To Hug, or Not to Hug?

Emily Meg Weinstein considers the complexities of meeting and greeting in this #MeToo moment.

Emily Meg Weinstein | Longreads | April 2018 | 15 minutes (3,682 words)

There’s a thing that happens on blind internet dates. I’ve never liked it. In this brave new #MeToo world, where first we have said that we will not be raped, then we have said that we will not be beaten, and finally we have added that we only want to have sex that is “much wanted and excellent,” when we want to, with the people we desire, I feel that I can finally say — and do — something about it.

It’s the thing where men I’ve never met before, and am encountering for the first time on a blind internet date, ignore my outstretched hand, and tell me, “I’m a hugger,” before touching my body without my consent, invitation, or desire.

***

Single and desiring sex — desiring men, intimacy, friendship, conversation, connection, adventure, motherhood, family, and life partnership, too — I use the internet to seek these things, as I have used it to seek and find used cars, my current living situation, advice, information, and a variety of inanimate objects to purchase.

At best I am likely to be disappointed — by the strangeness of the stranger, the dullness of his personality, the rudeness of his remarks, the smallness of his mind. Or I might be beleaguered by his suggestion that since I am a writer, I help him with his writing; or that since I am a tutor, I help him with his résumé; or that since I am climber, I help him learn to climb; or that since I am a woman, I help him with his problems; or, just as often, by his suggestion that we retire to his home, after a single beer or coffee and less than an hour of conversation, to engage in a specific sexual practice or kink in which I have expressed no prior interest. Most often, and most of all, I am likely to be disappointed by my own lack of desire to know this man, or be known by him, either in conversation, or any other, more intimate way.

At worst, I have discovered, I am likely to be groped, and to face the reality that when women make dates we open ourselves up to a range of experiences, ranging from disappointment to dehumanization to violence.

A not insignificant percentage of my internet dates have touched me in intimate ways without my invitation or consent. Several men have placed their hands on my knee or inner thigh within the first half-hour of meeting me, while we sat sipping our first and only drink. They have grabbed or stroked or held my hand without my consent; they have squeezed my waist or shoulder when I have neither touched nor leaned toward them. These touches were not invited by anything other than my presence and proximity.

Until October 2017, I thought being touched in these ways was somehow either their right or my mistake. I met these men for drinks, mostly after 9 p.m. (I work, tutoring, most weeknights until 8.) I put my picture on a dating app. I wore purple mascara.

Even close male friends I considered woke feminists suggested that agreeing to an internet date carried with it some kind of “implied consent,” though to what, specifically, they couldn’t name.

I never thought my presence, proximity, picture, and purple mascara constituted a tacit invitation for these strangers to touch my knee or inner thigh, hand or arm, waist or shoulder. But even as I grew weary of being touched in these ways, I stopped allowing myself to believe it was wrong, or even preventable. I began to accept that it must be what I signed up for by agreeing to meet a stranger for an alcoholic beverage in a public place after dark. I began to dread these meetings.

Now, I only meet strangers in the afternoon, for coffee, so we can have more clarity and more daylight. I still wear the purple mascara.

But there is something else that happens, even in the afternoon, even just with coffee — even before the beverages are ordered, before we are sitting on the benches, chairs, or stools: I go to meet a man, a stranger, in the afternoon, for coffee. I find him at the appointed hour and location. I say hello. I say his name, question mark. I smile with curiosity, warmth, and somehow, still, a faint, feathery hope. I put my hand out, for a handshake.

But most men, when they see my outstretched hand, jovially announce, “I’m a hugger!” Then they reach out to touch my body, and pull it to theirs.

***

When I traveled in Peru in the mid-aughts, it was customary there to greet strangers of all genders with a kiss on both cheeks. Would I insult these strangers in their homeland by recoiling from this customary touch? I would not. I did not. In France, they kiss on both cheeks, too. But this is neither Europe nor Peru. There is no single accepted custom of greeting that pervades the entire culture. Though if there were one, it would be the handshake, not the hug.

More importantly, in these interactions, I make my preference clear. I show these men how I want to greet them, and be greeted in return.

My outstretched hand is oriented thumb-up, in handshake position. I look like this.

Men I’ve never met before, and am encountering for the first time on a blind internet date, ignore my outstretched hand, and tell me, ‘I’m a hugger,’ before touching my body without my consent, invitation, or desire.

