While I miss hugs from my close relatives and friends, I don’t yearn to hug or kiss vague acquaintances and people I just meet on the cheek, not even after the pandemic.
In Hungary, as in many Western countries, women are encouraged – if not expected – to kiss each other on the cheek upon meeting. I have always envied men: while women have to kiss up to a hundred people at an event, men can get by with shaking hands. Distant relatives. People I knew in high school. People I knew in elementary school. Their partners. Their friends. Their parents. My parent’s friends and their partners. Even the act of listing out the types of people I had to welcome by touching our faces is off-putting.
This is not about germs – I have never been the one to sanitize my hands every few minutes before COVID-19. This is about my body, my comfort, my boundaries, and my personal autonomy or bodily integrity – my right to decide who gets to touch my body.
Also, it is about body odors, it is about someone else’s foundation on my cheeks, sweat, skin, hands everywhere. It is about a societal belief about access to the female body. It is about a male-dominated environment that gives women no other option but to let themselves be touched again and again and again.
A friendly hug too often leads to a hand on inappropriate body parts, kisses can be too close to the mouth. Even if the origin of the act is innocent, it is very inconvenient and embarrassing. And it is even worse, if one can tell that the act was not innocent at all, perhaps the giver of these touches is drunk, of just feeling flirty. I have been grabbed many times by strangers or acquaintances, who took advantage of the situation: on my arm, waist, or bottom. It always lasted just a few seconds too long to feel normal.
A few years back, a feminist debate sparked discussion about respecting personal boundaries, with special regards to children. Some parents started to doubt whether it was OK for them to allow relatives or friends to kiss their child without asking for their permission, or despite the kids’ objection. Many pointed out, that children who wish not to be kissed or touched should not be forced to do so – in this case, their bodily autonomy should be more important than family traditions. This discussion has gone quiet after some time but still, it was obviously a start. Surely, children can be the key to a better future with less touching.
I know that many people love touching and they wish to do that as often as they can. Depending on the person and the circumstance, the act of touch can be as natural as eating, breathing. But I do believe that there are also many women like me, who would rather act sick for the whole night just to stay clear of all the touching, that an evening around family or friends can result in. True story. I would usually go for a minor cold, as it’s not too much to fake yet it’s very convincing. But no doubt: in a perfect world, it should be even better to say: I wish not to be touched.
Well, this is our time now. As the government and doctors are advising citizens to keep a distance, waving and high-fiving have become natural, and kissing is finally forgotten. This is how quickly humankind can change. Even if it’s only temporary. But must it be?
I dream about a society where no one assumes a woman will be ok with being touched without consent. It might only be a fantasy of mine: maybe we will go back to the basics as soon as the vaccines (hopefully) offer more protection from COVID-19.
Regardless of viruses and government-imposed rules, what I want is that people ask me whether I am ok with touching before assuming I am just because I’m a woman. And the same applies to other women as well. Listen to us, believe us, and respect our bodies!
I have rather high hopes for the future: surely, touching will not be gone overnight or even over a few months, but maybe more people – and more women – will feel much more comfortable expressing their want regarding bodily autonomy, greetings, and touching in general. I will certainly try to be one of them.