Saying no to unwanted touch

A reader asked:

One of my friends has recently begun touching me a lot, either by grabbing my hand or knee etc in situations that don’t necessarily feel they warrant such contact and don’t actually feel organic.

At best this is just a case of her being too physical and making me uncomf, at worst, knowing that I’m queer, it may be that she is trying to make me her “experiment,” despite also knowing I’m in a monog. relat.

I can’t tell exactly if I’m overreacting or not but either way, if this continues, I’m not at all sure I know how to handle the situation. It’s difficult for me to imagine navigating this type of conversation, esp if I want to keep the friendship (since I know what I would do if this was a situation with a man, or someone with whom I didn’t want to maintain a friendship).

Plus, being a survivor makes navigating all of this all the more difficult. I would appreciate your advice, thank you.

realsocialskills said:

I don’t have a lot of experience defusing this kind of situation successfully, so I’m not sure my answer will be a good one.

This is my best guess:

First of all, I think you’re probably not overreacting:

  • When people repeatedly touch others in invasive ways, it’s usually not an accident
  • It’s really, really common for people to touch others in invasive ways that are just-barely-deniable
  • People who think others are touching them in creepy ways are usually right
  • This is especially true if the person who is touching you invasively *used* to only touch you in ways you were ok with

Second of all, regardless of why she’s touching you, it’s ok to want it to stop:

  • There are all kinds of reasons that friends sometimes don’t want to be touched in various ways
  • If you don’t want her touching your leg or holding your hand, it’s absolutely your right to have it stop
  • If she’s doing this unintentionally, telling her in the moment to stop might solve the problem
  • Friends do sometimes inadvertently violate the boundaries of friends, *and if they respect their friends, they stop when they find out it isn’t welcome*

Things you might say (possibly in combination with pulling away or pushing her hand away from where you don’t want it to be):

  • “I don’t like that”
  • “I don’t want to hold hands”
  • “Please don’t touch my leg”
  • And if it is repeated, you might add “I meant it”.

She might respond by angrily denying that she’s doing anything wrong. That’s a sign that something is seriously wrong:

  • Telling her to stop touching you in ways you don’t like is not an accusation
  • It just means telling her that you don’t like it and want it to stop
  • It might hurt to hear that, because nobody likes hearing that they’ve done something wrong. But if she lashes out at you about it, that’s a sign that she feels entitled to your body
  • And whether or not it’s sexually motivated, that’s a major problem
  • I wrote this post and this post about that kind of reaction

Captain Awkward also has a post on unwanted and possibly-sexual touching from friends  which might be helpful.

“I can’t” vs “I decided not to”

When people say “I can’t” I’ll sometimes encourage them to say “I decided not to” or something instead. Nobody can predict the future, so maybe nobody can know for sure whether somebody would be able to do something if they tried some more times. However, a person has a right to decide to stop. They may judge that it’s so unlikely they would succeed that it’s not worth trying; and doing it may not be worth a tremendous amount to them. I also have a right to my opinion that maybe they can.
realsocialskills answered:
You have a right to your opinion, but you don’t have the right to have them respect your assessment of their abilities. You especially do not have the right to have them take your opinion into consideration when they’re deciding what they can and can’t do.
Inability to do things is real. And yes, I may sometimes be wrong about my inability to do things, but taking it seriously when I think I can’t do something matters. Even if I’m wrong.
There’s a difference between deciding I don’t want to do something, and deciding that I think I am incapable of something, or that doing the thing is unacceptably risky for me.
Even if other people think I’m wrong – I still have the right to assess what my limits are and act accordingly. And even though I will sometimes mistakenly think that I am unable to do something I am actually capable of, “I can’t” is still a vital part of my vocabulary.
There’s a difference between not wanting to do a thing, and reaching the conclusion that I’m probably not capable of doing the thing and that trying is hurting me.
I need to be able to acknowledge that I have limits in order to manage them correctly, and do what I can instead of pretending that enough willpower makes everything possible.
So does everyone else. In particular, people with disabilities who have been taught that we’re not allowed to take physical limitation seriously. But being disabled and physically limited isn’t a moral failing. It’s just a fact of life that sometimes needs to be accounted for.

