Variations on a theme: How can I get my “friends” to stop touching me? (Question #76)


This came into the Captain Awkward mailbox last night.  It seems like we’re all in the mood to Hulk out and get people to stop touching other people, so have at it, commenters.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a recurring problem when it comes to friends. It’s been a problem from the very beginning, as far as I know, and I’ve never been able to fix it. For now, it’s gone, but I know it’s going to come back.The problem is, essentially, that my friends will not stop touching me in ways I don’t like. Granted, I don’t like being touched at all.

But these people insist on doing things like stealing my hat every time he sees me (which led to me not wearing my favorite hat for several years until he graduated), poking me every time he sees me (this guy actually admitted that he A) only pokes women and B) waits until a woman puts on her angry voice to actually listen to her; I wish I’d had the guts to punch him in the face), and hugging me even though we’ve had a conversation about how I don’t like it when he hugs me and I want him to please stop AND I’m standing there doing the awkward trying-not-to-touch-you-back-pat. These are three different guys, three examples of people who won’t stop even though I’ve asked them to, told them to, and finally (in one case) yelled at them to. They’re also just three in a lifelong line of people who won’t leave my body alone, and who won’t listen to me. 

My plan is to not tolerate these people anymore, and to keep my distance when they show up in the future. But I’ve had this plan before, and obviously it didn’t work. And for a couple of reasons I can’t get them to leave me alone. One is, we run in the same circles of friends, so I can’t really just cut them out of my life (or can I?). The other is, I’ve known so many people who only escalate after I ask them to stop that I now feel like asking them to stop is only asking for it to get worse. I’ve had to get physical with a lot of people. I really don’t want to have to hit anymore to get people to get their goddamn hands off my body, but what am I supposed to do? I can’t get angry. I just can’t. Not in the moment–I shut down like a security camera with a miswired motion detector, and it’s only later that I realize what I should have done. By then, it’s too late to confront them, and it’s turned into a pattern and what am I supposed to do then?

My problem isn’t really these people, as they’ve all graduated and I don’t have to see them again ever (yippee!), it’s really that I keep letting them turn into my friends. Maybe I can’t see the warning signs? Maybe I just don’t realize how much of a problem it really is until months, years, later? I don’t know. But I’m really sick of it. I know what I’m supposed to do, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I think I need to learn to be a bitch when appropriate. But how am I supposed to reverse a lifetime of that Mandatory Meekness Training every girl has to suffer through, on top of good ol’ ordinary shyness?

(And, any chance I can get my family to stop it, too? It was cute when I was five, but Grandma, my butt isn’t out there to be patted anymore, thanks.)

Tired of Being Touched by Everybody and Their Mother

Hello, Tired!

Your question is very topical this week!  I think you’ll find a lot of great advice from Jill and the commenters in this post.

And we’ve talked about inappropriate touching before on the blog:

Some therapy around assertiveness training might help you feel more comfortable setting boundaries, and if you are still at college you might be able to access it for free through your school’s counseling center, though if you are asking the people to stop you are being direct and brave and the problem is not you. What I mean to say:  I recommend therapy not because I think you are doing it wrong, but because I think it may help you carry less anxiety around setting boundaries.

But the problem is also that you cannot control how other people will behave, you can only control how you behave.  So really, you answered your own question:

We run in the same social circles, so I can’t just cut them out of my life (or can i?)…

The answer is that yup, you can.  I’m not saying it’s easy.  It’s not fair that in losing these guys from your life you might have to risk losing or alienating your friends, or being seen as “the bitch” or the one who makes it weird and ruins the fun (by protecting your own safety).

I’m probably going to be linking to these posts until I am very old, but 1)  Predators operate in spaces where their behavior is excused and they know they won’t be called out and 2) women are definitely taught not to resist people who invade their boundaries.  Your “friend” who only pokes women and who gets a rise out of their anger is a budding sexual predator, and if this behavior is allowed to continue by his social group pretty soon he’ll be….I’m not going to finish that sentence, because it involves the word “poking” again and I just can’t even think about it before coffee today.  Your other two “friends” are trying to flirt. They are doing it badly. They have decided that negative attention from women is better than no attention and that it is all cute and funny, except for the part where it stresses you out and hurts your feelings and that doesn’t matter because everyone’s Just Kidding Around, right?




