topher
Man and woman giving high five across a table, seen through a wet window.

My son, give attention to my words; Incline your ear to my sayings.

Proverbs 4:20

If this your first experience with this series “Letters to my son” you may want to start with the preface, it’ll explain a lot about what’s going on here. Let’s get started.

For all of history men have had a problem with keeping their hands off women. We’re going to talk about when and how to touch women in a variety of relationships with you, but first we’re going to talk about why these boundaries are good to learn, and discuss the concept of Consent.

The Reasons

Why do we have boundaries regarding touching? Because people should have authority and control over who touches them, how, and why. It’s that simple. People don’t have the right to touch you, and you don’t have the right to touch other people.

Now obviously, people touch each other all the time. Let’s talk about that.

Consent

Consent is simply permission. People give each other permission to touch, and touch in different ways and times. Most people have implicit consent to hug family (but not always). At various stages of a relationship you may have consent to hold hands, hug, kiss, caress hair, and so on.

But here’s something very very important.

Any level of consent can be revoked at any time, for any reason, no explanation necessary.

Read that again, it’s important.

So the girl you held hands with last night at the party may tell you she doesn’t want that anymore. Your wife may need some space and not want to kiss you goodbye for work. Your girlfriend may not want to cuddle anymore.

And they don’t owe you an explanation. It’s their body, they don’t want to be touched. Respect that.

Here’s something else that’s important. Revocation of consent doesn’t have to mean there’s something wrong with your relationship, or that she doesn’t like you anymore. It might, but it doesn’t have to at all. Sometimes people just don’t want to be touched. The reasons are unlimited, but the key here is to not assume they hate you now. Give her time, give her space, and respect her wishes. If she is in fact grumpy with you, being kind and respectful is a huge way to earn back trust.

So let’s review. Except in certain circumstances (which we’ll discuss) you need consent before touching anyone, women especially. Consent is a gift, but they retain ownership, and can take it back whenever they want. You don’t earn consent, you earn trust. Trust can lead to consent, but maybe not.

Side note: People who are Not Black seem to really like to touch the hair of Black people. Personally I’ve never felt the draw, but you ask any Black person, man or woman, if people (usually White people) touch their hair and they’ll immediately roll their eyes in disgust and say “YES”.

Don’t touch anyone’s hair without permission, it’s rude. Keep in mind that Black people have it happen more often and be thoughtful.

Other side note: People tend to touch the large bellies of pregnant women without asking all the time. Don’t do that, it’s rude.

When To Touch

The baseline rule is, don’t touch. That’s it.

That said, I mentioned above there are times when it’s appropriate, and within those times there are limited ways in which it’s ok. It’s almost always related to getting her attention. Only do this if you NEED her attention, not if you merely WANT it. You’ll see what I mean below.

Scenario:
You’re in a crowded, loud place, she has her back to you, you can’t get around in front of her to catch her eye, you’ve tried saying “excuse me”, and the wait staff is coming up behind both of you and need to get through.

Solution:
My mother taught me (by doing this to me for the same reasons) that you can spread your fingers wide enough that the palm of your hand can be at the forefront. Then you very briefly touch an upper shoulder. As soon as she reacts (which will probably be almost immediately), you withdraw your hand, apologize, and motion to indicate what you needed her to see. Don’t let your hand linger.

Scenario:
You’re sitting next to someone in a quiet room like a meeting or classroom and need to get their attention.

Solution:
You can simply briefly touch the back of your knuckles against a forearm or upper arm/shoulder. Again, don’t linger, and remove as soon as they react.

Note the commonality of not being able to use your voice or get their attention visually. Touching is a last resort.

Thoughts On Handshakes

According to Western common social rules, men can request a handshake of other men by sticking out their own hand. Then not shaking it is rude. A man should never offer his hand to a women to shake. The choice is hers whether hands are shaken, and she indicates her choice by offering her hand. The consent here is for a normal handshake. Don’t hold on, don’t caress, don’t crush. Just be normal and then let go.

Thoughts on Hugs

Hugs are usually reserved for well known associates and closer. Ironically, asking about a hug is a little more socially acceptable than asking about a handshake.

If it’s just the two of you, and you’ve spent some time together and had a good time, and you’re separating, it’s not inappropriate to ask “Are you a hugger?” Just don’t make whatever happens next weird, regardless of yes or no. If she says no, simply accept that and move on. If she says yes, a light embrace for just a second or so and back away. Try to keep your hands above the middle of her back, it’s less intimate. If it’s possible, keep your bodies a little apart, you’re not cuddling.

