Bodily Autonomy

My friend Judi Miller teaches high-school English in Ohio. Besides being smart and wickedly funny, she has a knack for finding the nicest possible way to deal directly with unpleasant issues. What follows is her account of a recent situation in her classroom; I think it is the best explanation of bodily autonomy I have seen.

CAUTION: Judi writes what her teens said, including some very coarse language. After serious consideration, I have chosen to share this account as Judi wrote it. Grownups, please read and decide whether to share with your kids and how best to do it, but in my opinion EVERY kid needs to know this story; as Judi explains, the problem begins way before high school.

With respect,

(posted by Judi Miller in May 2014)

My proudest moment of teaching all year: Today, after my first class had finished up, “Johnny” kept poking at and tickling the girl sitting next to him. She kept asking him to stop, and he wouldn’t, despite my having redirected him a couple of times. Johnny said, “I want to handcuff you and tickle you until you scream,” and then said, “What? What, Ms. Judi? Why you making that face?”

I said, “Your last comment made me feel very uncomfortable, Johnny.”

He said, “What? I didn’t say anything wrong.”

I explained, “Johnny, when you say to a woman who says ‘No’ to you that you’re going to restrain her with handcuffs and touch her without her permission until she screams, that sounds really rape-y to me.”

“Naw! Ms. Judi, that’s all messed up!” Johnny protested. “I didn’t mean it that way; it’s like on TV when a guy and a girl are having fun together.”

I said, “On TV, Johnny, you’re seeing a fantasy. If BOTH partners consent, it’s all cool. But every person deserves to have what we call BODY AUTONOMY. That means, you have a say in who touches you, in what medical procedures happen to you, how far you’re willing to go. In my family, if someone says ‘Stop tickling,’ we do, because consent is important to fun. If it’s all fun for you, and not for your partner, you aren’t listening to her needs, and you’re being entitled. You only care about yourself in a narcissistic way.”

Johnny said, “But she and I are cool, aren’t we girl?” The girl raised her head, and looked uncertain.

I said to the girl, “Is this where you get to say, ‘It’s okay, Ms. Judi,’ to spare his feelings, or to keep him from targeting you again?” She opened her mouth and shut it. “Answer me this: Did you in fact tell Johnny ‘No’ to being touched and tickled?”

“Yes,” whispered the girl.

“Did you mean it?” I prodded.

“Yes,” she said, more strongly.

“Did you say ‘No,” because you secretly wanted him to keep tickling you?” I asked.

“I said ‘No’ because I didn’t fucking want him to fucking touch me again!” she suddenly snarled. “But it doesn’t matter anyway, because he’s going to do whatever the fuck he wants anyway no matter what I say!”

I turned back to Johnny. “And here, sir, is the crux of the problem. You didn’t listen to her, and made her feel she had to take whatever you dished out.”

“Oh. My. God. Why are we even talking about this?” exclaimed Johnny, angry and upset.

“Johnny, you asked me, and I’m answering, and I think you’re a nice guy that NEEDS to hear this. Because you’re big, and male, and ‘just joking,’ you get away with pushing boundaries again and again and again, which undermines each time a woman says ‘No’ to you. If you don’t respect her bodily autonomy when she says no tickling, or no touching, or to leave her alone, then will you respect her saying no when she doesn’t want to hug, or kiss, or get it on after a date, or when she says no but she’s been drinking? The pattern is the same. And NOT respecting her boundaries means you think that women are for your use, property, to be used and discarded and who cares who is hurt as long as YOU have fun and enjoy yourself. There’s the connection to rape. The mindset builds up from all the hundreds of times little boys kissed a cute girl or pinched her, or tickled her when she wanted to be let be, and someone gushed, ‘boys will be boys,’ or ‘that’s how he shows he likes her,’ whether or not SHE wanted the attention.”

“So, I’m never allowed to tickle again, is that what you’re saying?” Johnny said sarcastically.

“No, I’m asking you to LISTEN to what SHE says about her comfort level. If you tickle a girl and she laughs, and says something like, ‘Oooh! I’ll get you back!’ that’s an invitation. If she says ‘Stop it, I don’t feel like this right now,” I expect that you pay attention to what she wants, or doesn’t. Respect her bodily autonomy.”

Johnny stared at his desk. I said, “Thank you for listening to what I had to say. You’ve always been respectful to me in my classroom, even when you’re mad at me. I’m asking you to extend that respect, and courtesy to the women of your age, too.”

Class ended. They went out. All the girls of the class lingered a moment. “Thank you,” said one. “I hadn’t heard that thing about bodily autonomy before. This was like, better than one of our groups.” The girl who’d sat next to Johnny said, “I wasn’t going to make it out to be a big deal, but I was fed up with him today. Thank you. I hope he isn’t an asshole about it though, I can’t handle that today.”

And I went on teaching my other classes. But right before lunch, in the hall, something happened.

A boy from a different class started an argument with his girlfriend, because she wouldn’t hug him as they passed one another. “What? You’re my girl and you won’t give me any sugar?” and he grabbed her wrist.

Before ANY staff could react, Johnny was right there. “Yo, bro. That ain’t cool. If she doesn’t want to hug right now, that’s on her. You got no call to get mad at her. You don’t own her ass, or her. She gets to decide if she feels like hugging you, kissing you, whatever. It’s called BODILY AUTONOMY, asshole.”

“I take what I want,” said the boy.

“What? You some kind of rapist that you gotta TAKE what you want? No wonder she don’t want to hug you if you won’t take NO for an answer!” Johnny said scornfully. “What else you gonna TAKE from her? Her dignity? Her body? Her feelings of safety? You supposed to PROTECT your girl, not MAKE her do shit.”

The boy, noting all the sudden attention, drops the girl’s arm. He muttered, “Yeah, whatEVER, man,” and walked away.

And I caught Johnny’s eye, and I said, “Thank you for listening to me this morning, and really considering what I said. You’ve made me really proud of you today.”