If these guys have graduated, you don’t have to worry about them anymore, but I’m going to give you a script for the next time you are touched by a Touching Toucher.

Toucher:  (touches you)
You:  Please don’t do that.
Toucher:  What, I’m just kidding!  Come on.  (touches you again).
You:  Okay, we’re done here.

And then you turn around and walk away from the person.  Walk out of the room.  Walk out of the building.  Go stand by friends you trust, if you can.

If your friends ask you, “Hey, why are you leaving?” tell them “_____ keeps touching me, even though I asked him not to.”

If they say “Hey, come on, don’t leave, why are you making such a big deal?” say “It is a really big deal to me and I don’t feel safe here.  I gotta go.”

If the Toucher follows you and wants to apologize and keep engaging, you say “Listen, I asked you clearly to stop, and you did not stop. That tells me that you don’t care what I want.  That is scary and unsafe to me.  So why should I keep interacting with you?”

Alternate scripts:

“I don’t care if you were joking, you were making me uncomfortable, so it was not a funny joke.”

See also:  “I don’t care if you are a socially awkward guy who has trouble meeting women, or, honestly, WHAT was going through your mind.  Stop touching me.”  BEING TOTALLY OBLIVIOUS IS NOT A FREE PASS.

A person who cares about you, a person you want in your life, a person who may have honestly fucked up with a playful attempt at flirting that gets rebuffed, will immediately say “I’m sorry!” and knock it off.

Risk being a bitch for your own safety.  Risk making it weird.  Risk asking your actual friends to have your back.  You aren’t doing anything wrong!  You are just setting a boundary and making people respect it.  You aren’t hurting anyone’s feelings!  Or, if you are, tough titties – the feelings of people who ignore your clearly stated wishes are not worth worrying about.  Find your inner HULK. Let “no” be a complete sentence.

I realize that goes against all of your socialization up until now, and that it won’t be easy.  It may involve a lot of role-playing with friends and a lot of deep breaths. But you are in the right, and you will be so much happier once you can establish habits of enforcing your boundaries and expecting people to follow through. You can learn this behavior.  You can’t make people stop being assholes, but you can make them stop doing it around you.

And the next time your Grandma pats your butt, say “Knock it off, Grandma” and if she does it again, excuse yourself from the room for a while, and then later talk to her about it.  “Grandma, I know you love me and that’s one of the ways you show love, but it makes me uncomfortable and I’d like you to stop.”  There might be grumbles and there might be a next time she does it, at which point you can say “I know we talked about this.”  Leave the room as necessary.  Maybe you’ll ruin Christmas!  Except you won’t be ruining Christmas, because Handsy Grandma should be keeping it to her fucking self.

42 thoughts on “Variations on a theme: How can I get my “friends” to stop touching me? (Question #76)

  1. I have similar issues with touching. I make a point to keep a comfortable three feet of distance between myself and those I don’t want to touch me. I move away when these people move in. I also get very scary DO.NOT.TOUCH.ME looks on my face, and they feel weird, but they don’t touch me. Also, for people like the friends described above, I made sure our mutual friends understood how incredibly uncomfortable unwanted touching made me, and they were the kind of stand up folks who had the awkward conversation for me, so I looked like less of a bitch, and more of a nice girl who didn’t want to be mean, but still didn’t want to be touched. It helps if you have friends who back you up on this.

    As for the grandma thing… honestly I can’t empathize, because I loved the hell out of my grandma and familial physical contact doesn’t bother me. However, Captain Awkward is spot-on. You just have to make it clear to your family, and be ready for the reactions if you have to leave to make the point. The bottom line is that you need to feel comfortable in your own body, and if you have to be “The Bitch” to get that done, that’s what you need to do.

    1. I also HATE HATE HATE to be touched (with very few exceptions, VERY close friends, husband, a few family members). What works for keeping most people away is glaring at them if they start getting too close. Apparently I have a fearsome glare (one friend calls it the Deathglare) and that usually works. When it doesn’t work? I usually have no clue what to do and freeze up. I’m definitely going to be using some of the Capt’s advice from this post!

