It was one of those groups you join in your first semester of university, when you’re still excited about new stationery and the thrill of hearing professors swear in class. I don’t remember what manner of group it was, perhaps some social justice thing, or a philosophy club. I’ve never been able to reach back to the enthusiasm I’d had in those days, so happy to be a joiner. Whoever these people were, we’d had dinner in a cheap Thai restaurant. We’d gotten louder and louder, excited by whatever thing it was that had bonded us, that we loved enough to join a club of others who also loved that thing, but which I can no longer remember. I spent most of the time talking to the boy opposite me. All I remember of him was his curly brown hair, the ringlets somehow holding together even as he raked his fingers through them.
After the complicated ritual of a large group trying to split a bill with cash, we wandered down to a café for gelato. I stood next to the curly haired boy at the display cabinet. He had plenty of room to cross behind me to see the flavours on the other side, but, as he passed, he put his hands on my waist, as though we were crammed into a tight space. I tipped forward against the glass and righted myself. I don’t remember what gelato I chose, or if I chose at all. I remember conversation sliding past me as I sat quietly, away from the boy – confused, mostly, about a feeling in my body, like a cold fist had reached through me.
I was the first to leave and when I got back to my small room I stood with my arms wrapped around my body, wanting to understand this much too dramatic reaction, wanting to go back and ask the boy: Who are you to put your hands on me?
Among my friends, I’m famous for not wanting to be touched. My friend Joan once held her arms out to congratulate me for something and then pulled them back, hands up, saying, “Sorry, I forgot. I’m giving you a not-hug.” In a strange way, I was . . . touched.
After I handed in my MA thesis – I’d been spending 10 hours a day hunched at my desk – I could barely turn my head, and my back was spasming. I had a voucher for one of the cheap massage places at the mall that I hadn’t used because the idea of paying someone to touch me felt seedy. But I knew I needed to.
The voucher was for a shop in the busiest part of the mall. I walked past several times, casting my head about for anyone who might recognise me, as though I was walking into a sex shop. Finally, I darted inside and was told to wait on a plastic seat in full view of the shoppers passing by. I hid my face behind my hair and stared intently at my phone until a masseuse finally ended my humiliation and invited me in.
I still remember a girl in high school walking past me in a crowd and touching my hip. I remember a boss checking my work, questioning something, then saying, “No, you’re right” and grazing my arm with the back of his knuckles. The glances of our bodies together were so light, so insignificant, that I assume the touchers not only don’t remember but would barely have registered the moment as it happened. Yet I’ve remembered those touches all this time. Those people meant something different to me post-touch than they did pre-touch. It’s not that I hate being touched. It’s that it’s too intense. It’s too intimate. It’s an act of love by someone whose name I might not remember.
There have been times when I’ve looked back through my days, trying to remember the last time someone touched me; significantly touched me, like they meant it, like when someone puts a hand on your leg while they’re driving, or grips your arm in excitement. For so long, I’d wanted only to be alone, to sit each morning and evening in silence. Then suddenly, like a tsunami flooding in, taking everything away, I wanted to be always in company, to be touched by someone who loves me, at least one hand on me at all times. Don’t let a door close between us.
Thinking back to the boy in the café, remembering being briefly held by him, it isn’t the touch itself that made me feel polluted – it’s that it was an act of love from someone I had just met, who used touch exploitatively. He cheapened love, like marrying sneakers, or lip gloss.
A hug that goes for longer than 20 seconds will cause your body to release oxytocin and lower your blood pressure. If a sales person touches my shoulder, apparently I’ll like them more, I’ll report a more positive experience. If I live in a country that tips, I’ll tip higher to waiters who touch me. Researchers found Romanian orphans in understaffed orphanages, who were rarely touched, were half the weight and height they should be for their age and showed a raft of developmental disabilities. Parisian children who were touched often by their parents displayed less aggressive tendencies in a McDonald’s playground than American children in a similar setting, who were touched less frequently. Why is it that when someone is upset we reach out to touch them? Who taught us this?