The relative intimacy of a hug depends on your relationship, just like everything else. A good friend might get a hug without the ask, because you’ve settled that. Maybe they get an extra squeeze. Girlfriends, wives, mothers; they all get their own level of intimacy, but there’s something key in EVERY relationship you have: take cues from the woman. If you hug someone and they don’t like it, you’ll probably know immediately. If it’s appropriate, apologize. Sometimes it’s not, sometimes they want to pretend it didn’t happen. Then you can (or maybe not) apologize later in private.

Pay attention to how they respond and act accordingly and you should be ok.

Make Her Feel Comfortable And Safe

Many women feel inherently unsafe around men because they’ve experienced consistent bad behavior. Your goal should NOT be to gain trust so you can touch. That is its own level of creepy. Your goal should be to make them feel comfortable and safe. This will bring a little peace and happiness.

You can facilitate this by behaving well, and communicating subtly that it’s on purpose. When you ask before hugging, when you do NOT kiss their cheek when going in for a hug, when you simply don’t touch without consent they begin to understand that MAYBE you can be trusted. Trust takes time to earn though.

The Male Gaze

This isn’t about touching, but it can be just as creepy and uncomfortable for the woman. The Male Gaze is more than just looking at a woman, it’s the look that evaluates her as a sexual partner. The roving eye, the stare. This actually happens a lot more than inappropriate touching because it can be done at a distance and then shrugged off as “I just looked at her, what’s the big deal?”. The Male Gaze is more than just looking, and everyone knows it.

Let’s talk about how to avoid it. Attractive people draw the eye, that’s the way attractiveness works. That said, a glance is all you need to know what someone looks like. Here are some fundamental rules:

  • Don’t stare. Not at anyone, for any reason. They don’t like it.
  • Unless you have a good reason, don’t look at a woman’s breasts. The phrase “my eyes are up here” is a cliché for a reason.
  • Don’t sexualize a look. People dress nice because they want to look nice. You can look, and you can appreciate that niceness without making it about sex.

Thoughts on Compliments

First off, for the most part you don’t need to compliment a woman you don’t know, especially about how she looks. That said, in the right circumstance it can be acceptable. I recently rode in an elevator in my own apartment building with a woman I’d never met. Her jeans had art drawn all over them, and I could kind of tell by perspective that she’s probably done it by hand while wearing them. I said “Those are super cool jeans!” and she said “Thanks!” and we never discussed it again.

There’s an art to complimenting the way a woman looks without making it weird. Similar to many things above, a key is to not make it about sex. Additionally, the depth of your relationship really matters.

“Nice legs” is almost always wrong. “That’s a great jacket” is probably going to be fine. “Those are great shoes!” is probably going to be fine as well.

If you feel compelled to compliment try to find something they’re probably proud of, or would be happy to know someone noticed. Earrings, funky socks, a funny tshirt, a great purse, etc.

Unknowns

Different cultures have different rules, and if you’re not familiar with them you can make mistakes.

In many Asian countries you don’t touch someone else’s head. In some cultures that’s a dominance action.

A saree is a kind of dress often worn in India and other nearby nations, but people from there wear them all over the world. The top often looks a bit like a wrap, with a tail over the shoulder. It’s VERY rude to touch the saree. In some places it can be viewed as trying to disrobe her, and the consequences can be severe.

Don’t touch people’s wheelchairs. Or crutches. Or anything else that is ostensibly an extention of them. Just like their bodies, they need agency over them, and the ability to remain in complete control.

If you make a mistake, you’ll PROBABLY get a free pass once. Just make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Benefits To You

If you’re doing any of this for your own benefit you’re doing it wrong. Women put up with a lot of garbage from men in this world, they deserve to have this part be all about them.

That said, there will be some benefits to you. When women don’t feel sexualized, but rather respected as people, they tend to open up and communicate more, because you become a safe space. This leads to stronger, deeper friendships and acquaintances. These relationships over time will give you a richer life with a wider perspective of the world. The value of this cannot be over stated.

Quality relationships with women will make your life better. That’s all there is to it.

Does this mean women can’t be sexual? Of course not. The key is that it’s on their terms in their time, and they owe you nothing.

Summary

Don’t touch if you don’t need to. Don’t stare. Pay attention to subtle cues of discomfort. Be kind.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

View all posts in this series

2 thoughts on “Human Touch and Interacting with Women Appropriately

  1. Thank you for this, Topher. For thinking through such an important issue, for taking the effort to articulate it, research it, reflect on it and then publish it. A lot of the problems that the other genders face get the response that cis men have not been taught any different. This has been going on for centuries in cultures around the world. It starts now, it starts with good men like you trying to redefine what masculinity can and should look like. So thank you.

  2. I loved reading this, Thank you for writing. There are many things we can unknowingly do which can hurt the other person.

    After a long time i found a good read, i validated and observed alot of things.

    Following your series

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