“I’m a hugger!” the strange man invariably says.

What’s the harm? What would be the harm? The harm is this: I don’t want to. And we have just met.

Only recently, well into my 30s, did I develop a simple way to handle the occasional uninvited touch of a total stranger in a bar. A man, visibly inebriated, who might try to put his arm around me. A man who would reach out to touch the fur trim on an old hunting hat I used to wear. A man who might reach out to touch my long, curly hair and say, “I love your hair.”

I step back and away. I put up my hands up, palms out. I say, loudly, “DON’T TOUCH ME. WE DON’T KNOW EACH OTHER.” I use the same commanding voice as I do when I tell a strange, barking, jumping dog, “GET DOWN! NO.”

In Peru, it is also customary to throw rocks at strange, barking dogs.

I have learned after enduring many awkward, unwanted hugs from strangers, how to handle the announcement, “I’m a hugger!”

I used to step reluctantly into the embrace and weather it stiffly. Now, I take a step back, away from the stranger’s open, reaching arms. I stick my hand out, in the space between us, thumb up, ready to shake. I shake it once firmly.

I say, “I’m a shaker.”

***

Complicating matters is the fact that I’m a hugger, too. I hug my friends in greeting and in parting, often twice. (I also have issues with “letting go.”) I sometimes kiss them on the cheek, sometimes both cheeks. I hug the children of my friends, if the children want to be hugged, and show me this by raising up their arms. When someone directs their child to “give Aunt Emily a hug,” and the child turns away, I say, “You don’t have to unless you want to. We can get to know each other better first, and then you can decide if you feel ready.”

I hug my family. I do, on occasion, hug people I haven’t met before, if they are not exactly strangers. If they are the partner of a close friend or the close friend of close a friend whom I’ve heard stories about but not yet met, or a family member of close friends whom I have known for decades — I hug these people if they open their arms and say, “I’m a hugger.”

I might hug my literary Facebook friends, the other essayists and activists I communicate with but haven’t met yet, if I were to meet them in person and if they opened their arms to me, showing me and telling me that they wanted to hug. They are not exactly strangers in the same way a man from the internet is a stranger. The other writers and I have often communicated for weeks, months, years. (“Not looking for a pen pal,” many men’s online profiles tersely admonish.) And if a virtual writing friend made flesh held out their hand to be shaken, I would shake it.

I once hugged one of my favorite writers as we were leaving a workshop she had led. It felt like, through the hug, she transmitted to me some blessing or encouragement, and I to her my gratitude and admiration. The hug happened naturally. We opened our arms to one another. There was another writer at the workshop, whom I also admired very much, whom I sensed had different physical boundaries. I thanked her, but I did not hug her.

***

It is almost always possible for me to tell whether or not someone else wants to hug me, simply by paying attention to their body language and the words they use.

So I am befuddled by these men who, when faced with a physical indication of how I am approaching them and would be like to be approached — the clear signal of an outstretched hand — instinctively respond with a physical and verbal expression of their own preference and desire, which ignores, negates, and supersedes my own. They are not even aware of my own desire, or its possibility, but they expect that simply by announcing their own, they make it reality.

I used to step reluctantly into the embrace and weather it stiffly. Now, I take a step back, away from the stranger’s open, reaching arms. I stick my hand out, in the space between us, thumb up, ready to shake.

Or rather, I was befuddled, for the first 38 years of my life, which included the first 26 years of my dating life, until we began to explain the inexplicable, and speak the unspeakable, in torrents and in floods.

I’m counting “my dating life” from when the kid across the street asked me to “go out” when I was 12. Is it relevant that when, a few weeks later, I told him I didn’t want to go out anymore, he called my house anonymously from a bar mitzvah and left obscene messages threatening sexual violence on my family’s answering machine? It is finally now relevant, in that this behavior is no longer something we accept as normal or benign or boyish, but instead understand is in fact something threatening and violent that has been normalized.

How did that lodge in my preteen self, as I was told I could say no, but also shown by the nearest male peer — the boy across the street — that saying no carried consequences? How did that compel me, decades later, to let strange men touch me when I did not want to be touched? What was I, and almost every other woman on the planet, trying to avoid by being careful never to deny or shame or reject or embarrass a man approaching us with a desire, a need, or a demand?