Not all harm is accidental

One thing I think some people forget is that there are people in the world who will try to hurt you on purpose, who know they are hurting you and are trying to hurt you. A lot of people seem to assume that everyone who does bad things is acting from ignorance or privilege and while that’s often true, some people know that what they’re doing is harmful and that’s WHY they do it, because they WANT to hurt others. Something to keep in mind.

Seeking reassurance isn’t always a bad thing

Do you think that reassurance-seeking is always a bad thing? Because some of your posts seem to imply it.
realsocialskills said:
I didn’t realize my posts sounded that way, but I see what you mean now that you point it out.
No, seeking reassurance isn’t always a bad thing. It can be really good to seek reassurance, and I think everyone needs to do that at least occasionally. If you are afraid that something is wrong, it’s ok to want to check. And it’s ok to do that with the expectation that things are probably ok and that you just need to hear it.
What’s bad is when people seek *unconditional* reassurance. When people seek unconditional reassurance, they want to be convinced that things are ok at all costs – even if things are horribly wrong. That’s dangerous, and destructive. (And particularly dangerous if the thing that’s wrong is the result of something they’re going, but it’s destructive even when the problem is in no way their fault).

Some phrases that are literally neutral but have negative connotations

I often have problems with phrases that are literally neutral, but have negative connotations. For example: for years, I thought ‘forget about it’ was a polite way to tell someone that they didn’t have to worry about a situation. Eventually, I realized this was insulting. If possible, could you please list some more phrases that are literally neutral but have negative connotations? Possible with the connotative definition?
Realsocialskills answered:
Most of these aren’t always negative, but they can have negative connotations depending on context and tone:

  • That’s nice (“I don’t care”)
  • Uh huh (“I don’t believe you and/or I wish you’d shut up about this”)
  • Fine (Can be taken to mean “I’m not ok with this, but I’d rather put up with it than discuss it further. I’m probably going to stay mad about this”
  • Whatever (“I don’t respect your opinion and want you to shut up about it”)
  • Never mind (“I wish you’d shut up.” or “You’re obviously not going to do anything worthwhile about this, so I want to drop the subject”)
  • I hope you’re happy (“You’re doing a stupid thing that I have contempt for”)
  • Duly noted (“I don’t care”)
  • It doesn’t matter (“It matters, but I don’t respect you enough to say why”)
  • I guess (“I don’t think I agree, but I don’t want to say why”)
  • Thanks for sharing (“What you said was inappropriately personal”)
  • Interesting (“That’s boring, annoying, or offensive, and I would like you to stop talking about it”)
  • Really? (In certain tones it can mean “I don’t believe you and can’t believe you would say such a stupid thing” or “I think you’re lying to me and I’m angry about that.” It doesn’t always have that kind of connotation, though – it can also just be a way of expressing surprise.)
  • Good luck with that (“That’s a stupid idea” or “That’s going to fail and I can’t believe you’re trying it”)
  • If you say so (“I don’t believe you and can’t believe you would say such a stupid thing”)

Anti-lesbian hate joke example

The racist ice cream joke you just posted about can also be swung in the direction of sexual harassment. When kids found out my friend and I were lesbians, they would torment us with similar jokes just to get us to “admit” to liking dick. I still don’t understand why jokes like that could be funny to anyone.
realsocialskills said:
Yes, that’s another really common kind of hate joke. I have some theories about why people tell jokes like that, but they’re not yet well-formed enough to explain outside my head.

Boundaries of talking about sex in public

What do you think about talking sexually (“I got a butt plug” kind of thing) in public (maybe at the mall) with friends? I like to talk about (often, gay) sex (it’s fun and liberating), and don’t care who hears, but there’s the issue of children sometimes being around without my knowing, and other people having had terrible experiences (e.g. rape). So, how does one appropriately talk about sex while keeping in mind the feelings of those who can overhear? Refrain? Whisper? With a protest banner?

realsocialskills said:

I think, generally speaking, it’s rude to talk about explicit details of sex in public places where you are likely to be overheard.

I think this is especially important in contexts in which people can’t escape easily. For instance, having sexually explicit conversations on the subway is bad because people have no choice but to listen.

