This isn’t the only hugging incident in the media in recent months. Pop star Kesha had a hug refused by comedian Jerry Seinfeld who didn’t recognize her. According to CNN, “[Seinfeld] denied her three times and even stepped away from her when she tried to touch him.” In response, Seinfeld stated, “`I don't hug a total stranger. I have to meet someone, say hello. I gotta start somewhere.’” That seems like a more than reasonable position for anyone nonetheless a famous individual who has to deal with a lot of fans without appropriate boundaries.
In my opinion, it’s very common for men to try to hug women without their consent. Recently Marco Rubio went to hug Ivanka Trump who stiffly refused his advances. Back during the preparation for debates for the 2016 Presidential election, Hillary Rodham Clinton actually practiced evading a hug from her stand-in for Donald Trump. The video of the rehearsal is actually quite funny. As amusing as the parody was, the reality behind it is not. A very high-power woman who has been one of our nation’s leaders was rehearsing an encounter with another now prominent politician. Part of that rehearsal was intentionally trying to make sure this man, one who has admitted on video to having sexually assaulted women, did not violate Clinton's boundaries by trying to hug her. Her aide got rather into the roleplaying and went a tad overboard creating the humor. Had he not been someone she was close to, this video wouldn’t be funny at all. However, the message behind it is powerful: Even women who are world leaders have to work hard to avoid being manhandled in hugs that they don’t want.
It's not just women, though. James Comey admitted to trying to hide in the White House curtains to avoid encountering Donald Trump who then tried to hug Comey despite Comey making the first gesture towards a handshake only. Trump is someone who is very aware of the power of dictating physical boundaries with those around him. He shows this not only through his unwanted hugs but through his ridiculous handshake politics.
Hugging is a very strange thing in our culture. I grew up in a family where hugging was not a part of the family dynamics. I don’t remember my parents ever hugging me. When I was in high school, I joined a youth group where hugging was a part of the culture. We all hugged each other as a greeting just as most would say hello or goodbye. I discovered I really liked hugging my friends. As I have gone forward in life, I have raised my children in a home where hugging is a daily occurrence. Their parents hug them, and they hug each other. I am very comfortable with hugging among those I’m close to.
However, with strangers, I don’t always feel that comfort. Once I entered the dating world in my post-divorce life, I began experiencing what I dubbed as “the consolation hug.” After a date which was suboptimal, men would give me a hug after declining to have any further dates with me. To me, the consolation hug was unwanted and unwarranted. It felt like the men were implicitly saying to me, “I know I just hurt you, and I feel bad about it. However, I am not aware enough to think about how hugging you might feel to you. I’m just trying to console myself into thinking I’m a decent guy by hugging you to show there are no hard feelings. Whether you want to be hugged or not is irrelevant to my thought process. I just need to feel better about how I just treated you, and hugging you will make me feel better about myself.” I began loathing the consolation hug though I never got very good at evading it.
At one point I went to a Meetup where I ran into a man whom I had previous interactions with. He knew I was attracted to him, but he was not attracted to me. We were both clear on where things stood between us, and despite our history, we managed to have a great conversation together throughout the meal. When we walked out together, he very unexpectedly gave me what felt like another consolation hug. I fumed internally about that hug for quite a while, and then I finally sent an angry email to him very unjustly accusing him of doing something that was demeaning to me. He was understandably clueless as to why I was upset because he looked at that hug in a very different way than I did. He explained to me that he had been raised as a Southern gentleman, and the appropriate social custom was to shake men’s hands when saying goodbye and to hug women. He meant nothing beyond that.
When I took this new information about Southern social customs into consideration, I realized this man was right. Every single man who had given me a “consolation hug” was actually a Southerner. The men who did not were raised in the North. Suddenly a lot more made sense. Having lived in the South for 25 years now, though, I was clear that Southern culture very much dictates that women’s bodies are not their own. This social custom of hugging women without their consent was just one more sign of that mistreatment of women. It’s at the foundation of our rape culture. Men should not automatically have the right to hug women, yet in a culture that doesn’t respect women’s boundaries, a hug is seen as appropriate behavior for men towards women (but not towards other men). Once again, we’ve encountered a situation where we need the societal rule to be “yes means yes” rather than “no means no.” Unless people have indicated that it is ok to touch them, then it’s not ok to randomly hug them.
I recently went out to dinner with a man I had never met before. We spent a wonderful evening talking, and at the end he very respectfully asked me, “Do you hug?” These are just three simple words, but they raised my opinion of him even higher than it already was. It told me that he respected women and their boundaries. He knew that I might not want him touching me. However, I am a person who hugs when the situation feels right, and it definitely did feel right in this case. I walked away from this hug feeling appreciated rather than violated. It would be great if all hugs left people feeling the same way.
©2017 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC