Outstretched arms: questioning a normalized nonconsent

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Feb. 17, 2015, 10:23 p.m.

The word “nonconsent” tends to bring to mind a specific set of situations and associations. Dark rooms, pushy hands, malicious intent — however, this prevailing narrative of nonconsent, despite its salience in our everyday lives, is scarcely reflected in the statistics. In fact, contrary to the prevalent belief that stranger rape is the most prevalent danger, acquaintance rape makes up anywhere from sixty to ninety percent of rape experienced by college women.

However, nonconsent is more than sexual assault or even a set of actions. As I have argued in past pieces, nonconsent is institutionalized and normalized across our society wherever we look. Hookup culture and blind dating and even such innocuous things such as Secret Santa are “fun” only because we are taught that not having control is enjoyable in its uncertainty.

The normalization of nonconsent isn’t random, either — it manifests itself in ways that silence the voices of the less privileged. Speaking up, whether to voice your discontent with a rough frisk from a white police officer or saying no to an engagement ring or asserting your gender pronouns in the face of constant misgendering, is often dangerous. Furthermore, while nonconsent is certainly the status quo in these more visible examples, it often permeates down to even the most commonplace of interactions.

Take hugs, for example. At first glance, it seems utterly ridiculous that hugs could be anything more than innocuous. You hug your friends, your family, your loved ones — but you also hug that person at the party you really wish you hadn’t met, or that stranger at the bus station who’s coming on to you too hard, or that person you dislike but just hugs everyone, regardless of the situation.

It isn’t because we have all consented to being 24-hour hug machines without our knowing. Rather, the mechanics of something as simple of a hug draw on norms of reciprocity and social desirability in order to create the desired (or undesired) outcome. When someone walks towards you and throws out their arms, no words are spoken. You have two immediate options: pay the situational toll and accept the hug, or decline the physical contact and be forced to explain yourself.

A hug is a transaction of power; more specifically, it is a scripted interaction where the initiator expects that they can comfortably get what they want, regardless of who they approach and regardless of consent.

This assertion sounds dangerous. It makes those who seek hugs out to be predatory, manipulative individuals who use hugs as some dastardly tool in their abusive agenda. This is most often not the case, but it is undeniable that the mechanisms of a reaction as normalized as a hug affect us whether or not we are aware of it. While we are aware of our ability to say no, the power of the situation compels us to accept or face social consequences for norm violation.

Imagine two Stanford students interacting in White Plaza. “Aw come on, give me a hug!” someone says, and the other remains silent. The spectacle this situation creates is enough to draw stares, and the very act of looking places more pressure onto the situation. If the other “gives in,” the norm is reestablished and the situation resolved as we go back to our daily lives; if the other continues to resist, tension remains. Perhaps a person walking off may diffuse the situation, but the longer the scene continues, the more uncomfortable it is to watch (and no doubt, to experience).

Tackling this problem seems to be a hard question to answer, especially if we aim to change how society views such routinized actions such as hugs and other social transactions in which nonconsent is normalized. A much easier solution is to simply ask for a hug before you fling your arms at people. When physical contact is framed as a question and not a norm, it’s much easier to say no. Most revealingly, the number of people who do say no when asked raises questions as to their own personal comfort during unsolicited hugs you may have had in the past.

Understanding that normative pressure to say “yes” to a given social situation affects our consent is important to understanding how to navigate spaces mindfully. It’s harder to turn down a drink at a party, harder to stop sex once it starts, harder to decline a hug when outstretched arms are coming your way. As students who interact with each other and a variety of social situations each day, it is our responsibility to realize that a culture of consent takes community effort to create, and that our knowledge of nonconsent helps us act against it.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

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