My parents called the parents of the boy across the street and played them the answering machine tape. His parents said it wouldn’t happen again, and it didn’t. I lived across the street from that boy for six more years, never speaking another word to him, uneasy and ashamed at the bus stop every morning of middle and high school. He had said and done the icky thing, but I was the one who felt icky, embarrassed to have contributed in some way to his embarrassment, aware of the path from my no to his embarrassment, and from his embarrassment to his anger and violent threats, then back to my ultimate and lingering shame. What kind of impact did that have on how, when, where, and whether I said no — or even yes — later on?

***

I am no longer so befuddled as to why a man would look at the outstretched hand of a woman he has never met, offered in greeting for a handshake, and announce that the woman is instead going to give him full-body contact on demand. I am no longer befuddled because we have finally found the words.

The answer is patriarchy. Or a new word we made up for one of the most insidious and far-reaching projects on patriarchy’s long list of dubious achievements — its ability to make women doubt the sanctity of our own bodies and their boundaries, the existence of our own desire, will, and pleasure, and to subsume our own bodies, desire, will, and pleasure completely to men’s bodies, desire, will, and pleasure, until we define our own desire, will, and pleasure as synonymous with those of men and we accept men’s intrusions upon our bodies as normal, and any feelings of discomfort, shame, violation, or simple displeasure we experience as our own problem and failure. The word for this insidious and pervasive and violent and disorienting process is “rape culture.”


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Rape culture, once too slippery to name or even notice, has been brought into sharp relief by history’s recent hard-right turn. When I heard the man who is now president say “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” I hoped against hope that the violence and vulgarity of the phrase that would undo his then-candidacy. But the problem with my hope was that the candidacy itself was already rooted in the speaking, acceptance, normalization, and celebration of many similar phrases. The candidacy existed not in spite of the violent things he said, but because of them.

The more than a dozen women who testified publicly that he really meant what he said, that he literally grabbed real women by their real genitals, were no match for his counterargument, which was that he didn’t.

On Thanksgiving 2016, just after the election, a woman friend was hiking on a trail in Red Rock Canyon, outside Las Vegas, on the way to do some climbing. A man passed her on the trail going the opposite way and shouted at her, apropos of nothing but her presence, “GRAB ‘EM BY THE PUSSY!” When she recounted this story, I realized that far from undoing Trump’s candidacy, the words “grab ‘em by the pussy” had had instead given rape culture a new battle cry. A man who might have previously passed a woman on a trail with a glance or a leer could now make a threat, given voice and validation by none less than the pussy-grabber-in-chief.

I am befuddled by these men who, when faced with a physical indication of how I am approaching them and would be like to be approached instinctively respond with a physical and verbal expression of their own preference and desire.

And yet it only took a year for women to start talking about all the people who grabbed us by the pussy, or tried to. To put some of these men in jail, to strip others of their jobs and power. (And for even our woke feminist male friends and allies to question whether that is really truly necessary, or really truly fair.) The original pussy-grabber is still at large and still in charge, but in giving his own pattern of assault a name, a catchphrase, he set a ticking time bomb that exploded within a year. It may yet bring down his presidency, and perhaps even his party, and perhaps even the patriarchy, yet.

If “grab ‘em by the pussy” was rape culture’s unspoken battle cry, then “I’m a hugger!” is more like is its opening salvo.

“I’m a hugger.” And therefore you will be hugged.

“I’m a hugger.” I have desires. They begin with this embrace and will determine the course and very existence of our physical interaction.

What is contained in the statement “I’m a hugger” is nothing less than millennia of patriarchy.

What is implied by the statement “I’m a hugger” is nothing less than the central thesis of rape culture, which is: Your body is not your own.

***

You’re too harsh, I’m told, by women of older generations, by men suddenly feeling fragile about our indictments of the ways they have moved, unquestioned and unquestioningly, through the world, making declarative statements, like “I’m a hugger!” and asking too few questions, or the wrong ones.

Give a guy a break. Give a guy a chance. Give a guy a hug.

I used to. I gave many hugs to strangers, to strange men. Then I paid for my own drink, so when I could no longer stand the sound of the man’s voice or his complaints about his divorce or his palm on my inner thigh, I could put down my drink, unfinished, and politely excuse myself without feeling I owed the groper any money, time, or explanation.

But now, in this brave new world, I don’t let strange men announce that they are going to touch me. I tell and show them, Don’t touch me. We don’t know each other.

