Consent Is Hard When Your Family's Culture Demands Touching

My family's culture demands touching.

I don’t remember having many conversations about consent as a child. At some point, a teacher explained to us that strangers weren’t always a scary man in an overcoat and that anyone could do mean things to us — even people we knew. But I didn’t know that I could tell someone that wasn’t just my age that they couldn’t touch me. I didn’t know that I could "tell on" someone older than me — or tell them that I didn’t feel like hugging them.

The thing is, I grew up with a family that prioritizes hospitality and respecting elders. There are a lot of cultures and families around the world that do the same. I grew up being obligated to tell aunts and uncles and grand parents “bendición,” or blessings, out of respect when greeting them. I had to use the formal “usted” instead of “tú” when referring to others. And whenever someone came over, I had to kiss them on the cheek or hug them. If I ever gave an awkward half hug, I’d be made to hug that person again.

Sometimes I’d be annoyed, and other times I wouldn’t want anyone to touch me, but I had to put up with it or I would get in trouble or be seen as rude and cold.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen that kind of behavior continue. Well-meaning relatives and older members of my community are sometimes pushy when it comes to straightening a blouse, hugging, wiping something off someone’s face, or fixing my hair. Sometimes compliments are followed by people touching the part of you that they’re complimenting. I try not to cringe when someone reaches out to me. It makes me not want to hug or kiss relatives sometimes. Not too long ago, an older relative asked me why I was so stiff when I gave hugs. I wanted to explain that I was happy to see everyone, but that it was nerve wrecking to have to be touched like that all the time. But I didn’t, instead I laughed it off. I made an excuse about how my back and shoulder were hurting that week.

If anything, some days when I feel lonely or like there isn’t anyone to turn to, I really do need a hug. But I don’t want to be forced into one.

Other times, when I’ve gotten overwhelmed by the amount of people touching me or trying to hug me, I’ve suddenly “remembered” something or tried to keep busy getting something to drink for everyone.

It’s great to be polite and be part of a community that makes guests feel welcome in someone else’s home. And having people around you that are affectionate is great. If anything, some days when I feel lonely or like there isn’t anyone to turn to, I really do need a hug. But I don’t want to be forced into one. I don’t want to have to explain to someone that even though I understand they aren’t trying to be rude, that they’re making me feel uncomfortable. Times that I have tried to bring up the subject, I’ve been told that it comes off as cold, which makes me feel like I need to make excuses to get out of the conversation.

Having to deal with that has made me freeze during other times when guys have tried to reach out and touch me. When I was in undergrad, a guy “offered” to walk me home from the subway station in my neighborhood. Half a block later he put his arm around my shoulders. I froze and then tried to slowly edge away from him. When he did it again, I told him not to, and he argued that I had “let him” the first time.

 

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It happened with other guys. I was stuck between being afraid of seeming rude or to speak up during all of those situations. And even if some of those moments didn’t last very long, I was always at a loss about who to tell afterwards. It wasn’t until very recently that I felt like I could tell someone not to touch me without my permission. There was even a phrase I heard as a teenager that translated to “A guy only goes as far as a woman allows him to,” which was always frustrating because I know it’s not true.

People have grabbed and held onto my hand even after I’ve tried to pull away, guys have put their arms around me even when I’ve asked them not to. So many things have happened even when I haven’t wanted them to. I think it was why I almost cried when I had that first conversation with a friend about consent as an adult. It showed me that there were options. Before then, I didn’t even know that a partner had to ask my consent as well.

I had no idea that I actually had the right to do everything in my power to say "No" in order to get out of a situation I didn’t feel comfortable in.

I’m 25 now. And though I don’t want many children, or to have them anytime soon at all, I think about the cultural values I want to instill in them. I want them to be proud of their Latino/Caribbean heritage. I want them to offer guests water when someone visits, I want them to be polite and speak formally in both English and Spanish, but I also want them to know that they can have control over their bodies. There are ways to be polite and acknowledge people that don't always mean having to let people touch someone when they don’t want to be touched. I think about all the ways I maybe wouldn’t have been touched, all the situations I’ve spoken about in therapy that wouldn’t have happened if someone had taught me and my peers about consent. I don’t want the kind of paranoia I was raised with continue on into the next generation. It has to stop eventually.

I want families from all kinds of cultures, even ones in Latin America that put a lot of importance on respecting elders and being affectionate, to consider speaking to family members and friends about consent. I want them to have conversations about why something makes them feel uncomfortable. I especially want older family members to speak to their children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews about being in control of their bodies. I want children to know that there are ways to be kind and respectful without having to deal with people hug them when they aren’t comfortable. I want them to be able to calmly say, “please stop” or come to me or any other adult they trust when something happens.

I want any future children of mine to know that they have a right to themselves, and hopefully by teaching them to expect others to respect them, they’ll respect others, too.

It has to start with a conversation and embedding that into different families and cultures. If it makes future generations of girls feel safer and like they have more autonomy over themselves, it’s worth changing how we think about affection in all kinds of communities. 


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