Look, I get it. Touch is good for us. But this thing, which is supposed to be beneficial, is also an act of violence. Surely the benefits of touch exist in an objective reality, outside the one we live in, in a world where no one ever hurt anyone, in which waiters are welcome to place their hands on us. But, in this reality, it can be hard to distinguish which touch is meant kindly when we’ve been so socialised by dangerous touch. Surely the benefits balance each other out. While the physical act of touch might reduce cortisol, the social meaning of touch spikes it because many of us have been conditioned to be suspicious of touch. Why – seriously, why – would I want a waiter to touch me?
When I started working in a jewellery shop the person training me said, “When you clip a bracelet on the customer, tap your fingers lightly on each side of their wrist. It builds intimacy.” This kind of touch that was being taught to me was gross. It was exploitative. I was using a form of love to improve my key performance indicators.
We’re so easily moved. I can touch you and make you love me just a little bit more, and then I can use that love to gently part you from your money.
I’d planned a weekend trip to Melbourne with three male friends and as soon as we took our seats on the train I knew I’d made a terrible mistake. Later that night, I would pass out in our hotel room after drinking with all three of them
Perhaps violence is a different type of hurt to, say, a car crash, because it involves bodies touching. Perhaps that’s what makes the idea of healthy social touch so confusing, because this thing that’s meant to mean love, meant to mean intimacy, is so often an act of destruction against us.
I was thinking about this while absentmindedly watching a UFC fight. Near the end, the fighters rested their weight on each other. They paused the fight to hold each other like lovers. They rested this way, leaning into each other to take pressure off themselves, but also as protection. They can’t be hit while their bodies are pressed together. What kind of arrangement is this?
Allow your enemy the same rest you take from them. Hold them close so they can’t hurt you.
I’d planned a weekend trip to Melbourne with three male friends and as soon as we took our seats on the train I knew I’d made a terrible mistake. Later that night, I would pass out in our hotel room after drinking with all three of them. I’d wake up, the room spinning, with only one of them. After a horrible breakfast with this man, who was not only the first to assault me but also the first to kiss me, the first to do anything with me, we had an hour-long train ride, a short taxi ride to the naval base we were posted to, and a long walk back to the barracks. I’d barely spoken all morning and as soon as we reached the gates I sped up without saying goodbye and they let me get ahead of them. I finally got back to my room, and while blubbing and hiccupping, carefully placed my hand everywhere he’d touched me. I ran fingers through my hair, wrapped them around my arm, slid a hand up my own skirt. I understood something I didn’t have a language for: that this was an important thing to do, though I couldn’t explain why.
When I started dating again, none of my dates ever kissed me. I didn’t want them to, even the ones I liked. But still, I wondered why no one tried. I wondered if I gave off a vibe, like a big ‘fuck off’ written on my forehead. I’d notice a hesitancy sometimes at the end of dates, like they were about to say something and then changed their minds. I wish the dating rules were more clearly delineated, like if there was a book we all had to read, and we could agree on things like ‘the third date is the kiss date’.
On the second date with the man who is now my boyfriend, I wanted both to kiss him and not kiss him. As we approached my sister’s house where I was staying, I was half listening to him, trying to decide which I wanted more: to be kissed now, or to wait. I knew my whole family was inside the house visiting for lunch and what if they came out? I’d also been aggressively chewing my lip and knew it would taste of blood. I still felt like it was too soon for this level of intimacy, even though we’d been texting every day for three weeks. I’d been spending evenings grinning at my phone like an idiot. If he’d known me better at this point, he’d have known I was overthinking this. I was doing what he calls ‘getting up my butt’: a multifaceted term that can mean becoming neurotic and obsessive, but can also mean thinking deeply and beautifully, unravelling the way things are, making good art. In whatever context we say it, the other knows exactly what we mean.
