When my husband, Dan, and I were dating, he would sometimes tickle me, or poke me, or make embarrassing jokes about bodily functions. And I would shut him down. “Stop that!” in the tone of voice that says, “I mean it and I’m angry.” If he persisted, I put my foot down even harder.
“You know what’s wrong with you?” he would say (and don’t you love sentences that start that way?). “You’ve forgotten how to have fun.”
I had to admit it was partly true. I had just come off a relationship in which I could set no boundaries. Rex would tickle me, for example, past the point of enjoyment until it was actually physically painful. I taught myself to shut down my tickle response (and who knows how many other responses along with it). I was depressed and I was damaged and I didn’t know what fun looked like anymore. But I knew that for me, tickling was not it, and that I had to clamp down on it or it might turn into pain.
A Facebook post brought this all back to me. Judi Miller, an awesome teacher of troubled teens, told of a time when a male student, “Johnny,” was teasing a girl, poking and tickling her and saying he wanted to handcuff her and tickle her till she screamed.
Judi objected. She explained, “Johnny, when you say to a woman who says ‘No’ to you that you’re going to restrain her with handcuffs and touch her without her permission until she screams, that sounds really rape-y to me.”
The boy protested that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and Judi took advantage of the teachable moment for a lesson on bodily autonomy: “That means you have a say in who touches you and how far you’re willing to go. In my family, if someone says ‘Stop tickling,’ we do, because consent is important to fun. If it’s all fun for you, and not for your partner, you aren’t listening to her needs.”
She added, “If you don’t respect her bodily autonomy when she says no tickling, or no touching, or to leave her alone, then will you respect her saying no when she doesn’t want to hug, or kiss, or get it on after a date? The pattern is the same. There’s the connection to rape.”
As with most teachers, she had no idea whether her message had an effect.
Until later that day, when a boy from a different class started an argument with his girlfriend, and grabbed her wrist, because she wouldn’t hug him.
Johnny was right there. “That ain’t cool. If she doesn’t want to hug right now, you got no call to get mad at her. You don’t own her ass, or her. She gets to decide if she feels like hugging you, kissing you, whatever. It’s called BODILY AUTONOMY, asshole. No wonder she don’t want to hug you if you won’t take NO for an answer!” Johnny said.
Judi thanked Johnny for listening to her and said she was proud of him. In fact, she later described this as her proudest moment of teaching all year.
Dan and I worked through our problem, I’m glad to say. I learned that I could say “no” and he learned not to push it. We both learned how to do things that were fun for both of us. Back then, I had never heard about “bodily autonomy.” We learned.
I wonder if Rex ever did.