This isn’t just a matter of consideration for people who have been raped or otherwise harmed. It’s also a matter of boundaries. Most people regard hearing explicit details about someone’s sex life or fantasies to be a form of sexual behavior. (Similar to how people regard phone sex or reading porn as sexual acts). Talking that way around people who don’t want to hear it can be a form of involving others in your sex life without their permission.

It’s especially bad if you’re talking this way when kids are around, which is generally the case in public places.

It’s different in contexts in which there’s an understanding that sexually explicit conversations are likely. For instance, if you’re at a convention centered around sexuality, then having sexually explicit conversations in convention space is probably not rude. (Having them directly *with* people who haven’t indicated clearly that they want to have that kind of conversation with you *is* rude and creepy, though).

It’s also different if you’re keeping a reasonable distance from others and keeping your voices down. If someone has to be going out of their way to listen in order to hear you, then they’re responsible for their decision to eavesdrop.

Basically, don’t subject people to explicit conversations about sexuality unless they’re willing participants.

Arguments about the definition of abuse can be counterproductive

What defines abuse? Like say someone is unsure of weather the way they are treated by another is actual abuse and is worried that if they try to get help it will be denied and only get worse?
realsocialskills said:
Here’s the thing. When people are inclined to violate your boundaries, they will often do just about anything they can to derail things when you tell them to knock it off.
One common way they do this is to start an argument about whether something is technically bad enough to be abuse or not.
That’s usually beside the point. What’s relevant is that you are being pressured into putting up with something that hurts you. And sometimes you need help getting them to stop hurting you.
That’s what’s important. Not whether something technically qualifies as abuse according to some formalized definition.

When is it ok not to tell people things?

Is it okay not to tell someone something because you think they’ll disapprove? Assume it’s something that doesn’t affect their life, only yours, but you know they like hearing about your life and you know their feelings will be hurt if you don’t tell them. Do you have an obligation to tell them?
realsocialskills said:
There are very few things you have an obligation to tell other people about when they’re not personally affected. In fact, off hand, I can’t think of any. (Although, it’s not always 100% straightforward what does and doesn’t directly affect someone. Some things that seem like they don’t actually do.)
That said, outright lying about something the other person is likely to find out about tends to backfire, because it can have a corrosive effect on you. It can make you feel like you must be doing something wrong if you have to lie about it, and it can make you anxious about what will happen when they inevitably find out about it. Sometimes it’s a good idea anyway, but often it is not.
If someone is personally offended that you keep some parts of your life private, that’s a major red flag. It’s a sign that this relationship has bad boundaries.
No friends tell each other everything; no one approves of everything their friend does. There are always at least a few things that it’s better not to discuss.
In mutually respectful friendships, both people understand this and respect one another’s privacy. If someone expect you to tell them everything and gets upset when you don’t, they’re being controlling. They’re not treating you as an equal.
And it usually gets worse over time. If someone can convince you that you’re not allowed to have any boundaries or privacy, they usually keep pushing.
Some people who do this start acting right if you assert boundaries and refuse to tolerate it when they’re breached. That doesn’t always work, though. Sometimes you can assert boundaries enough to make the relationship work even if they never really respect them willingly. Sometimes that doesn’t work and the friendship can’t be safe even if you really, really like them in other ways.

Feeling like a terrible awful person

A reader asked:
I’m sorry if this is a stupid question, but it’s gotten pretty bad… whenever I have a moment to think– usually when I’m laying down for bed– my mind defaults to thinking up every single reason I’m a terrible awful failure who doesn’t deserve to exist, and it ends up causing a sort of feedback loop that magnifies those feelings a hundredfold. Do you know anyone who does something similar or might have some advice for breaking the cycle? TIA.
realsocialskils answered:
This isn’t a stupid question. It’s a hard situation to be in, and you’re definitely not the only one.
For me, it helps to have some TV episodes of a show I’ve seen before and like playing in the background when I’m going to sleep. That way, I don’t have totally blank space available to be filled with that kind of thinking.
I also have friends who can help me remember that I don’t actually suck when I’m feeling that way. And at this point, I’ve had that conversation with them enough times that sometimes I can think through what they’d say when I’m in that state of mind.
Some people like things like Calming Manatee, or other cute animal with a positive message sites. That doesn’t work for me, but it does work for a number of people I know.
There are probably better things to do that I don’t know about. Do any of y’all have suggestions?