The Cold, Hugless Dystopia of the Future: I've Been There

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I once complained about a stranger touching my goddaughter’s belly without consent, and suggested that perhaps young children should be given the option to refuse hugs and kisses unless they wanted them.
“WITNESS THE STERILE FUTURE OF MANKIND,” some commentors overreacted.  “IF WE DO NOT FORCE OUR CHILDREN TO HUG THE ONES WE HAVE DESIGNATED AS LOVABLE, WHAT WILL BECOME OF SOCIETY?  WHAT SORT OF LOVELESS WORLD WILL WE GENERATE, IF WE START PUTTING UP ALL THESE CONSENT-BARRIERS TO INTIMACY?”
At first I thought these people were crazy, leaping from “May I hug you?” to “The crumbling of kindness as we all know it” in a single bound, but then I realized: *I’m a science-fiction writer*.  (Seriously, man, with a book coming out and everything.)  It’s my hobby, spending hours dreaming of alternative futures – and most people don’t turn themselves into flabby prunes in the shower as they imagine the ramifications of cheap light-speed engines.  So it’s no surprise that your average person would be absolutely terrible at envisioning a world with the comparatively tiny change of inserting a “Is it okay if I touch you?” in between the desire to hug someone and actually flinging your arms around them.
And I may be slightly snarky here, but that fear?  Is very real.  It’s hard for people to get behind a new world without having a good idea of what it looks like.  If you’re a touchy-feely person who’s used to touching without consent and having it go mostly okay for you, a place where you have to ask all the time can seem legitimately off-putting and alien.
But the good news is, I’ve actually visited that world!  And if you’re a social conservative, I’ve visited the worst possible version of that world for you – a liberal dystopia where all of the stuff you consider insanity festers!  It’s a place with a tribunal that judges you, should you step out of line.  It’s a place with supremely strict rules.
It is the Geeky Kink Event, held once a year in New Jersey.
Now, if you don’t know the GKE, it’s infamously strict as BDSM conventions go.  In a world where people have legitimate shoe fetishes and leather fetishes – as in, they can’t get off unless those elements are present – the running gag is that GKE has “a consent fetish.”  They’re super-strict about all consent stuff.
How strict?  Well, I am told by insiders that a staffer was let go because he touched another staffer without asking first.  What kind of touch?  He apparently squeezed her shoulder.*
And when I say there’s “a tribunal,” I’m not kidding: there is a large playspace where people gather, and should you violate anyone’s consent there, at least one drunk person I know got yanked out and hauled before a group of people who pronounced judgment on him.
And as I have noted before, they screen their attendees against the sex offender list, which caused some debate last time as to whether that’s fair – and I’m giving y’all a heads-up right now that this essay is not the place to debate whether the GKE is correct in having all of these strict criteria.  They have it, it’s a successful con for them, and if you’d like to complain about whether this isn’t something you’d attend, take that shit to another thread, because that’s not the point I’m trying to make today.
My point is this:  The GKE is not a democracy as you know it.  It’s the PC fascism that FOX News viewers fear.  This is your worst-case scenario of liberals being oversensitive to the needs of the most zealous complainers, a weekend where the victim will be wholeheartedly believed if they speak up, and a world where you had best watch your fucking step because by God, they expect you to behave according to their rules.
And yet that convention had more happy hugs than the opening of “Love, Actually.”
Everywhere I looked, people were hugging, snuggling, kissing, purring.  You would have thought this was a convention entirely composed of thigmophiles, folks constantly holding hands everywhere.
As it turns out, people like to touch one another.  Even asexuals like to snuggle.  Touching is a natural human urge, and affection will squirt out no matter what rules you have in place.  There will be hugs in the future of consent, I assure you.
The only different was this: before each hug, there was a pause as people held their arms open and asked, “May I?”  And in most cases, the answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!” and amazing full-body glomps occurred.
Sometimes the answer was “No, I’m not feeling it,” in which case there were no hugs.  Or a quick negotiation down to a handshake.  Yet there wasn’t a disdain there, as people feared – nobody I saw was like like, “Eeew, you want a hug?  From me?”  The asking was perfectly okay, as long as you were okay with the answer.
And even more importantly, not everyone asked all the time.  Husbands still were free to hug their wives, the consent implied by years of intimacy.  The woman I spent three hours cuddling and talking with the night before?  I held her hand the next morning without an explicit consent, and no GKE cops showed up to yank me away from her.
The difference was that if there was any major uncertainty, you defaulted to asking.  And on the rare occasion you thought everything was okay and accidentally hugged someone who didn’t want it, you acknowledged you screwed up and apologized profusely.
That’s it.
It’s not a big change, really.  I know all this “consent” stuff can look like some sort of PC nightmare to the novice, a bureaucratic land where you must fill out a 27B-6 form before advancing to the “holding hands” stage.
Really, though, it’s just a slight change where you ask politely.  And I think the “asking politely” may actually amp the number of hugs given, because there’s no downside for asking.  You’re not a creeper for wanting something, as long as you express it in the correct ways.  And as such, the socially awkward like me who may want a hug but don’t know how to get it now have an easy avenue to get their hug on.
I know these societal changes can be scary, if you can’t see what they look like.  But I assure you that people’s need for physical affection won’t be exterminated or shamed in this new consent world we’re trying to build.  Yes, it may be a little awkward at first to go, “Can I hug you?” and have the answer be “No.”  But that’s not the creation of new awkwardness: it’s the transfer of awkwardness from the huggee to the hugger, because I assure you that some of the people you hugged probably didn’t want a hug, and had to tolerate one from you.
It’s not a massive crime, what you did.  But if we can make people’s lives a little nicer by asking first, then why not do it?
The world will not stop hugging.  The world likes hugs.  The only difference is that if someone doesn’t want your hug in this moment, they are now not obligated to receive it.
The good news is that you may get more hugs from people asking to hug you, and so the world won’t change all that much.  Not even in one of the strictest consent cultures I know of.
* – This is something I have heard from two reliable sources, but have not verified personally.  However, it says something about GKE that I believe it wholly.  And once again, should this thread break out into a series of whether they are justified in this culture, I will swing the banhammer, for that is a distraction from the point I am trying to make.

