Trust, power, and coercion

When my nearly adolescent children were cute little babies, strangers seemed drawn to rub my children’s fuzzy heads and squeeze their little cheeks. I could understand the impulse; my children were cuddle magnets. But I would fight through my nice-girl tendencies, turn my body slightly so my child was out of reach, and tell the stranger that I preferred to ask my baby’s permission before letting anyone touch them.

Some people were offended. Couldn’t I see that they’d meant no harm? Some were confused. Why would I ask a barely verbal child their permission before letting someone touch them? If they asked, I would explain that it’s about consent and that I wanted my children growing up knowing that they were in charge of their own bodies. Most were understanding, if disappointed not to get baby snuggles in the grocery store checkout line.

As my kids have grown older and gone through different stages—the hitting stage, the aggressive hugging stage, the playful wrestling stage—I’ve stressed to them how every time they touch someone or someone touches them, both parties need to be in agreement about the touch. Even a well-meaning hug must be consensual, and you need to confirm that agreement before the touching happens.

Even though Grammy and Grampy had their feelings hurt at first, I’ve never made my children hug or kiss anyone they didn’t want to hug or kiss. I explain gently but clearly that someone else claiming hurt feelings is not a good enough reason for my children to give up their bodily autonomy. The grandparents have grown to respect my approach, for which I’m grateful.

When I wasn’t much older than my daughter is now, my mom was driving me home from a school speech competition. A truck pulled up next to us at a light, and the bearded driver looked down at my adolescent legs emerging from my mid-thigh skirt and said, “Nice!”

I glanced up at the man’s smiling face, and then looked quickly down, staring at my legs as the traffic light changed and we pulled away.

“Congratulations!”my mother said. “You got your first ‘nice’!”

I know I won’t say that to my daughter (or to my son, if it happens to him, but I suspect the challenges for him will be of a different nature). Today I recognize that being sexually objectified should not be a rite of passage, but when I was fourteen, I just felt confused and alone as I tried to reconcile my flurry of feelings with my mother’s congratulations.

Although I’ve not done everything perfectly, I’ve encouraged my children at every stage to respect their own and others’ bodily autonomy in a variety of situations, from the playground to the doctor’s office, but has it been enough? Will my children be prepared for those situations that start out in a place of trust and end up coercive?

I don’t want them not to trust people, I don’t want them to fear intimacy, but the reality is, they’re much more likely to be victimized by someone they know and trust than they are a stranger. And I guess if you look at it the other way, they’re more likely to victimize someone who trusts them than they are to victimize a stranger.

Up to now, I’ve stopped short of saying that anyone—even Grammy—saying, “Aww! But it hurts my feelings that you won’t hug me!” is a type of coercion and a red flag within a trusting relationship, but now I’m wondering if it’s time to make that point more explicit. It’s the kind of behavior and thinking for which they should be on the lookout, both in others and in themselves.

I’ve been both served well by trust and had my trust betrayed, and I wish that I could give my children the foresight to know in advance, for certain, that their trust is properly placed. But I have neither that foresight nor that certainty to give.

All I can give them is an awareness of the power structures within relationships and how that power can be exploited.

All I can do is teach them that their bodies are their own and others’ bodies are those individuals’ own.

All I can do is give them the tools to recognize and act when things don’t feel right to them, even if they’re with someone they love and trust, even if it’s embarrassing to do so.

All I can do is prepare them…and trust.

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