  2. I just want to respond to the commenter’s line “I shut down like a security camera with a miswired motion detector…” I totally know what you mean. Same here. And I want to say that enlisting friends to help you role-play this stuff is my favorite part of the Captain’s advice this week. It feels dorky and awkward, and it’s hard to believe that play-acting w/ a trusted friend will help you prepare for a situation where you have to improvise with a non-trusted non-friend, but it really is a helpful thing to do.

  3. Dear Tired of Being Touched,

    First, I am so sorry you have to deal with people doing this to you. I really empathize with your perception of “shutting down” when someone crosses your boundaries.

    Personally, I had great success with taking a few aikido courses when I was younger. The whole idea of aikido is to use your opponent’s momentum against them, and part of that is learning how to slip away from people who come up behind you or to the side of you. Something like that might really help you learn effective body language to shut down these types of touchers.

    Having broken down the barriers that made me freeze up when people get handsy with me, what I do today is usually to evade the touch, shake off the hands of the person touching me, or in extreme situations, to grab the offending hand. Then, I look the handsy person in the eye, with a harmless polite expression, and say, “Whoa, were you just trying to touch me? I really don’t like that.”

    Since you mentioned that you may not see the warning signs of a handsy person, well, I don’t either. So I just react in an obviously unwilling way the first time someone touches me and try to set boundaries when it occurs.

    Good luck, and I know you can get control over these situations if you train your reactions!

    1. Thank you for this crucial piece of the pie – grabbing the person’s hand and stopping the touch in action – and for a script for stopping it in the moment.

    2. I agree. that’s usually where self-help and blame-the-victim psychology gets EVERYTHING wrong: there are NO warning signs. Red flags only exist in real-time and in hindsight, which puts anyone with less power and energy at a disadvantage. Of course that fact is largely invisible to the people who write that crap because they’re never targets for anti-social behavior, so they spend all their time looking through and framing things from the Dominant lens. Thank god a few people like Gavin de Baeker are bothering to get it right by looking at the perps. You can’t defend yourself in the moment by changing who you are and trying not to “seem like a victim”, especially in a society where “potential victim” is synonymous to “person who looks like you,”

      I think this applies to both women and introverts. And this girl sounds like an introvert. And here’s my take on part of the problem:

      Some introverts FREEZE.

      Psychology ignored freezing as a normal response for a LONG time, and regular assertiveness training still does if you ask me. Much of self-help assertiveness ignores introversion as a factor. IMO, for the most part it’s based on the concept of persistence against the persistent disruption. Introverts have less energy to act out, they’re poor multi-taskers, and generally have a slower response time to anything requiring output . I.e., it’s impossible to actually follow through on what they’re taught because it assumes they’re someone else to begin with.

      Introverts don’t follow a fight or flight pattern, and neither do conscientious or compliant people, as many of introverts and women are. I think they physically cannot respond as quickly as someone else, partly because they’re unprepared, and partly because they are physically in shock. Instead, they literally go blank. My theory is that unexpected disruption throws off their normal pattern, as does the hormonal cocktail of fear. It’s an amped-up mixture that for extroverts, is at least chemically similar to what’s running through their brains all the time. For introverts, it’s not a combination that’s normal or sometimes even bearable, and certainly not for long or frequent periods of time.

      However, things like physical training and rehearsal can become useful habits without attempting to contort or reform your personality. (This is as opposed to self-esteem courses, which is what some of assertiveness courses really are, which is funny because sometimes you can’t even get into these situations without a modicum of self-confidence…)
      These classes are specifically designed with unrehearsed confrontation in mind, not just assuming you’re a weak dope and trying to get you to feel better about yourself with stock phrases and exercise.

  4. I feel ya on the grandma thing. As CA knows I have my moments where I just cannot be touched by somebody no matter how much I love them. Now combine that with an old school Italian grandma. Together we fight crime!

