Why We Must Ask for Permission and a Simple Way How To

I used to be very touchy without permission ever.

I'd put my hand on shoulders, lean into someone's space, give unsolicited hugs and shoulder squeezes, and simply just be with a person physically.

I appreciate in kind people that are like this. I really do. To me, this means that they are free in how they give and receive touch, which is really needed in this world (otherwise I wouldn't pursue this line of work).

This all said, I try not to be like this anymore (try-- I fail from time to time when I get caught up in my own world, though I want to be my best about this whenever possible, and I do my best to re-open my lines of communication with touch related to friends). I hadn't realized then I was imposing on people that might not be as comfortable with touch as I am.

With all the media over the past few weeks about consent issues with celebrities, religious figures and whatnot (as of this writing, #MeToo and #ChurchToo are two big movements that just happened), there's a lot of opposing points of view and questions on how to handle consent going forward.

One argument that came out among some friends of mine is that hugs among friends don't need consent; hugs are hugs and we should offer them freely and confidently, especially among people we are friends with or want to be friends with. I agree with giving them freely and confidently, but I don't agree with just giving them. Permission is important for any kind of touch.

Let me offer as simple of a scenario I can think of to start with and the reason why we must ask for permission.

Suppose you're with a friend you're not interested in romantically, and they're not either. This is a perfectly platonic relationship, and maybe you two hang out often after work or on the weekends. You talk, but don't have too much deep conversation. But you two have fun when you're together.

Then one Friday after work you two meet up, and your friend doesn't look so great. They tell you they just lost their job. They don't look happy at all. They look quite isolated despite being in a semi-populated bar. You feel hurt for them, and you subconsciously want to reach out for them. So you put your hand on their back and rub it in a small, sympathetic "there, there" motion.

They brace themselves when you touch them. They seem so upset about getting fired! But you're here now, and you're with them. You instinctively move to give them a big hug, and they start shaking a little as you're holding them for a good, long bear hug until they stop shaking. There! The look on their face is a little blank, but it looks like they forgot about how much this situation sucks. "Let's go to the next place," you suggest. They nod silently and you walk out of the establishment to your cars. You pat your hand on their back and they brace themselves a little more.

This seems like a pretty natural and normal scenario, yes? This is quite normal and pretty much what happens in American culture constantly. Most people would say you did nothing wrong.

But for some reason, now your friend seems to hold themselves physically further from you every time you see them, and they come out less.

Here's what you don't know.

Your friend has a bad association with touch due to a childhood trauma. They were abused both physically and mentally growing up. They may not understand it themselves, but they subconsciously associate anyone touching their back with the angry pats on their back by their strict mother for not moving fast enough for her liking before giving an emotionally abusive lashing at their faults. By patting your friend's back, you've unintentionally added salt to their wounds from getting fired by triggering the memories of being told they're not good enough. This triggered their fight-or-flight response, hence why they braced themselves when you did this. They were going to get up and leave to go home, but then you got up and hugged them in a bearhug. They had no way to escape, so they disassociated and disconnected from the situation (a common coping mechanism for people triggered from traumatic events). That's why they stopped shaking; because they got into a state of mind where they stopped being there.

Did you do anything wrong? For this person, you did. And that's why they stay physically far away from you. But they may not understand this themselves.

So let's rewind this scenario a bit.

You two meet up, and your friend doesn't look so great. They tell you they just lost their job. They don't look happy at all. They look quite isolated despite being in a semi-populated bar. You feel hurt for them, and you subconsciously want to reach out for them. So you reach to put your hand out on their back, but you stop just before you do. "May I?" You say, motioning towards your hand about five inches from their back.

They look and pause for a moment. They nod their head, and you proceed as you did in the previous scenario. "May I?" you ask as you raise both your arms into a hug. They say yes and they hug you.

Here's what those two words meant to them: You gave them a moment to process what you were doing. You gave them a moment to be prepared for what you were doing and comprehend your intent and associate it with something more positive. That makes all the difference for someone. Then when you offered the hug, you gave them control of the situation. You were offering it and you gave them the chance to give and receive it how they needed it in that moment--after all, if we're trying to comfort someone it's about making them feel better rather than comforting you because you're uncomfortable with seeing them like this, right?

(Of course, how you're able to give comfort is a whole other story, but that's another discussion entirely)

Now let's rewind to when you first asked to put your hand on their back and asked, "May I?" Let's say your friend shook their head instead. What then?

You put your hand down and offer something else. "Let me buy you this drink then," you say.

In both scenarios, you gave permission for your friend to accept touch and decide for themselves if they're comfortable enough with touch. It has nothing to do with you necessarily, but more with where they are mentally to receive that from you.

Maybe you go out another time and you ask again in another scenario if you can squeeze their shoulder and they say yes, and then you maybe talk about this ("I want to reach out to you sometimes and give you a hug. Is it cool for me to give you a hug when I feel the urge to?"). Maybe they continue saying no to your simple but innocent requests for touch, and then you can see if you can have a conversation about that (usually along the lines of "I've noticed you say no most every time I ask if I can touch or hug you. I want to respect your boundaries. Should I assume I should not unless you ask for it?").

These conversations not only bring up boundaries with touch, but they help you navigate when you can touch wholeheartedly. I don't see this as limiting in our desire to touch as much as empowering how we do touch so that we can all fully enjoy embracing the people we want to be close to and take down the barriers we have as society around touch.

But it starts with asking for permission in the simplest of ways like this, because again, we don't know where they're coming from.