He leaned in for a hug, but what he got was a handshake.
It wasn’t his fault. He was just doing what he was told. The whole room was. Moments before, a public speaking expert had stood from the stage and, playing off a riff about cats, requested: “Go ahead and lick the face of the person next to you. Or give them a hug.”
Laughing awkwardly, one person after another shoved back chairs and hugged, the room filling with the chit-chatty din of obedience.
And in the split-second between request and response, as I stood from my seat and looked at the stranger in front of me, his 90s-era-Michael-Bolton gray hair skimming the shoulders of his burgundy button-down shirt, I realized: I didn’t want to hug him.
Yes, the brilliant speaker at the front of the room had made a request. In the past, the shock of it, mixed with the well-worn path of acquiescence to authority, not to mention the ready response of those around me, would have made my consent to a hug non-negotiable.
But on this morning, what was non-negotiable was my response: “No, thank you.”
Two days before in a self-defense class, I had been given permission, for the first time in my life, to not hug every person that stood in front of me offering one. I had deflected a hug, from both front and behind, and in the process, had received a powerful lesson about privilege, power and the context of consent.
Around the same time, I had learned of another name in the daily torrent of celebrity sexual violation outings. This time, it was famed comedian Louis C.K. who was found to be the perpetrator practicing his own brand of perversion. He had asked grown women for consent before masturbating in front of them.
Wait… He asked for consent? His behavior seemed perverse and odd – but at least he asked, right? Isn’t that the message of consent: To ask?
As he discovered, it’s not that simple.
I too, as a female and as a leader, had a lesson to learn about the complexity of consent. You see, at the same class where I practiced how to deflect a hug, I heard something I had never considered before.
As my instructor shared the importance of being able to say “no” to a hug no matter the context, what came to mind were all the clients and children – from my boyfriend’s teenagers to my niece and nephew – that I had said six simple words to over the past couple of years:
“Can I give you a hug?”
All this time, I thought I had been doing the right thing, asking for consent to hug them. Dumbfounded, I realized no one – NO ONE – had ever said “No” to me.
I raised my hand and expressed this to the class. The response? “I never hug clients,” said my instructor. “All the power and privilege are with me. It’s not a fair question, so I never ask it. If they initiate a hug with me, then l hug them.”
In that moment, I saw how the complex interplay of action and reaction, power and privilege made the context of consent as important as the question. In the context of authority and power, coercion can masquerade as consent.
For those of us in any position of authority over another – which includes older children over younger children, leaders of all kinds, healing professionals, teachers, parents, ministers – what appears to be a simple question of consent carries with it an implied weight – even a threat – that practically guarantees agreement. We need to acknowledge this – to ourselves and, at times, to the person in front of us.
When we know the person in front of us cannot say “No,” we can simply choose not to ask. Or we can provide permission to say “No” by giving them the time and space required to access their internal voice (what they want) and their external choice (the power to communicate it without consequence).
Louis C.K. asked for consent from a position of power and stature in the comedic world, not from within a personal relationship of equality. He did not provide the freedom or time to say “No”. Consent in this context amounted to coercion.
As the Bolton-haired stranger leaned in for a hug, my arm shot out before me. “I’d rather shake hands,” I said, the words rushing from my mouth like a dam breaking.
His eyes widened in a wild mix of confusion, embarrassment. He shook my hand and tried to smile as he muttered, “Uh, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. As we sat back in our seats, a growing silence between us, I whispered to him, “I’m not saying No to you. I’m just saying No.”
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