    One thing that would help in this situation is knowing how your family communicates. Have you tried telling them “Look, I love you but I don’t like being touched?” Also, do they know why you don’t like it? (Not saying you have to tell them, just that I don’t know if this is something that’s common knowledge.) Some members of my family and I are very good at meta communication. I can say I’m having a bad brain moment, please don’t touch me, and they’ll get it.

    Now with Grams, on the other hand, not so much. Any form of boundary-setting can be used to cue off a verse or two about why don’t we love her, she didn’t mean to do anything wrong, WAAAAAAAHHHH. At which point, like most dealings with Grams, it becomes a matter of picking my battles.

    30+ years of experience tells me she’s not going to change her behaviors, so I just have to accept her behaviors as a given and decide how I want to handle them. Maybe this means sitting in a chair where she can’t sit next to me and grab my hand, maybe it means deflecting and distracting by grabbing photos to go through and talk about, maybe it means fibbing and saying I think I’m coming down with a cold and I don’t want to risk her catching it, whatever.

    Point being that I’m not saying you should do exactly those things, just that it might help to look over the landscape, figure out what may or may not change, and then plan your actions accordingly.

  5. It’s strange to me as a man to read these threads because of course in guy culture if another guy touches me and I say “Don’t touch me” and he touches me again the conversation in the room is likely to suddenly stop while everyone waits to see if I’m going to do something completely fucking crazy in response to being touched after I made it clear I wasn’t OK with it.

    My point being, I think guys know, in the abstract, that continuing to touch someone who has clearly asked not to be touched is not OK, and that it is in fact a big deal. It’s just that we think, often correctly, that women lack any clear means of enforcing their boundary, thus we can just ignore it.

    1. The missing piece is empathy, and respecting women as full human beings. Because what happens when we get touched and speak up about it is that suddenly it becomes a conversation about “Why are you being so sensitive and ruining everyone’s fun, he was only kidding…” and we never know if anyone is going to have our backs.

      Now, I am surrounded by awesome men and I never, ever, ever worry that my friends would not have my back (or that they would touch where it is not expressly invited) but that involved a culling process and back in college I could not take that for granted. The men might not have my back, and the women might not have my back, either, because they didn’t want to piss off the men or make themselves targets.

      1. Absolutely. Once someone gets out into the big wide world, it will be easier for them to find a group of people who don’t accept inappropriate touching of men or women. But, high school and college can be way too small a pool to choose from.

        And, I just realized the extent to which I try to be “masculine” when showing my dislike of people who touch me without my consent. Yes, it’s the exact same set of techniques taught in women’s self-defense classes, but I definitely think of it as trying to act explicitly tough and “unfeminine”.

      2. I have had this issue with a lady acquaintance who actually told me at one point she enjoys testing people’s boundaries, throwing them off balance, making them uncomfortable, etc., and she did this both physically (brushing up against people, touching them a lot, etc.) and verbally (conversations that weren’t appropriate for the situation) — but I always found her jocularity sort of endearing. Note the past tense. We had a fight a few months ago, and a few weeks after our last contact — a really unpleasant e-mail exchange — she snuck up behind me at a party and pressed her knee into the back of my leg, not hard enough to hurt but hard enough to get my knee to bend. And it was like, Hey, I’ve been avoiding you all night but now I HAVE to pay attention to you! This approach is no longer cute. And if a guy did something similar, in a similar context, I don’t think I would have done what I did do, which was play along and engage her in small talk. It’s that much more frustrating, because I also know that she knows better and most likely would not like someone pressing up behind her without her consent. (Or maybe she would, but she isn’t me.)

        Point being, ladies sometimes use this kind of socialization against each other (like the LW’s grandma, for that matter). I worry that standing up to this woman could result in bystanders saying, “Ooooh, CAT FIGHT!” or just “Hey, what’s your deal?” Which is just as dismissive as “Man, don’t be so uptight,” or “Have a sense of humor” when pushing back against a handsy dude, and not something real friends should do. But this thread has given me some good ideas about how to deal with this politely (or not, if it gets to that point) in the future.

        1. That lady sounds like a nightmare. The next time she does something weird, call her out in a “Wow, that’s really weird and awkward! Why are you doing that?”

