exposure.

There are a lot of different issues that come into play when we deal with physical contact and consent. Not only sexual issues, but PTSD, personal space, etc. She discusses most of these, and even gives time to discussing the interplay of racial privilege and non-sexual touching (like when white people just reach out and touch black people's hair). All of that is appreciated. All of that is good.

The part that resonated the most with me was this (emphasis in original):
There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with being touched, regardless of the sexual orientation of the person touching them. Some people have triggers as a result of past trauma. Some people just don’t know your intentions because they don’t know you or your sexual orientation, so they don’t know if you’re a friendly stranger expressing physical affection because…I don’t know, you like to do that? or if you’re someone who intends to harass and/or assault them. And, most importantly, some people–many people, I’m sure–just want to be left the hell alone by strangers. Sometimes being touched by someone you don’t know is just unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable.
That's important, that part. Most of my partner's family knows that I don't particularly like to be touched, and for the most part they respect it. Even so, when I meet new members of the extended family, there tends to be that awkward moment where I try to play off touching that person and then someone says "blah blah blah Mike's uncomfortable with hugging because autism". And I cringe, a bit.

Could it be that my being autistic is the main reason I don't like anyone but Liz and a couple of other people touching me? Maybe. Except, I can put myself into a performance situation and have no trouble with bodily contact in that context. When I've acted, I've not been nervous about any of the necessary contact. The same goes when I'm with my mother's family, where constant contact is pretty normal. I'm comfortable there, even when the person who expects a hug is someone I don't feel particularly close to.

The key component in both of those scenarios is expectation. Mine. When I'm with my mother's family, I expect them to randomly grab me when they want my attention. They don't just do it because they're touchy people, they do it because their gatherings are loud and sometimes you can't tell who is trying to talk to you. In the constant sensory hell that is a party at my grandmother's house, the touch is a connection that I need in order to know where to focus my attention so that I can communicate. It's grounding, not disruptive, because it cuts through a field of unnecessary information and helps to guide me.

When I'm acting, the touch is scripted. It's meaning is pre-dissected and understood with regards to motivation. I know what the other person is really intending, what the character their portraying intends, and I know that even if some improvisation takes us outside of those narrow confines, it will be informed by the bounds of that motivated exchange between the characters. More importantly, I know when the touch is coming, what kind it will be, and what to do to react to it. I'm comfortable, even if I'm acting with a stranger, because I know what to expect.

This is not the case when someone randomly grabs me to get my attention, or when someone I don't know wants to wrap me in a bear hug. I don't know what they're about to do or where it's going. Most of the time, if they asked first, I'd probably say yes. It's really the surprise and the uncertainty of not knowing what next that makes me uncomfortable. It doesn't matter if what next is going to be totally nonsexual because of the setting. It's not the sexuality or lack thereof that freaks me out. It's the ambush.

So yes, "unpleasant, scary, and uncomfortable". Because I have no way of predicting your next move. I don't do "body language". Blame that on the autism if you want, I just don't do it. So, I don't know where you're going next unless I really know you. And I get nervous about that. It's not that I mind getting touched, it's that I don't like getting grabbed without any warning or any indication of what will happen after I get grabbed.