Physical touch: innocent versus ‘rape culture’

I am a touchy person. I’m just going to come right out and say it because anyone who knows me knows that I can’t deny the truth of that statement. That’s who I have always been, too. I can’t help it; touch is how I communicate. A hug hello, a pat on the shoulder, a handshake, even a high five will do. It’s just part of who I am.

Recently I’ve been reflecting upon why I’m so driven by touch. Throughout my life, my mom (hi, mom! *waves*) has chastised me for hugging people too much. She gave up eventually because I never changed my habits, but as school started up again this year and friends returned, I realized just how right she was (yeah, yeah, I know, moms are always right, I should have listened, blah). I do hug people a lot. That got me thinking about why I am so oriented on physical touch and the desire to (literally) reach out to others.

In my American Ethnic Literature class this past week, my professor, Jésus Montaño, said, “The soul migrates to the edges of our epidermis, our fingertips. That’s why, when we’re in love especially, we want to be in contact with that person. We want to touch them because that is the closest our souls can get to meeting physically.” I remember sitting back and nodding my head, struck by how profound that statement was.

Now, I know some of you might not agree. Souls moving to the fingertips? Nah, too fake. Physical touch? Not your thing. However, being who I am, that struck me. The notion of the most intimate part of who we are straining to the surface of our skin in order to connect with someone else is very romantic to me. (Side note: when I say romantic, I’m not referring to the lovey-dovey, romance novels version. I’m talking about the imaginative version that gives you the warm and fuzzies, that nags at you until it’s all you can think about.) If thought about in this context, souls are only layers away from converging when they touch, which helps build trust and strengthen relationships, both friends and otherwise.

This can get tricky, though. Admittedly, I have never been as conscious of how my hugs have been received as I should have been, and when someone doesn’t like physical touch, we need to pay attention to that. Touch should be something we value, not fear. However, a lot of the time, touch is looked upon as perverted and abrasive.

Speaking from just the standpoint of an American society, we have come to associate touch with “rape culture”. We rarely look upon it innocently and in the context of bringing souls closer together. Instead, it is ingrained in us to shy away from this affection and expect it to hold something more. It saddens me that our society has come to this point, but I am also happy because it means that survivors’ stories are being heard.

This past weekend, I encountered a situation where a girl could have been assaulted. She was close to being raped, or at least partaking in nonconsensual sex, for those of you who like to define things that way. She didn’t know what was going on, so she called a friend to come get her, and that friend brought me (and two others) along. We helped her home and, thankfully, all was settled without trouble. As we helped her home though, she didn’t want to be touched. She flinched at any attempt to support or comfort her, and the only moment when she let one of us touch her was when her shoe came off and she linked her arm in one of ours. That broke my heart. Who could do something so heinous to someone else that they were afraid of a vital part of the human experience?

Whether or not you are a touchy person, physical affection is integral in our lives. However, when that is abused and the innocence is distorted, we must watch out for each other and make sure we are respecting everyone else in the ways they wish to be respected. Even here in good ole Holland, Michigan, we need to be attentive to our surroundings. While trusting others is a good thing, we must make sure we know what their intentions are before things escalate because touch is very personal. As Montaño said, it is our souls straining to reach the other.

This year, have fun, learn lots and be safe, Hope College. There’s too much love here to let “rape culture” intrude more than it already has.
Resources for survivors, witnesses and allies include STEP (Students Teaching and Empowering Peers: interpersonal violence prevention program) and CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services).

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