          1. Tip of the nightmare iceberg, about which I will say only, Thank you for making me aware of Think Like a Black Belt! I like the idea of asking a question as a response to being put on the spot.

  6. If you get the chance, take a women’s self-defense class — it will definitely help with this. such classes are not just for learning physical moves, but for practicing assertiveness techniques and ways to defend yourself with your words in unsafe or weird situations. Practicing responses to unwanted touches with a friend or a therapist (is this something therapists typically do? IDK) will also be a big help. You write that you “can’t get angry” in the moment when someone is being inappropriate, but I don’t think you have to worry so much about accessing some sort of authentic anger, and using that to guide your behavior. All you need is a limited repertoire of reactions that convey “don’t fuck with me.” If you still feel detached or stunned while the interactions are happening, that’s fine, as long as you “seem” serious.

    Also, stop beating yourself up so much over not reacting the right way to these touchers! You’ve done all you should need to do, and more, to convey your preferences to these people, and it’s not your fault that they’re acting like five-year-olds.

  7. Adding to the chorus that recommends role-play and practice, practice, practice. I teach blind/visually impaired children, and let me tell you that these kids get grabbed and pulled all the time from well-meaning but clueless people trying to “help.” We teach, role-play, and practice techniques to break and redirect a “helper’s” unwanted grasp, with variations from polite-but-firm to leave-me-alone to HELP! Kids can get pretty confident in a few practice sessions, and you can too.

    Also, you might try starting conversation by offering a handshake, which is friendly but discourages anything more intimate. Or when someone moves in for a hug, stick out your hand. You set the tone! It won’t do a thing for the deliberate boundary-crossers, of course, and probably isn’t how you want to handle Grandma, but it may give the merely clueless a clue about your desired level of physical contact.

    1. I want to second that the handshake response has worked really well for me. Dealing with a much-bigger than me overly huggy guy who gave me the creeps and wouldn’t take no for an answer, sticking my hand out was an effective way to interrupt the hug without being perceived as rude. He still gave me crap for it, but it was much easier to brush off since I was doing the bare minimum to still be polite. I also started to duck/step away, though I had to see it coming first.

  8. Captain Awkward, I wish you were writing this blog 12 years ago when I was in high school. I would have been better prepared to deal with Mr Creepyass history teacher getting a handful of my ass on a school trip. I think these posts are important particularly the parts where your responses explain that we don’t have to tolerate it just because the group we’re in does nothing. If I was inappropriately touched now, I’d probably land myself in jail for my reaction to it. I’m working on finding the sensible medium to doing nothing or massive HULK SMASH retaliation.

    To Tired and Not Humorless (from question 75), the Captain and guest respondent Jill provided some great advice. I hope things get easier for you now.

    1. We carry a lot of fears around setting boundaries, like:

      a) If I tell them to stop doing that thing, they won’t like me anymore.
      b) If I tell them to stop, they won’t stop – in fact, they’ll escalate – and I’ll be even more unsafe.

      Sadly, b is always possible, though confronting a bully about bad behavior removes that layer of “ha ha just kidding” plausible deniability from the situation and forces it to come out in the open. Then you can deal with the facts: You did something I didn’t like, I asked you to stop, and then you didn’t stop. Okay then. Now we know what we’re dealing with. It’s why some safety experts say that if you feel like you’re being followed on the street, instead of avoiding the person you should turn around and look at them directly in the face (or, stop and tie your shoe, or, stop and dial 911) which forces them to come out in the open about “Yes, I’m following you.” Obviously that is really, really scary and there’s no perfect way to handle it, but the safety experts say that by doing that you’re making yourself a more difficult victim. You’re not allowing them to choose their moment, you’re choosing it for them, and saying “I see you. The element of surprise is gone. Now what are you going to do?”

      As for a (people won’t like me anymore if I assert myself) – Most of the time it’s just not true. Asserting yourself helps you have a more honest relationship. It removes resentment. You stand a greater chance of getting what you need. You say “Hey, I need you to do _____” and the other person says “Sure, ok.” Or they say “no,” in which case, it’s out in the open and you can talk about it.

