When touch feels bad: the right to set boundaries

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I grew up with education on “good touch” and “bad touch” at school. We were shown what areas were okay for adults to touch (arms, knees, shoulders, etc.) and areas that no one should touch except for special reasons (genitals, chest for girls, etc.). I learned these lessons, and I understood grown-ups and other children should not touch me in these places.

I grew up. I experienced different cultures, and I found that some permitted touch in ways I hadn’t expected. In one country, I was able to walk down the street arm in arm with a female friend, and no one thought it signaled anything more than friendship. I shared a queen size bed with an adult female friend, and it was clearly a platonic arrangement.

I moved into the workforce, and I found new nuances to boundaries. Why must this meeting be held in a bar? Why can’t you keep your belongings off my desk? Why do you leave my office door open instead of closing it, as requested?

Then, recently, I met a new colleague. A male colleague, several decades my senior, who had retired and taken a part-time, temporary position while we hired someone permanent.

The first day I met him, he made an inappropriate joke at/about me, in public. Not something crude or sexually suggestive, but a biting, sarcastic, and judgmental “joke” that displayed little humor and a great deal of indirect aggression. Whether he was unhappy at retiring, felt out of place, or simply had built a career on exerting his male power on women, I can’t say.

What I can say is that due to his interference, I lost fifteen precious minutes of work time when I had less than an hour to prepare for a presentation. When he interrupted me with his “joke,” I responded (heatedly) that I needed to get work done and to please let me finish.

I don’t show irritation in the workplace often because it’s not productive, but he had interrupted me (and others) several times (complaining he had nothing to do, which frankly was galling as he was getting paid as much as we were).

He then proceeded to lecture me on “not being able to take a joke,” said I needed to “relax,” reached out, and grabbed my arm.

On the forearm, yes.

Not on my buttocks, thighs, chest, or another sexually suggestive place, but on my arm.

Every nerve in my body shouted, “Violation! Red flag! Boundary breach!”

My logical mind said, “It wasn’t sexual. An arm is a neutral place. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Yet I was furious, felt helpless, and wanted to lash out in a way I couldn’t understand.

I gave a tight smile, edged as far away as possible, and gave a curt dismissal before leaving.

I’ve also been coached, since childhood, on politeness. Good manners. The unshakeable belief that people commit errors with good intentions, and to call them out is wrong.

I took my story to social media with a simple poll.

Quick poll for women:

Under what circumstances would you feel it appropriate for a male colleague (whom you’d just met that day) to touch you (without invitation)?

Clarification: This is not a touch in a sexually suggestive area (buttocks, chest, etc.) but in a neutral area (shoulder, arm, hand, etc.)

The response was enormous. Overwhelmingly, women said that they did not feel any touch (outside of a handshake) would be appropriate. Some pointed out the power dynamics involved–that when a man touches a woman in the workplace, it’s often because the man considers himself in a higher position than the woman.

Some women said they were wary of touch due to physical issues (disability or illness that made touch painful), emotional issues (history of abuse, assault, rape, etc.), or personality (introversion, need for personal space, etc.)

One impassioned commenter took great exception to these experiences.

The thread said nothing about a power dynamic. It never inferred [sic] anywhere that it was a power trip. It just seems like a way to slam men — maybe that’s my take. I guess I just see people as kind and sensitive and don’t see evil lurking in every corner. This thread has made me sad for a society that has fallen into a pattern of everyone communicating through phones with no touch or compassion– for either women or men. It seems sad that even a handshake is “threatening” or a pat on the shoulder is painful and insinuating a vile ulterior motive. I’m not sure i want to live in a world where we are better off communicating with phones, in our own safe little bubbles. I’m odd woman out here – it’s okay, I’ll leave the thread, it’s not meant for me—I find these words more painful than any touch by a man or woman.

It’s a commentary on the divisiveness of our current society that we can’t mutually respect opposite and equally valid, legitimate experiences.

It can be true that most people are good at heart, and most people operate with good intentions.

It can also be true that other people’s good intentions do not erase culpability for their actions.

When I was an adolescent, I offered a friend a loaf of homemade banana bread. She made no movement to take it, and she asked me to set it on the counter. I was puzzled and somewhat hurt. I’d taken great trouble to make it for her. Didn’t she like it? Didn’t she want it?

Later on, I found out that she suffered from debilitating arthritis and any weight on her hands/wrists would be painful.

My intentions were pure. I offered friendship and love, but this innocence did not cancel out the negative consequences for her. She set the boundary, and in time I learned how to respond. On good days, she could be touched. On bad days, any interaction would cause flare-ups.

The stories of my social media sisters gave me validation, strength, and courage to approach my workplace. I was afraid. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t face meeting this new colleague and sharing space with him.

The administration heard me out, raised eyebrows, and gave shocked reassurance that they would deal with it swiftly, discreetly, and with the absolute minimum of fuss. I did not want this employee reprimanded. Rather, I wanted him given a gentle but clear reminder of boundaries.

Not your body?

Not yours to touch.

Later that day, he stayed far away from me and only gave a brief, professional greeting.

Inside, I heaved a sigh of relief.

It wasn’t a sexual touch.

Some might ridicule me for making a big deal out of nothing, or assuming that all people are evil or sinister. Others might deride me as someone lacking compassion or human decency, or as someone who wants to live in a safe little bubble of sad, cell phone communication.

I say that my stomach no longer knots up at the thought of going into work, and I can perform my duties without wondering how to shield myself from unwanted touch.

I share my story, not to shame or put down anyone who disagrees with me, but to highlight the importance of listening to our inner selves.

Violation.

Wrong.

If we listen to that voice, we learn when and how to protect ourselves.

Thank you, one million times, to my social media sisters who showed me the way.

Consent is sexy. Pass it on.

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “When touch feels bad: the right to set boundaries

  1. awesomesub says:

    Hi Ana, I am sorry that this happened, and according to the way you describe things here, the incident sounds worse than what I had thought it was when I read about it on FB. So, this is about someone who made you feel pretty uneasy, and in more than one way crossed lines, and on top of that he touched you. If someone who I was not on friendly terms with, or who I just had an argument with touched me I’d surely be upset. Probably he did not mean it like that, but with such a background leading up to the incident, I would easily feel threatened, not only uneasy.
    I think this was too far away from being a neutral situation where touching your arm could maybe be considered somehow ok, and I am just glad that the administration reacted and someone spoke to this man.

    hugs

    Nina

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rozharrison says:

    Hi Ana, I wholeheartedly agree with Nina. I’m sorry this happened. Any form of touching, regardless of where crosses boundaries if it makes the recipient uncomfortable.

    Hugs
    Roz

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joanne Stewart says:

    I’m sorry that happened to you, but so glad you were brave enough to speak up. I commented on your thread and one thing I didn’t mention was that I was abused, sexually and emotionally, growing up. It’s made me…rather sensitive to the world around me. It’s kind of like a sixth sense, or maybe it’s a hyper awareness of the world around me, but I’ve come to trust it, and often it happens exactly like you described–just a really quick, strong feeling that says something’s not right. It might not even make sense to me or anyone else, but something inside just won’t let me ignore it. So I say you were right to trust that feeling, especially given everything leading up to it. I’m glad it came okay in the end. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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