Two years ago, I considered myself a feminist, albeit a lazy one. I didn’t know anything about the different “waves” (truth be told, I still don’t), but I knew I differed from my mother’s buttoned-up feminism that believed Hooters was the devil and James Bond was a pig, all in black and white. Then everything changed. I had a daughter.
I was raised in the deep South. “Hug your so-and-so’s neck”, my extended family would urge whenever I saw them – people I hardly knew- regardless of whether I wanted to or not. It was not a debate or a discussion; it was an order. It’s simply how things are done.
My daughter is two years old, and the one thing I know about my parenting philosophy is this: I will teach her unfailingly about consent. What does that mean? It means if my daughter doesn’t want to hug or kiss her grandmother, or her great-uncle, or her aunt, or her cousin, when the other adults look to me to prod her along, I will be silent.
No, I will not make my daughter hug you.
She doesn’t wanna sit on Santa’s lap? Okay, that line was too long anyway.
She only gets to see her great-great-aunt once a year and who knows how much longer she’ll be with us anyway? Tough.
She will break her uncle’s heart if he doesn’t get one of her world-famous hugs before she goes off to camp? Sorry, not sorry.
What gratification can you possibly get out of a hug from my daughter that you know she did not want to give you? You think: her mother urging her to hug me reassures her that it’s okay, and I’m a good guy she should want to hug. But what I’m telling my daughter is that I witnessed her resistance, disregarded it, and told her to go along with something I knew she did not want. In that moment, I betrayed her.
But won’t it hurt their feelings? Sure. It destroyed me the first time my daughter objected to one of my hugs or kisses. But I am a woman. I am a woman who on more than one occasion went on a date, kissed, had a full-blown relationship with a man that I didn’t want to simply because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Because somewhere down the line, I got it into my head that a man’s feelings were more important than my corporal sovereignty.
But wouldn’t it be more awkward to explain to people why you won’t make her hug them than to just go along with it? Maybe. Probably. In my own family, no one save my husband initially understood my insistence on this subject. I’ve been met with snark and arguments, and yes, it’s awkward. Now that she’s talking and can more fully communicate what she wants and doesn’t want, it’s more awkward. But I refuse to send my daughter the message that saving myself from embarrassment, that avoiding an awkward situation, is more important than her bodily autonomy. My daughter exercising her right to control her own body is not an embarrassment.
Children refuse affection to be hurtful and contrary. Why would you want to enable that type of behavior in your daughter? Will my daughter refuse hugs and kisses from friends and relatives because she feels a deep-seated discomfort with that person’s physical proximity in particular? Maybe. But far more often, I’m sure she will be pushing boundaries, withholding obviously-desired affection to punish, or simply reveling in a tiny rebellion. So am I playing into her hands, enabling her to be a brat? There is a doctoral thesis to be written about how negative labels are assigned to women who do not fall in line and use their bodies solely as vehicles for others’ pleasure, but the simple answer is: I don’t care. In this instance, she wins. Let her be contrary. Regardless of what her intentions are, she is the owner of her own body. If she marries (or cohabitates with into perpetuity) a man (or woman, or someone who identifies as somewhere in the middle) one day, with whom she has a healthy sex life, and then withholds sex in an argument one day, if that partner then decides she is simply holding out to punish them and therefore her refusal is moot…that, my friends, is marital rape. I give not one single, solitary damn what her reasons for not wanting physical contact are. No means no.
No means no. It’s so simple. It’s something all families say in those awkward, half-hearted talks about teenage dating, but that for some reason can’t make sense of when applied to my toddler. But she’s a child! She can’t make decisions about her own body! Yes, she can. And if she does, if she says “no”, she doesn’t want to hug you/kiss you/sit on your lap, that’s the end of it. When she is touched, whether platonically or romantically, I want her to welcome it. A hug is a comforting, beautiful thing- one of those innately human experiences that immediately makes you feel safe and comforted. Except for when it isn’t. Except for when the hug itself is a violation, is something you did not want, objected to, were forced into.
Her body is her own. She has to live in it. It is the vehicle in which she will navigate the world. Her body should never be a burden. It is not something she has to guard. It will not be used as a weapon against her. No one will assert ownership over it, outright or by enforcing their own will upon it. No means no.
So do not look to me, when she turns her nose up at your embrace, leaves you hanging, runs from your snuggles or dodges your kisses. I will not make my daughter hug you.