      1. Stopping on the street also allows you to find out if the person really is following you; if they have no bad intentions, they’ll just keep going on their way. It can give you peace of mind to weed non-followers out, that is. At the same time, that’s one of the things Gavin de Becker talks about–it’s better to be rude than be dead, and don’t second-guess yourself so much that you don’t protect yourself.

      2. I learned a really perverse version of #1: what if they think I don’t like them? Yup: I was emotionally blackmailed with other women and children from a young age and it’s worse against me than the rule as written. It’s basically the “b*tch” double-bind, but with extra victim-blaming pre-emptively in the mix.

  9. Excellent advice, Captain Awkward.

    LW, I would only add that you aren’t “letting” these guys do this–they know you don’t like it and they continue to do it. Short of tasing them, there are few ways you can physically enforce this without leaving–they are supposed to respect your wishes. I think following Captain Awkward’s advice is a good idea. These guys aren’t just huggy with everyone and forget themselves the first few times after learning about your desire to not be touched, with good faith efforts on their part to remember to make an exception of the hugginess with you. They just brush it off.

    And the d00d who admitted he only poked women, and only stopped when they got exceedingly pissed off with him? Holy fucking shit he needs a roundhouse kick to the face. (In general! NOT FROM YOU I SWEAR.) I actually did punch someone who kept poking me after I told him to stop it. He called me a bitch, and I called him an asshole for continuing to poke me when I had gone off on him the last time he’d done it.

  10. The more I read this sort of thing, the more I want to remind everyone that although not legal everywhere, they make tasers the size of cigarette lighters you can carry in your purse.

  11. I actually have a similar problem to the grandma thing – except that mine is with my mother. (I’m a student who’s between semesters, so right now I’m living at home.) She pinches and pokes me, and if I tell her to stop then I just need to stop being sensitive and lighten up – she gets annoyed with me when I tell her to do things like stop poking her head around the changing room door in a shop when she knows i am changing. Nudity isn’t a particularly big deal in my family the way it is elsewhere, but I respect other people’s boundaries in the big outside world and it really makes me uncomfortable the way that I’m somehow being unreasonable if I’m naked or partially clothed in my room with the door closed and it is always going to be totally okay for her to walk in without knocking and leave the door open.

    Perhaps it’s stuff like this that prepares women for not being allowed to assert themselves in front of men as adults? There sure doesn’t seem to be much I can do about it in my home situation.

    1. I was also raised in a family who didn’t really let me set boundaries about privacy and preferences, and then were shocked when I had trouble standing up for myself in other situations. We do learn it at home sometimes.

    2. Your last theory was certainly true for me; I had a mother who wouldn’t let me set boundaries about privacy, and I was raped by a b-f a number of years ago, and for me those two things are inextricably connected. The b-f did a lot of boundary testing before he actually raped me. (I am having a hard time forgiving my mother for that aspect of my childhood, given what it led to.)

    3. I’m going to jump off on a tangent for a minute and go off on a pet peeve of mine–parents, when your children don’t want to hug or kiss your friends or siblings, DO NOT MAKE THEM DO IT. Really. I hate when friends or relatives make their kids do this–I always say, “Please don’t make them kiss or hug me if they don’t want to. It’s okay with me if they want to keep their distance or if they don’t want to touch me.”

      If my niece or nephew do not want to hug or kiss me, that is okay. It is not rude to not want to hug or kiss me for any reason at all. Even if they are huggy and kissy with everyone else, they don’t have to be with me. I ask them if I can give them a hug or a kiss, and I say, “It’s okay to say no, I won’t be hurt.”

      And I’ll take it further: short of being rude and nasty to me, they don’t even have to LIKE their Aunt Sheelzebub. They don’t have to want to be around me or show affection they do not feel. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least be polite and civil, but polite and civil does not equal “hug, kiss, spend time with, and show lots of affection for someone you don’t particularly like.”

      (FWIW, they seem to like me okay right now, but that can change.)