2 Comments

  1. ellixis
    Dec 23, 2014

    Last year, a dear internet friend came to stay with me for a couple of weeks. I like to hug people, but she has and had stated previously that she’s generally uncomfortable with touchy people and that unsolicited hugs are distressing for her. So I spent two weeks suppressing the occasional urge to hug her or casually touch her arm or shoulder, and remarkably enough, we still had a great time and were comfortable together. When she left, she asked if she could hug me; I felt really good because she felt comfortable enough to give me a hug then.
    I also occasionally check in with my daughter to make sure giving her hugs or kisses or tickles is okay with her. She recently requested that hair-tousling stop, so we don’t do that any more.
    Not hugging or touching someone isn’t going to destroy a friendly relationship. And it might make it extra special if someone touch-averse does decide that they would like to touch you. I think it’s just better in general to know for sure that everyone in the room is comfortable with the level of touching going on, rather than assuming and risking being wrong about it.
    … tl;dr I agree wholeheartedly with your point of view.

  2. Yet Another Laura H
    Dec 23, 2014

    How to tell if someone is motivated by the desire to oppress:
    Have someone whose opinion they respect ask them to stop.
    There are hundreds of immediate responses for a person with normal motivations: “Oh, jeez, sorry, I didn’t know;” “Really? What about that makes you uncomfortable?” Even, “That’s silly, and I’m going to keep doing it,” or, “It is literally impossible for me to stop this,” as everyone around them cringes.
    But you will ONLY see the following in bullies, and it’s almost literally a knee-jerk response for them:
    “You are oppressing me by expecting me to stop my behavior.”
    So look hard at those who say your tiny change is oppression: they’re the ones who are getting off on the ability to use social norms to perpetrate grindy boner-hugs on the unwilling. It doesn’t make them bad people, just people who bear watching.

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