My hand was kissed in a gloriously, old-fashioned way I’ve only read about in books.
I touched a friend’s party dress and spike heels.
I received a lovely hug from an actress in the adult film industry.
Perhaps these situations seem unusual to you. Perhaps they seem unconnected. Perhaps they’re all in a day’s work, as they can sometimes be for me at conferences.
The threads these experiences have in common are permission and consent. Before kissing my hand, the person asked if he could. Indeed, he even asked permission before touching my hand. My friend asked if I’d like to touch her dress and shoes. The hug with the adult actress occurred after a polite handshake, pleasant conversation, and her request for a hug upon parting.
Also during that weekend I was thanked for giving someone permission to touch me as a way of getting my attention. I stated clearly to them how and where to touch me—a tap on the arm—if I seemed unaware that someone else wanted to speak with me. I did not expect to be thanked for telling someone how to communicate with me.
As a blind woman with a bilateral hearing impairment of significance, touch has always been important to me. In many ways, it’s the most secure way I have to interact with my environment through hearing, smell, kinetic awareness, etc. – senses that should not be discounted. As a child, I gobbled up the world of literature through my fingers, millions of Braille dots mapping other worlds and people—and yes, describing dresses and courtly hand-kisses. Touch, through fingers and through body, governs my sensuality, my love of preparing and eating good food, handling the beautiful or useful things in my home or elsewhere and other more—erotic—pursuits. Touch has also been the bane of my existence per the world interacting with me.
Somehow many people seem to think it necessary to interact with me only through touch. My hearing impairment doesn’t explain it because most people who encounter me for the first time, or on a casual basis, usually don’t know about it. They direct my body to where I’ve said I needed to go (or sometimes where they think I should go) through grasping my hand, laying a hand on my back, or—most unnerving of all—placing their hands on either side of my torso. Sure, often I defend myself, escaping from their grasp and either walking away or informing them of how best they can assist me. Sometimes I feel so invaded that I let them propel me to where I need to be, holding my body and breath stiffly until it’s over. It amazes me really that strangers touch me in ways that are so deeply intimate, in ways that are generally deemed so unacceptable between people unknown to each other. Perhaps I can consider myself fortunate to have never been lifted up and carried across the street, which happened to a friend of mine many years ago.
Some might say that obtaining permission or coordinating consent must be tedious. That’s not how I’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced asking and giving permission as gentle, caring, chastely sensual, charming, and filled with fun and laughter–and sometimes all of these. The act of asking for or giving permission with touch respects personal space, but it also has the capacity to forge a bond between people, if only for that moment. The voice is a powerful tool for those who can use it and those who can hear it.
Just for the record: Contrary to outmoded beliefs perpetuated by popular culture, I do not walk around touching people’s faces or clothes. Faces, in particular, tell me little about the person as they are much less interestingly tactile than they are visually. In terms of interest, clothes are quite another story, though I still don’t go around touching people’s outfits willy-nilly. After all, I just said that I don’t like being touched willy-nilly, so….
To be able to examine someone’s outfit with full permission in a safe and friendly space was a pleasure. There was light laughter and ribbing about the apparent (though not real) impropriety implied, plus amazement on my part that anyone could stand on those spike heels. Even as I touched her outfit, I asked her permission to touch each part of it, not because I was touching “inappropriate” places, but because it felt natural to do so.