But the words, “I’m a hugger!” tell me something, too. They tell me all I need to know about the man who says them. They tell me what he can see and what he can’t, and whether that includes me and my own desires, separate and sovereign from his.

***

Now for the obligatory reminder that I do like sex, touching, hugging, and men: I am not saying that I do not want to hug and touch the men I know, or might like to know, or that I do not enjoy this. I do, very much. I enjoy the feel of their T-shirts and soft flannel shirts and crisp, fancy ones, and the feel of the muscles and bone beneath them, the musk of their sweat and smoke and soap, the warmth of their human bodies, the squeeze of their arms. When I talk about the men I don’t want to hug, I am not talking about my friends or any of the men I know, have known, might like to know. I am talking about the men I don’t know.

But how do they know? How do they know whether I want to hug them or not?

Hint: I will open my arms. I will invite the hug. I will initiate the hug. I might say not, “I’m a hugger” (I am; I’m not; it depends), but rather something affirmative about hugging. “Let’s have a hug” or “bring it in,” for example. It’s called affirmative consent.

I thought I was showing. I thought I was giving “nonverbal cues.” But it turns out I also needed to tell. And they need to be told.

***

It became easier to say what I meant when other people gave voice to my feelings.

National Book Award finalist and Guggenheim Fellow Roxane Gay doesn’t like to be hugged. “So many people tried to hug me and seemed upset when I said no. I don’t like hugging strangers. I don’t even hug my friends,” she wrote in a tweet that echoed a sentiment elaborated in a chapter about “bodies and boundaries” in her book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.

Sex-advice columnist and activist Dan Savage doesn’t like to be hugged. “I don’t like to hug people,” Savage wrote in a blog post. “But I do a job — I give sex advice to strangers at a safe remove — that makes a lot of people want to hug me. People I don’t know. (For the record: hugging strangers makes me physically uncomfortable. I don’t just find it unpleasant, I find it unnerving.)”

Me, too.

Savage only found the words to say he didn’t like hugging strangers when he saw Jerry Seinfeld refuse a hug in a video that went viral in which Seinfeld repeatedly and successfully denies an uninvited red carpet embrace. Later in an interview Seinfeld explained: Hug isn’t first moment of a human, two humans,” he says. “I never did that.”

When I talk about the men I don’t want to hug, I am not talking about my friends or any of the men I know, have known, might like to know. I am talking about the men I don’t know.

The problem with unwanted hugging is a microcosm of the one we are trying to explain when we talk about how what Aziz Ansari did that was not rape or sexual assault but was still a problem. The aggressor may be a stranger seeking an embrace — or he may be a date who paid for dinner repeatedly demanding fellatio or intercourse or repeatedly digitally penetrating a woman vaginally and orally while she asks him to stop or gives him little to no encouragement to continue. In situations like these, there is an imbalance of desire. The aggressor acts on their own desire without paying attention to the other person’s desire, or the other person at all. Does the object of the aggressor’s desire share the aggressor’s desire? Do they have a different desire? Is there any way to ask, to tell, to know? The aggressor cannot see, let alone acknowledge, the existence of the possibility that the other person in the interaction — be it a hug in a public place or a sexual encounter in an apartment — might have a different desire or has any desires of their own.

***

I wonder what a blind afternoon coffee date would be like if a man chose to say instead what the words “I’m a hugger” really mean?

If instead of the cheerful announcement “I’m a hugger!” the man said instead, “The very first thing I would like you to know about me is that I feel entitled to touch women whether they want me to or not!”

Because that is what you are saying when you say to a woman with her hand outstretched in greeting, a woman whom you have never before met, of whom you have only seen a picture, on a dating app, yes, smiling, yes, wearing a bikini, yes, standing joyfully before a waterfall (a waterfall, in fact, that she has accessed via 300 feet of technical rock climbing), a woman who desires sex, conversation, adventure, intimacy, connection, friendship, companionship, partnership, motherhood, family, but most of all, a woman who desires to desire.

When she puts out her hand for you to shake and you tell her you’re going to grab and touch her entire body instead, you are communicating to her you that do not care what she desires, that, in fact, you are not capable of even seeing her desire, and that you perhaps are not even aware that it is possible for her desire to exist, independent of your own, at all.

* * *

Emily Weinstein‘s work has appeared in SalonMcSweeney’sThe RumpusElectric LiteratureThe HairpinClimbing and Rock and Ice magazines, among other publications.

Editor: Sari Botton