I recently visited my sister and her daughter. Niecebaby, as I affectionately refer to her, is around 20 months old. It boggles my mind how quickly she picks up on social cues. Frankly, it’s terrifying how quickly a young human is able to discern expectations and incorporate them into their personhood.
One reason it’s so terrifying is that I have not been as purposeful or thoughtful about my interactions with and around her as I potentially could. [Note: I refrain from saying 'should' because that, to me, presupposes an awareness, and my analyses aren't that deep (yet).] It can seem so easy to just float through interactions with an individual. And there are circumstances where I trust my ‘floating’ abilities more than others. However, I find that floating relies heavily on ingrained teachings and socializations. While I was encouraged to be more independent and outspoken in some arenas, I was still raised in a heteronormative paradigm. I want Niecebaby to be able to call out social constructions, not be implicitly molded by them. Let me lead by example: I aim to be far more purposeful, thoughtful, and aware of myself with/around her.
It is with this concern that I approached a conversation with Sister over dinner, after Niecebaby was already in la-la-land. What ensued was a conversation about how confusing it must be for children to learn good touch/bad touch. It’s not true or honest to offer a blanket rule that adults are safe or family members are safe. We are socialized to except rape culture as norm, which blurs our idea of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, especially of those closest to us. Sister and I sat at the dinner table talking through scenario after scenario, knowing full-well that there’s no single, simple solution.
We did settle on two things: permission and respect. (I wish I could offer direct credit – because it wasn’t an original idea from either of us – but enough time has passed that I cannot remember the source.) What could potentially distinguish good touch from bad touch would be a person asking permission and, then, respecting that response, no questions asked. Just because you are someone’s, for example, parent doesn’t mean you have authority over their entire person and what they desire. It makes me cringe when I hear people say, “Gimme a kiss.” I know it’s “meant” to be playful, but it’s actually authoritative and dismissive of the person’s agency. I don’t ever what Niecebaby to associate kisses with domineering demands. Sister and I decided to be more conscious of asking first and respecting the wishes that come forth.
I worked hard to practice this for the rest of the trip. Kiss, tickle, hug, pick up, put down, diaper change — I asked permission for it all. One thing I can say about that child is that she knows what she does and does not want, and isn’t shy to tell you so. To be honest, it stung the first few times she said No to a kiss or hug. I followed each denied request with a validation, open door, and reminder of my love for her: “Okay, that’s fine you don’t want a kiss; we don’t need to. Let me know if you feel like you want one later. I love you, Niecebaby.” Sometimes it was more of a validation, but I think the open door and reminder of love are very important for developing interactions that carry through the many different conversations throughout the stages of development. (For example: “I can tell that you are mad at me for XYZ, and I want you to know I’m willing to talk when you’re ready. I hope you know that I love you even if we are upset at each other right now.”)
This got me thinking about my other interactions with people and how rare it is to be asked permission. A hug, touch on the back, kiss, sex, etc. It’s no surprise that the times people do ask stand out to me. When these ‘asks’ happened, I recalled feeling weird, like, why are they asking me or am I not giving the right signals? I’m saddened that the thought of, in these cases, an intimate partner acknowledging an interest in my agency and personal power to decide what I do and do not want done to me was considered weird. I don’t want anyone, including myself and Niecebaby, to feel that way.
Curious about how this permission-respect scenario looks for intimate relationships, I stumbled upon a blog post by way of another blog post, etc. (I have yet to read any other post on the blog, but the one I’m about to link to has me optimistic.) In this post, the blogger discusses the re-scripting of sex by comparing the current (awful) script with two different styles of permission-respect scripts. I can only assume that there are many opinions and perspectives in how to proceed with re-scripting our narratives around sex (and other interactions).
I look forward to continuing the search and putting into practice the permission-respect model in order to unearth the socializations I didn’t consent to as a wee babe. One day…