With thanks to Caer, who is always there to remind me that my voice deserves to be heard.
In our concern to address the most egregious breaches of consent in Pagan communities, the basis for consent culture is often overlooked. At its heart, consent means that no one can touch you in any way you aren’t expressly ok with. They have to ask for consent; you can give, refuse to give, or revoke that consent at any time; you do not have to offer any kind of justification as to why you don’t want touched by a particular individual under particular circumstances.
Many people don’t realize that this means more than sexual forms of contact. In fact a lot of times, people who are violating boundaries of consent have no idea that’s what they’re doing.
As an example, I’m going to talk about something that happened to me. For awhile, I was a regular vendor at our city’s circuit of Pagan festivals. We are blessed with several of these throughout the year, and many of the attendees had come to recognize me from the other shows.
For this particular festival, I arrived later than I intended (I forget why). My table had been moved at the last minute to a really tight, undesirable spot in the other room because another vendor had thrown a fit and I wasn’t there to defend my space. I was hurrying to unload my vehicle before moving it from the customer lot, because people would be arriving soon.
I had a huge, heavy bin in my hands and was running towards my space through the crowded halls when suddenly someone behind me grabbed me with both arms. I gasped and froze, not able to turn around to see who it was because of the heavy bin in my hands–which I was unable to set down because of the person pinning my arms. “Hi, Stevie!” he called out from behind me. “How are you doing? Isn’t this festival great?” I tried to answer because it seemed like the only way to get whoever it was to let go of me. He stood there like that, holding on to me and trying to hold a conversation, for what seemed like forever, but what was probably only a minute. He finally let me go and ran off to enjoy the festival, and I never even figured out who it was; he was gone by the time I could set down the bin.
I didn’t have too much time to recover from being startled, because I absolutely had to finish unloading my car, or continue being in everyone’s way. I set up my booth as quickly as I could and was just making the finishing touches when other vendors began checking out my wares.
That’s what began an entire day of being hugged by what were for me, total strangers. Customers or fellow vendors who had seen me at other shows, people who knew me via Facebook but not in person, and maybe even people who didn’t know me at all but saw other people hugging me and figured that was the way to do things.
I was trying hard to remain in a professional sales mode: extra cheerful and rolling with whatever my customers wanted to do. But it got more and more difficult having all this very close contact with all kinds of people that I might as well have been seeing for the first time in my life. As the day wore on, I became more and more visibly uncomfortable: stiffening, pulling back, eyes widening, little gasps when the hugs were unexpected, clenching my jaw, and dropping out of conversation.
Eventually, even the most enthusiastic huggers started to notice how I was reacting. If you hug someone who immediately freezes and doesn’t hug you back, it’s rather obvious. But instead of acknowledging that I wasn’t ok with it, and at least ending the contact, what I got over and over were things like “Oh, I’m just a hugger!” followed by the person stepping back in and renewing the hug with even more force. Or even lectures on how I should be more friendly, open, accepting, Pagan, and so on, followed by more hugging where I was expected to cooperate more thoroughly.
Late in the day, two close friends showed up who I hadn’t seen in awhile, and I was actually genuinely happy to hug them hello, even after the day I’d been having. But the first one to greet me actually asked if it was ok first. She was the first person all day to ask how I was feeling before trying to touch me, even though we had hugged many times before. I hid in her arms for a minute and breathed a sigh of relief, safe for a moment from the onslaught of boundary-ignoring strangers.
By the end of the day, after having encountered hundreds of people, and been hugged unexpectedly by dozens of them, I was exhausted and frustrated. My clear discomfort didn’t mean anything to anybody, except that I wasn’t “playing nice” or “participating in the community”. After all, “we’re all Pagans here, and Pagans give hugs”. Even letting it show that I didn’t want this contact wasn’t ok. I was actually reconsidering whether I wanted to continue vending at Pagan festivals or not, since it was made clear to me by these folks that this is the prevailing attitude of Pagan culture.
This isn’t the first time I’ve told this story, but I can tell you that every time I’ve brought it up in the past, usually on discussions of consent, culturally expected physical contact, and Pagan festivals, I’ve gotten very similar reactions: people who like to give hugs telling me in hurt and huffy tones how they’ll try to remember to refrain from ever hugging me in the future. As if my even mentioning my discomfort with unexpected physical contact is doing them a personal injury, and I should be ashamed of my hurtful behavior. As if not wanting hugged under certain circumstances means no one should ever hug me again and I’m some kind of freakish recluse that hates everyone.
Let’s be clear: people can decide when and how they are willing to accept physical contact from others. There may be a reason, there may be no reason. They don’t owe anyone an explanation either. This is just bodily autonomy, basic respect. The basis, in fact, for all rights, laws, and human agreements over how we conduct ourselves in groups: you have the ultimate say over what does and does not happen to your own body.
That said, I want to share one of the factors that influences when I’m comfortable being hugged by other people. I’m not sharing this because I owe anybody any justification, but because I’m hoping that by sharing one perspective, I might inspire people to give a little more thought to the feelings and experiences of others.
I have prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”. This is a non-neurotypical condition that people are born with (an estimated 2% of the population), or occasionally experience after injury. What it means is that I have trouble remembering or recognizing people by their faces alone. To compensate, I typically memorize features, like hairstyles and glasses, or place people by context (“these six individuals are always at this club meeting”; “that clerk is someone I always see at the counter at this store”). I’m not damaged; this isn’t an illness or disease. I’m just wired differently and I process information differently.
I’ve been in situations where people I knew well in one context showed up in another, and I completely didn’t recognize them. And I’m not good with names either, so that doesn’t help, particularly if a person uses different names at Pagan festivals, online, and out in the general world. It takes me a long time to put the name, to the face, to the memories of interacting with the person, and once I’ve done that, prosopagnosia can still kick in, even with the closest people in my life, and make me blank on who they are. I frequently even find my own reflection in the mirror surprising: “Oh, so that’s what I look like!”
To my experience, I spent the entire day at this festival trying to function in a professional situation while being randomly grabbed by strangers. They were at a festival but I was at work. There was no exit for me that would have been acceptable to those people and maintained my professional demeanor: I had to simply accept all this forced intimacy. Instead of people backing me up when I was uncomfortable, they pressed the issue and applied guilt, because their right to touch me was somehow more important than my right to not be touched. All that I needed was for people to ask me if I was open to being touched, and to accept my answer at face value without pressure, even if it wasn’t the answer they wanted to hear.
This is just one example of why someone might not want to be hugged by a random person they encounter at a Pagan festival. It’s nothing personal, it’s nothing wrong with either individual, and it’s not something that should have to be justified. If we work together to build a strong consent culture in the Pagan world, it won’t have to be. All it takes is a little awareness and courtesy. Isn’t that worth it, to make everyone in our community feel safe and welcome?