So we lingered outside my sister’s house. I quickly calculated how long my family had been inside and if they were likely to be leaving soon. At the first sign of him tilting forward, I blurted out, “My whole family is in there!”’ I was instantly relieved, disappointed, glad for an excuse, wishing I hadn’t used it. He held my hand and laughed, and I wondered about taking the excuse back, while knowing that it was right, that though I felt so lucky, so full in my heart, I wasn’t ready.
I know how this makes me sound. Like I think I’m so pure and holy that I can’t be touched without a choir of angels in the background.
I meet someone for the first time, I hold my hand out to shake theirs. They say, “No, sweetie, I’m a hugger.” I want to say, “Congratulations, but I’m a rape survivor.” I don’t say this of course, so I allow myself to be enfolded against their body
At church, a guest speaker decided everyone should hug the people around them. I slipped from my seat before anyone could try it and waited in the lobby till it was over. An older man saw me do this and came up to me after the service. “You’re a good girl,” he said. The implication was, I suppose, that I was keeping myself sacred. He meant well. He was a nice man. But I was uncomfortable for reasons I still can’t work out. Perhaps we both felt in our bones that if touch is love, and love is intimacy, then this is a terrible, false thing to accept instead. But when he called me a good girl, I felt as I do when someone says I’m not like other girls and I want to answer, “Is there something wrong with other girls?” Was he suggesting that the ones who stayed and walked about the room giving and receiving hugs are bad girls? That they’re whoring themselves out for an approximation of love? This version of it that is candy-pink, chemical- sweet, fake and cheap? Others scolded me for leaving as the hugging started. “Can’t you just do it to be polite? Can’t you just not be awkward?” I have heard this many times before. “You make people uncomfortable.”
I don’t want to be a good girl. I don’t want to be a bad girl, or an awkward girl. I just want to decide who can touch me and when.
The following happens over and over: I meet someone for the first time, I hold my hand out to shake theirs. They say, “No, sweetie, I’m a hugger.”
“Congratulations,” I want to say, “but I’m a rape survivor.” I don’t say this of course, so I allow myself to be enfolded against their body, and I remember another body, weighing me down. I remember things that make my brain shrink with shame, like a hot Townsville night when I was broken into. Or that boy in Melbourne moving my clenched fist down, down. Trauma is separate from both narrative and time, so there is a tired part of my brain that can’t tell the difference between then and now, between that touch and this one.
I used to ask myself, what actually is it about rape that causes the harm it does, which has nothing to do with the physical pain of it? I used to ask myself, Where does it hurt? Why does it hurt?
This is what I’ve come up with. I think the thing about rape that hurts so much – and in a lesser way, the harm of unwanted touch – is the same thing that’s at the heart of good sex, good touch. It isn’t the physical act. It’s the spiritual state of it. You allow someone inside your body with nothing between you and nothing to hide behind. You trust your partner. Good sex is good because it’s awkward and messy and gross and sometimes painful, and that’s OK with you and whoever you’re with. But that position of vulnerability, in order to be exercised fully and rightly, must be given freely. Rape forces you into a position you should only be in with someone you’ve chosen. Rape doesn’t just break into the body. The body can heal. Red blood cells rush to a wound and kiss it better. A nail breaks into the body if stepped on, but you don’t carry the shape of that nail with you. Rape enters something else: something deeper than bones. It breaks into a safe place.
My abuser used to show up in everything I wrote, then I’d edit him out at the end, and each piece would have a him-sized hole in it
If the body houses something like a soul, then it also provides a bridge into it. Good sex crosses over that bridge and meets the soul, but so then does rape. How else can another body hurt me somewhere that my own body can’t reach? I cannot enter in and pluck out the splinter that was left in me. Unwanted touch induces in me the same sick feeling, of an intimacy that isn’t right, isn’t real. It confuses love. I’ve had nightmares of being forced to marry someone I dislike, and in the dream, even the symbols of intimacy – the dress, the flowers, the person waiting at the end of an aisle – crawl under my skin. I could throw up, I could cut off parts of my body.
