Have you ever found yourself wrapped in a hug you didn’t want, but didn’t know what to do about it?
I certainly have, and it made me feel angry, resentful, and outraged.
Whether on campus, at work, or just socializing, unwanted hugging seems to affect almost all women and girls – and many men – at some point. Although sometimes it is the result of a well-meaning person’s insensitivity, it is often used as a power play.
Yet, few of us know what to do in the moment, because for the most part, we are socialized to “be polite.”
Many women and girls are actually taught, explicitly or implicitly, to accept hugs without question – ignoring the fact that sometimes hugs are aggression posing as affection. That teaches us that we do not own our bodies, and leaves us more vulnerable to harassment and sexual assault. Therefore, our personal safety strategies are paramount.
You might say that unwanted hugging is a “gateway drug” to escalating physical contact. “Pick up artists” use hugging as a “compliance test” to determine how vulnerable a woman will be to his particular brand of manipulation.
The fact that unwanted hugs may or may not be done with ill intent, hiding under a veil of plausible deniability, and rely on you to “be polite” and we are literally put on the spot to make an instant judgement call can make us feel … oddly powerless.
Having a few strategies in mind to avoid any unwanted physical contact is a form of safety preparedness. It provides a sense of power and peace of mind.
A Direct “NO” is A-OK.
You alone own your body, and you alone decide who gets hugs or not, according to how you feel in that moment. You do not have to be “fair.” You can change your mind without notice or reason. You do not owe anyone explanations or apologies. It’s perfectly ok to tell someone, “I don’t want a hug, thanks,” or “I’d prefer to shake hands,” or “Let’s just wave from here!”
It is the other person’s job, not yours, to manage how they feel about that.
If you’re met with objections or entreaties, calmly stand your ground with an answer that makes YOU feel the most comfortable, such as, “It’s just my preference.” “I’m not a hugging sort of person.” “I’m a germaphobe.” “I said, ‘No thanks.'” “I’d rather shake hands.” “I would prefer not to.”
But if you don’t feel comfortable or safe giving a direct “No,” try this instead:
Stick out your arm for a hearty handshake.
Add a cheery “So nice to see (or meet) you!”
Take a half-step back and angle your body away from the person if you have room.
Most people will get the message and react accordingly. However, if the hugger is tone deaf, but you need to let that person save face, due to, say, power differentials, try:
Handshake + Conversational Pivot
Your pivot may sound like this: “Oh no, I’m still just getting over this cold / strep throat / ebola and I wouldn’t want to take a chance on accidentally infecting you!” “I’m all maxed out on hugs today – but tell me about your new project, it sounds so interesting!” or, “Hey, I’m all hugged out from my new puppy! Do you want to see a photo?” “Oh, sorry, my little nephew got all my hugs already. Speaking of which, what is a Pokemon?” The point is, always have a few rehearsed sound bites. Use whatever works for you and go with it like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Alternatively, go for an enthusiastic high five + conversational pivot.
“Can you believe that [sports event] last night?!” “It’s Friday, high five!” “Good to see you! Up top!” “We really crushed it on [work project] so I was thinking our next step is ___.” Adapt any of these phrases or techniques to suit your situation and your comfort level. You are the expert on your situation and your relative safety.
These methods generally distract the other person and glosses over any uneasiness.
If someone drags you into a hug anyway, making you uncomfortable, your job is to make your discomfort clear, and redirect it back to the offender.
“HEY! I said NO HUGS!”
“OW! You’re pulling my hair!”
“OUCH! You’re hurting my neck!” (because you have a little crick in it, of course)
“HEY! You’re hurting my sunburn!”
You might *accidentally* step on his/her feet — because s/he pulled you off balance with the unwanted hug, right?
Some people will always ignore boundaries and go in for the hug in spite of your objections. That is valuable information: Now you know this person is not to be trusted.
This is someone to avoid. This is someone to keep a wary eye on, even if you’re acquainted or “friends” or related. This is someone who will not take “No” for an answer. This is someone to warn your friends about.
Never let social conventions or fear of feeling awkward get in the way of your bodily integrity and security.
Your personal safety always come before someone else’s feelings.
– Jennifer Kaminer, 27 March 2017
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Related: Women’s Personal Safety on Campus