The Current Social Climate
The social climate in this country following the #metoo movement, the Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby sex scandals, the Donald Trump / Billy Bush “hotmike” discussion, Brett Kavanaugh / Christine Blasey Ford testimony, and the Joe Biden unwanted touching media coverage have forced us as a society to take a close look at the issue of consent and accountability. The reality is, this topic is a fluid one. The definition of consent is colored by gender, generation, culture and society. Without context, our discussions on the topic are destined to remain circular and non-productive.
Prior to the women coming forward to discuss incidents of Joe Biden’s unwanted touching, which has been reported as non-sexual in nature, discussions around consent centered on sexual consent. Is there such a thing as implied consent? Up to what point can a woman withdraw consent? Is there a point at which males can assume consent? The Joe Biden media coverage took the discussion of consent beyond sexual consent. Is consent required for someone to enter our personal space and how is that defined? These sound like simple concepts but really are much more complex.
As a first generation Haitian-American, culturally, in a social context, I was raised that it was “polite” when I walked into a room to kiss everyone in the room and that to not kiss someone was rude. Growing up in Miami this behavior was further reinforced by the Hispanic influence. In business and social settings even non-hispanics in Miami are comfortable with the kiss greeting. There was the occasional ‘creepy uncle’ character who would try for the extended hug and we quickly learned to lean in with our hands up to keep distance. Interestingly, it was never expected that we could just refuse to greet the creepy uncle with a kiss. Culturally, it was more important to comply with cultural norms than to maintain personal distance. We were forced to challenge this understanding when members of my family started dating cultures that did not kiss. The compromise which I taught my kids, was that if you lean in and the other person doesn’t lean forward, don’t touch them as it would violate their personal space. We only got there when the individuals involved made it clear that they don’t kiss random people. Is the lean consent? Implied consent?
Do I need to ask before I kiss you hello or goodbye?
There are also generational differences in viewing consent and personal space. Generations before the 70’s have a higher tolerance for the invasion of personal space. Even when you feel your space has been violated you are more reluctant to view the invasion of personal space as a negative. The use of the well-positioned hand has been was used as a method of polite restraint and establish authority. When an elder, frequently male, wishes to assert their opinion as having greater significance there is that well-placed hand on the shoulder or grab of the forearm which served as a distraction, allowing the authority figure the opportunity to interrupt and assert their point. The touch, while seemingly harmless, establishes a communication hierarchy that politely asserts that whatever the toucher has to say is of greater importance than what the person being touched has to say. So much more important that they need to be interrupted by the touch, rather than being allowed to complete their thought. The reality in this scenario is that the person doing the touching is not aware how the touch is being received. That said, the gesture will be quickly forgotten by the toucher. The behavior, however, has been positively reinforced because they were able to make their point. This means in a similar scenario, the behavior will happen again. Having been on the receiving end, the distraction is effective on several different levels. The first: Please don’t touch me, I didn’t invite it. Second: I’m not supposed to disrespect my elders. Third: I really want you to remove your hand, but I don’t want to look like I’m making a big deal over nothing. Whatever I had to say has now become insignificant. The key in this scenario is again, touch without consent, not sexual but not invited none the less.
Touching Between the Genders
Touching between the genders can have a dynamic like that of the generational model. In other words, a male placing a hand on a female’s shoulder or forearm while she is speaking can be perceived by the speaker as a method to assert that what they have to share is of greater significance than the speaker, and they need to stop talking. Consequently, the recipient of the gesture will feel diminished and possibly constrained. In a professional setting between a male and female, with the male initiating the touch, the female may want to resist and resent the contact, but the delay in processing her response will have achieved the goal of distracting her from her initial comments and allowing him the opportunity to speak over her. This exchange may appear inconsequential to the man, and he may have no recollection of even making the gesture, but it will be experienced as a negative event by a female in that scenario. This dynamic can be replicated in certain social situations. For example, a group is engaged in an animated conversation, a woman leans in to make a point; and a man in the conversation places his hand on her shoulder. Whether intended or otherwise, this gesture will be experienced as restraint by the woman in question. The recipient of the gesture did not invite contact; therefore, the contact is without consent and is experienced negatively.
The Role of Neurotransmitters
So how do two people involved in the same interaction experience it so differently? The answer lies in the body chemicals, the neurotransmitters and hormones, produced as a result of contact. When a contact is invited or welcomed, we experience the release of oxytocin which gives us a sense of well-being, reduces stress and has an overall soothing affect. This is why being physically comforted, hugged or touched when we are upset has such a soothing affect. Contact will also have that same affect if we are the initiator of the contact. This is important because as the initiator of the contact, as long as he perceives it as a welcome touch, will receive all the positive effects. If this touch is welcomed by the recipient of the contact, then she will also experience it as a pleasant experience. But what if the recipient is not okay with the contact? If the recipient of the contact does not consent to it, whether stated or not, the chemicals, the hormones and neurotransmitters produced will be different and will include, among others, norepinephrine and epinephrine more commonly known as adrenaline. What role do these chemicals play? They prepare us to flee, fight or freeze. In addition, they impact memory, in particular, the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that stores long-term memory. These chemicals will trigger the long-term memory of an emotionally charged experience. So, is it possible for two people to have such different recollections of the same event to the point that one will remember it distinctly and the other will not? Yes, it’s possible. Neurotransmitters and hormones are not generated by what is intended, they are generated by what is perceived. If the recipient of a physical contact perceives it as unwanted, the mind will process the experience as a threat no matter how innocuous the intent of the person touching.
In touching wrong?
So, am I saying that touching someone is now a bad thing? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that we need to remember that touch, like conversation, is a dialogue. The same way we don’t assume that we should jump into someone’s conversation, is the same way we should not assume we can jump into someone’s personal space. More than 80% of our communication is non-verbal, so there are lots of cues available to let us know if someone is consenting to be touched. We, as a society, need to do a better job learning to read the non-verbal cues. If you step towards someone and they step back, then they don’t want you in their personal space; they are not consenting. Don’t take that as a sign to reach out and grab their arm, so you can make your point. In this scenario, your touch is unwelcome. If you want to comfort someone, open your arms or put out your hand. If they find your touch comforting, they will step in, lean in, or take your hand if they want to be hugged. If you open your arms and they just touch your arm, the gesture is appreciated, but they don’t want to be hugged by you. As mentioned earlier, if you want to kiss someone, lean in. If the kiss is welcome, they will lean in as well. If they don’t lean in, that is not an invitation for you to complete the distance for them. In a nutshell, the same way we learned as children to speak, we can learn the language of touch. It is incumbent upon each of us to make the effort. Consent cannot be inferred or assumed.