Dear Captain Awkward:
There is an elderly man in his 80s, who I will call Fred, who I have known for almost twenty years. He is known by almost everyone in the community as a grandfatherly figure and was voted Citizen of the Year. He likes to hug people, and I used to give him a hug whenever he asked, never thinking anything of it.
However, last spring I was put in an awkward situation. Fred knocked on the door to my apartment and I invited him in to talk. I was showing him a new book and he asked me to read to him. While I was reading, he suddenly slipped his hand under the back of my shirt and started massaging my shoulders. I was so stunned by this breach of boundaries that I did not know how to handle it. It was entirely inappropriate and I finally moved away but did not say anything.
For the next few months, I tried to avoid running into him around town. But twice during the past two weeks, Fred has run into me and asked for a hug. I gave him a quick hug, and both times, he jokingly complained that he didn’t want a “side hug” and he wanted me to give him a “full frontal hug.” He made a comment about noticing that I was “running away from him.” I am a large-chested woman and I think this is why he wants to hug me in this way. I like Fred as an individual, but his inappropriate touching behavior and pursuit of me makes me feel uncomfortable. How should I handle this?
What if I told you that you never have to hug “Fred” again?
Ever, ever, ever again?
And what if I told you that he can absolutely deal with whatever hurt feelings resulted from your refusal?
And what if I told you that every single person in your town could deal with the fact that you don’t want to hug Fred anymore?
What if I told you that it’s very likely that he knows that you don’t really like hugging him anymore and that it’s part of the attraction of trying to manipulate you into doing it? It’s a power trip by this popular, no-doubt charismatic old man and he enjoys your discomfort because it’s a reminder of his authority.
You don’t owe Fred a performance of cheerfulness or niceness, but in my own dealings with annoying old men I’ve found that saying “Not today, Fred!” in a very cheerful, breezy voice as I keep on walking by works to make these interactions happen with minimal friction. The “nope” actions mixed with the cheerful, enthusiastic tone that they are used to hearing from women confuses them momentarily. Also, agreeing with their words but continuing to move/walk away works.
How it could play out in real life:
“Can I have a hug?”
“Not today, Fred!” (See also: “No,” “No thank you,” “Not right now”)
“Aw, are you running away from me?”
“Sure am, Fred!” (See also: “Probably!” “Maybe!” “Why would you think that?” “Could be!” “That’s hilarious, Fred.”)
If the Bystander Brigade gets into it with “He’s just a sweet old man!” “He’s harmless!” “He doesn’t mean anything by it!” “Aw, give the old man a hug!” “You can’t think he’s up to anything”, you can agree with them, too, before restating the boundary. “Yep, he’s a sweet old man, and I don’t feel like giving him or anyone a hug right now.” And then shudder along with me at the thought of other people being so goddamned invested in your compliance.
The part where we are thinking about how to do this with “minimal friction” and don’t start with “Remember when you stopped by my apartment and kinda felt me up? That made my skin crawl and now you are on my No Hugs list. Good day, sir!”? That’s our culture talking, the one that says “No one will believe me or be on my side if I tell people that Mr. Citizen of the Year kinda creeps me out.” You don’t owe Fred a low-key response; minimizing friction is camouflage as you go up against the two big social/cultural expectations: (1) Women must defer to men and take care of their feelings at all times and (2) Respect your elders. Your letter is basically asking for permission to flout these two conventions. FLOUT ON, I SAY. Flout early and often.
I’m sure someone will bring this up, so let me put it out there: Due to age, Fred *might* not completely remember the incident in your apartment and he may not be operating with his full faculties all the time. I don’t think that’s the case, personally (and I think you are probably not the only person with a story like that about him), but even the behaviors were the wanderings of dementia you STILL don’t have to hug him if it makes you uncomfortable to do so. Touching people who don’t want to be touched isn’t a privilege of old age, whether it’s a handsy old man or a cheek-pinching grandma. Also, please, please, please keep this in mind: If you start routinely saying “no” to Fred when he asks for hugs, he has information (that you’re not so into hugs from him these days) and he has choices. He could adjust to your dislike of hugs and stop asking you for them or he could keep trying to manipulate you into giving hugs. “But you hugged me last time.” “But you hugged this other person, why not me?” “No thanks” is a decision, not the opening of a negotiation.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and one was the Highway to Creepytown, and Fred can walk it by himself if he chooses (or hug literally anyone else in your entire town). You don’t have to comply with him, ever.