Sexuality in Color: Bodies, Boundaries, and Microaggressions

the sexuality in color graphic

I would consider myself an introvert. While I am interested in and fairly good at connecting with others, I tend to feel less comfortable with new people and in new environments. And because of the combination of my anxiety with the fair, poor, and sometimes hateful/violent treatment that I’ve received in public, I tend to feel more on edge and distracted when I’m out and about. Even if there’s nothing bad happening, and no one around me is paying me any sort of negative attention, my anxiety tends to make me feel like everyone is looking at me or that I stick out like a sore thumb.

This anxiety is informed by a history of interactions where I was made to feel awkward, uncomfortable, or even unsafe because someone decided to treat me differently. These are microaggressions —small everyday interactions that reinforce prejudice, discrimination, and othering of marginalized people — and can be committed totally by accident, without meaning to, or even by other people from marginalized backgrounds. A lot of the time they happen at the hands of someone who didn’t mean any harm at all; friends, coworkers, family, or overly enthusiastic strangers in the grocery store.

I recently experienced some microaggressions that specifically brought up thoughts about bodies and boundaries.

A while back, my partner and I went to a bar where she would be performing in a show. There was another show still finishing up when we arrived, and many of the actors were having a drink and practicing their lines in the main bar area. My partner had to go outside to practice lines with one of her scene partners (as it was very loud in the bar), so I took a second by myself to sip my drink and check on my texts/Facebook on my phone. Because of a recent leg injury, I was using a wheelchair.

Within seconds, a white male member of the production came up to me and said, “Hey love, how’s it going?” I wasn’t expecting him to try and hug me, and wasn’t particularly mobile, so I had to just sit there. His arms were wrapped awkwardly around mine, pinning my arms at my sides. I remember his words running through my head and thinking: When did you earn the right to call me ‘love’? Do you love me? Do you think I love you? Were you looking to share a hug or just to hug my body? You didn’t even pause to allow me the option. I cannot opt out of this hug.

All this from someone that I’ve talked to maybe three times in my life. Predictably, before I could get a word in to respond with how I was doing, he had spotted another friend and wandered off.

Fast forward to a few minutes later, when a young white actress nearby asked me if I could help her run lines. I said was happy to do so and moved closer to the table where she was sitting so I could hold her script. As we started to go through the scene, she started to repeatedly put her hand on my knee. She seemed to be concentrating deeply, trying to remember the lines she had memorized, but every so often she would touch my knee for emphasis or rest her arm on it. I found myself, once again, feeling confused and a little trapped, thinking: Why does this person think that it’s okay to touch me like this? Does she not realize that this is weird? Does she not care?

Being in my wheelchair, my knees/legs were the closest part of my body to her at that moment, but it felt particularly strange that she was choosing to repeatedly touch a part of the body that you don’t tend to touch on strangers or casual acquaintances. This was someone that I knew to be straight and in a monogamous relationship, who I was fairly sure didn’t know my last name, who was using my legs as the equivalent of an armrest. I had to unlock my chair’s wheels and roll myself backwards to put some space in between the two of us. She didn’t seem to notice.

I should also point out, I’m not a touch-averse person in general. I’m actually very physically intimate with people that I know and love; I will snuggle, hold hands, hug, kiss, and lay my head on the shoulders of romantic and platonic companions alike (with consent!). When my friends showed up to the bar and interrupted our line practice, I enthusiastically hugged them to say hello (while also being quietly grateful that there were more comfortable humans for me to interact with).

The rest of the night went alright, and we had a good time, but it got me thinking about boundaries and interacting with strangers in public. I found myself wondering how those interactions were informed by my visible characteristics, and how they would have been different if I hadn’t been in my wheelchair, or if I wasn’t visibly brown or fat or queer. What if everything was the same except I was white and passed for straight? What if I had been using my cane instead? What if I always used a wheelchair rather than being temporarily unable to use my leg? It’s hard to imagine what would happen in those scenarios, just like it’s pretty much impossible to separate out the different aspects of your identity into discrete categories.

Moments like these aren’t rare for people with marginalized identities; people of color, queer and trans folks, disabled people, and others all have to deal with their boundaries being overstepped by friends and strangers alike. It might not seem like that big of a deal as an isolated incident, but when it’s repeated and combined with the daily battles of institutionalized oppression, it really starts to wear on a person. These microaggressions become particularly harmful when they impact our sense of bodily autonomy and personal space, which happens in interactions involving the most basic physical form that we occupy — our bodies.

Here are just a few common examples of marginalized folks getting their boundaries violated by strangers, acquaintances, or even friends:

  • Black folks who deal with others touching their hair without consent, when there is a long history of violence, dehumanization, and voyeurism towards Black bodies.
  • People of color (especially women and femmes) who deal with lots of questions and “compliments” about their hair/skin/nails, which thinly veil exotification of their bodies.
  • Disabled folks who deal with people questioning/distracting/trying to pet their working service dogs, who are simply existing in public and go about life normally.
  • Queer and trans people dealing with invasive questions about their identities, genitals, sex lives, or (assumed) transition process that would be wholly inappropriate to ask a cisgender straight person whom you don’t know that well.

The examples above are particularly insidious because they specifically involve aspects of these individuals’ identities and lived experiences. Sure, it’s weird and/or upsetting anytime someone acts inappropriately or violates your personal space, but it’s even weirder when you know it’s because you’re disabled, or queer, or fat, or all three.

Maybe this phenomenon of touching everyone semi-intimately is a cultural norm for this particular group of actors, and they were trying to make me feel more comfortable as someone who was not like them. Maybe they were overcompensating because they realized that I was the only queer, brown, visibly impaired person in the room, and they wanted to be extra friendly. If so, I appreciate that effort, but wish they had taken a second to think about whether or not I wanted to be hugged or touched.

As someone who talks with young people almost every day about consent and boundaries in a sexual context, I thought these experiences were a good reminder of how boundaries and bodily autonomy inform our interactions in everyday life. It really can be easy to forget that everyone has different preferences when it comes to if, when, and how they like to be touched, and when it’s at all possible, we need to try and communicate about that first rather than making assumptions.

Thinking about this ideal scenario, here’s how I wish the night had gone:

Person A: Hi, Al! How are you doing? Do you want a hug? Are you a hugger?
Me: Hi, Person A! I’m doing alright! Actually, I feel awkward hugging people from down here, so let me give you a double high-five.
Person A: *double high-fives me and it’s great*

Person B: Hi, it’s Al, right? Would you mind helping me practice lines?
Al: Yeah, and you’re Person B! I’d be happy to read lines with you!
Person B: *reviews lines and does not touch my body at all* Thank you for your help! Can I get you another drink?

If you read through the above interactions and think to yourself, That sounds kind of awkward, that would never happen in real life, I understand. But I’ll also say this — it feels like that would never happen in real life because we’re socialized to see that behavior as awkward. We’re brought up to think that hugging someone that you’re friendly with is the norm, and that if we’d be okay with a certain type of touch from someone, they feel the same way. But it doesn’t have to be like that. (And in many other areas of the world and non-Western societies, it isn’t.)

We (yes! You, me, Person A, and Person B!) can choose to make a habit of thinking about a person’s boundaries and relationship to us before we reach out and touch them. We can choose to ask rather than making assumptions about what people are comfortable with, and we can educate ourselves about how to interact respectfully and appropriately with others, especially if they come from marginalized backgrounds. The more we consciously build consent and individually-defined boundaries into our everyday interactions, the more we are able to communicate and interact socially in a way that is comfortable and enjoyable for everyone involved.


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