    4. Mother who doesn’t respect your privacy? ME TOO. The thing is, I would never be permitted to see her nude, but she just wanders in without knocking to talk to me while I’m sat on my bed in only a towel, then casually leaves the door open (or even if I’m fully dressed in my study and had the door shut before she came in), or if I go into my wardrobe to get dressed in privacy she follows me. I wouldn’t be at all self-conscious being naked around my peers, but I don’t like the way she just casually ignores that I might not want her to see me undressed, or for her to rifle through/attempt to ‘organise’ my drawers (which she also does, putting things away in the wrong place which has occasionally resulted in them disappearing in the aether, ne’er to be seen again). I’ve explicitly requested that she not use my computer under any circumstances multiple times, but the couple of times I’ve left it on while I went to school she’s hopped on because she can’t be bothered to boot up her own. She insists I’m being silly and just utterly ignores the boundaries that I’ve set. It’s maddening.

  12. I agree with all the stuff above and just want to point out the importance of those scripts. Too often “no,” “don’t do that” and “stop it” are interpreted (by the handsy person and bystanders) as cutesy or ignorable protests that make the “game” more “fun.” We are used to seeing this in films and tv and real life (I know when I was young and playing with my brothers there was a point to which I didn’t really mean stop it, and unfortunately when it reached that point, i didn’t know how to use different words to emphasize that something had changed).

    Those phrases have unfortunately lost a lot of their power to halt uncomfortable interactions, but in my experience people respond much more quickly and with appropriate embarassment if you use those scripts. “You are making me feel unsafe.” “You are making me really uncomfortable.” “I don’t like to be touched and you do not get a pass just because you are my friend” are a lot harder to downplay as responses, sickly telling as that is about our society. If they don’t, then they are creepy-mccreepy pantses that you should get away from anyway.

    1. you are so right, startledoctopus, thanks for this! Women’s “no” is never believed – it’s always assumed that there’s a “yes” somewhere underneath, and all that’s needed to uncover it is persistence – and this ranges from boyfriends that keep stroking your arm or leg or whatever after being shrugged off, to pester power, to the complete violation of physical boundaries/agency through assault or rape – the creepy poking guy knows that his behaviour is on the same contiuum as rape, but he hopes no one will call him out on it. I can relate to your story about not knowing how to change a “no” into one that would be understood as a “no” and not a “yes” in cutesy girl code. No means yes is one of the most damaging and harmful myths used against women.

      1. The specific phenomenon I’m talking about, while it might be more common in women, is applied to EVERYONE. I’m a middle school teacher and I see it with my boys all the time – a gang of them “play” by teasing or harassing one guy, who is okay with it but is saying “ah help! stop!” but going along, and then you can see his face change and he gets angry, but they don’t/won’t realize that he is no longer playing along until he actually tries to hurt one of them back. This happened between my brothers and me often – at least with my little brother, I was the tormentor :/ So it’s not gender limited. Everyone has been there – friends are teasing and it’s cool for maybe 2 minutes, and then you snap and they’re all like “geez, where did that come from?” – but once I learned to put on my serious face and say flatly “It was funny before but now you are crossing the line. Please stop immediately” – killed the “fun atmosphere” but it was become very unfun for me, so not much loss.

  13. I had a “poker” myself, and one day I went completely apeshit on him, beating on his stomach and chest, stabbing him with my nails over and over until he started begging me to stop and was clearly upset and freaked out. This wasn’t a planned response, mind, I just broke, because pokes are *incredibly* painful for me. And then I told him I’d hit him every time he poked me. And it stopped.

    The other thing you need, questioner, is a bro. Someone to stand beside you, perhaps even speak for you. “SHE DISLIKES BEING POKED. NO I WILL GET IN YOUR FACE ABOUT THIS.” Either a woman or a man will work to be your wing-buddy. A friend of mine is also a shut-down type so I’ve learned to keep an eye on her so I can get into people’s faces when they’re being inappropriate with her.

  14. I feel ya. I personally don’t have a problem with being touched; I have a problem with the lack of respect that some people demonstrate when I’m in a bad mood or whatever and have clearly and firmly asked not to be touched, yet they keep on with their touchy-feely behavior. It’s really only men with whom I have this problem. Captain Awkward is right: it’s a fail attempt at flirting. Yuck.