My abuser used to show up in everything I wrote, then I’d edit him out at the end, and each piece would have a him-sized hole in it, like I have a him-sized hole in me. He wrote to me on my birthday once. He said it had been a long time. He hoped I’d have a good one. “Thank you,” I wrote back, and I shook like an earthquake for the rest of the day. All he ever did was touch me. It only took a moment.
It was almost six months into my new relationship that I finally started to believe I really was loved, that he wouldn’t be put off me by some small thing. I stopped taking every silence, every less than enthusiastic response as proof, finally, that he was sick of my shit. It was only touch, specifically touch that was unsolicited, that could reassure me. When I took him to meet my sisters, I was convinced that he was over me, that we were over, and he was just waiting to tell me. I believed this until an hour or so in, when he reached under the table and gave my knee a light squeeze. I got no reassurance from the fact that he was putting himself through the most uncomfortable performance, enduring the difficult work of trying to impress a family. It was only that light touch that could make me feel OK.
He doesn’t touch me when he sleeps. Early in our relationship, I tried not to be hurt by his back to me, his eye mask, his earbuds. He cocoons himself in sleep and I am not allowed in. One night, my wriggling kept him awake to the point where he had to roll out of bed and sleep on the floor. The next day he bought a mattress so firm and vast that he could sleep without being aware I was even there. On the old mattress, which sank in the middle, I’d been able to roll against him so maybe he’d remember me and reach out (he didn’t).
One morning, he woke for a moment, rolled over to drape his arm across my waist, and fell back asleep. I’d been about to get up, but I stayed in bed, holding onto the arm, feeling that I’d never been happier. Never in my life. I thought about telling him this, but it would ruin it somehow. He might repeat the action simply to make me happy, and that too is an act of kindness; a different act of love, but not the love of waking for a moment and reaching out.
I hadn’t known if I was in love with him yet. I’d been checking my body, assuming that’s where love would be, somewhere I could reach with my hands. It wasn’t there yet, not yet, and then suddenly yes, there it is. When he draped that arm across my waist I was surprised to find love is a quiet thing, at the end of worry. I was expecting a feeling of tipping backwards, but this was a stronger thing than falling. I had reached up through love. I had stood in love, like a pillar for him to lean on.
I hadn’t yet told him I loved him, but when I moved past him in a tight space, I’d lay my hands lightly on his waist, and hope he knew what I meant. That I was trying to say I love you, that you’re the most beautiful, the most, the most, the most.
I show him every essay he appears in, so he knows what I’m putting into the world. He was worried I’d made him sound like an arsehole for not touching me at night. He said, “Can you explain that it’s just because I have trouble sleeping? That I can’t be constricted or distracted? It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s just, you know, it’s too hot.” Laughing, he pointed to the part where he laid his arm across my body. “Sorry to tell you this, but I was probably checking whether you’d gotten up yet so I could stretch out.”
It made me wonder which small things I have done that made him feel loved, but which I didn’t mean. And it’s safe to misinterpret these actions, because we do love each other, even if it’s not what we mean by that particular action. However, knowing it’s only my interpretation that touch equals love doesn’t make touch feel any different. What if that boy in the restaurant was just righting himself, what if someone knocked him as he passed me by? It makes no difference to my experience. All we have is our own perception, even when we know it’s wrong. As we discussed this, he said, “You’ve taken what you think when you’re up your butt, and applied your interpretation to everyone else’s intention. You got up everyone’s butt.”
“I got up the world’s butt.”
He laughed, and as he rolled off the bed he said, “Yeah, you did. Write that.”
A mildly abbreviated version taken with kind permission from the new collection of essays Ithaca by Alie Benge (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35), available in bookstores nationwide.