    However, as Captain Awkward said, it sometimes arises from lack of clarity. I go to a (high) school where everyone is super jokey and sometimes people aren’t clear that they aren’t playing along with the joke, but are actually serious. I know I, in the past, have not always understood when (often unassertive) people actually wanted me to give their hat back, etc. Of course, this most strongly applies to times when the person being joked with is normally okay with touching, unlike with Tired. I would say that if the first time one touches someone they tell that person to quit it, one should get the message.

  15. I have this guy friend who I often try to avoid. He is always giving long awkward hugs, and asking me if I want a back massage. (He’s not trying to hit on me, he’s in school for massage therapy) Whenever I turn him down (which would be always) he bugs me about it for at least 5 minutes until I have to raise my voice about it.
    I’ve noticed that whenever we’re getting ready to say goodbye, I will try to hold my purse or coat in front of me with crossed arms. If I’m at home and he stops by, I literally keep my laptop on my lap and half ignore him until he leaves. One night we were playing poker, and I was too drunk to drive home. I laid on the couch to go to sleep in his basement, and to my surprise, he laid down next to me and spooned with me. Didn’t ask, just aligned himself with me awkwardly on the couch.
    I have never been flirtatious or led this guy on in any way. In fact, I always notice that I try to act more “masculine” around him because I don’t want to give any wrong impressions. I was dating someone at the time and I told him that I wasn’t comfortable cuddling with him.
    He acted totally surprised that I would think this was some sort of sexual advance. He said he just didn’t even think of it that way, but I told him I wasn’t buying it. I told him that he may not have been trying to hit on me, but he was trying to test his boundaries, to see how far he could go. He couldn’t help but agree. He apologized, and it never happened again (because I never play poker at his place anymore) but I still get the long awkward hugs, and I feel for ya- it is so irksome to be touched when its not welcome.
    Oh- and I do the pat on the back get-the-fuck-away-from-me hug too 🙂

    1. W.T.F. who is teaching these guys these scripts? not only did he pull some bs out of a creepy (daterape) romcom, but somebody had to teach him to pretend you were crazy until you told him his own motives to his face. He clearly has no respect for his “friends'” intelligence. I’d get away from him fast. either he consistently violates the boundaries of all of his friends and lies about it, or he only saves that behavior for the ones he Really Likes.


  16. @fineartfinds

    I find what this guy did incredibly rude and I’m happy to hear that you confronted him like that and it worked. This sounds like serious “red-flaggy” behavior.

  17. Thank you so much for the questiion and the answer. I’m a high school girl who jas an issue with a guy that does this and when I say stop he seems to do it more often. You may never know how grateful I am for this article. Usually, I just read and refrain from commenting but…you honestly touched my life. Thank you with all my heart.

  18. I just discovered your blog and oh my gosh it’s been a godsend. It’s nice knowing I’m not the only one who feels this way. I have a male friend in many of my school classes (and he goes to my church!) who is constantly touching me. He’s genuinely kind and helpful and I usually enjoy talking to him, but all of this past school year, he has been casually putting his arm around my shoulder or leaning over me as I’m on the computer or patting me on the arm as we pass by each other in the hallways. What is even more upsetting is that he treats me like a child, always saying “Oh, Nancy” and patting me some more. Whenever he touches me I always tell him “Stop” or visibly show my discomfort, usually shaking off his arms but he continues to do it. And he does it to a lot of girls that he’s friends with but if they have any problems with it, they don’t tell him, which encourages him to do it more. I’m just glad to know I’m not alone. Sorry for all the stories.

  19. Late like a late late late thing, but I know that this is a common problem and people still read the comments section on these older posts, so I thought I’d chip in that I have always absolutely HATED being tickled. Absolutely can’t stand it. But I’ve always been smaller than my peers, so if they decided to tickle me, there was nothing I could do about it except scream (I have a very loud voice for someone so small, so it usually surprised them enough for me to wriggle away and flee). Nowadays, I’ve developed the reflex reaction of sinking my (long) nails into the back of their hand – even if they aren’t intending to tickle me and just made an unfortunate move, whoops – which stops ’em pretty quick!

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