I hope you are well! Good luck with your move and beautiful cats!
I am in therapy and working on building community in a new state (I moved during COVID, it’s been slow), but I am hoping for help on feeling like I have agency and a script for someone who non-consensually touches me, and my friend who enables it.
Yesterday was my birthday. My very sweet Friend (she/her) planned a 4 person “party” in our bubble, and gave me a generous gift. This was very meaningful after being so lonely this year, estranged from my parents, and going through a breakup. However, her roommate was the 4th person. She is homophobic (casually and directly to me), and she touches me all. the. time. One time, she squeezed my ass and ranked/ compared my body to others (I am fat, she is not). I was frozen at the moment, but I followed up the next day to say I didn’t want to be touched by her and that it is not cool to talk about bodies like that.
She went to Friend with this whole explanation, apparently pointed out that other people touch me and she just didn’t understand how sensitive I was. Friend tried to smooth it over with me. But Roommate never apologized or checked in with me and I pointed that out and asked not to be discussed unless I was included (maybe that was wrong though?). I was then iced out for 4 months, where I barely saw Friend and was uninvited from Friend’s house from all the dinners, movie nights, and social things (which was my entire social life in a COVID world, because we all agreed to bubble).
Eventually, I had a heart-to-heart with Friend. It got better, but I avoided Roommate. Yet when we briefly overlap, she touches me. Every. Time. And at my birthday she came to get dinner/ hung out for several hours. She also touched me and held my arm while Friend was in the bathroom. I don’t understand why she invited herself, especially to the part not in her house. I don’t understand why Friend did nothing, but she also bought me such an expensive present I feel ungrateful being mad at all. My other Buddy was there and he knows I have a problem with Roommate and was trying to buffer, but he also doesn’t seem to have much of an issue with her.
Roommate has trouble with substance abuse, dropped out of college, has gotten in trouble for touching people at work, and maintaining any other friendships. Friend really wants to support her financially and emotionally. I want to be kind and not contribute to the pain she is feeling… but every time she touches me I want to scream and turn into a feral animal. She has apparently pointed out that I touch other people and other people touch me (those people are my friends and we have discussed consent because I need that).
I am worried about losing two good friends because they choose to “not be awkward” and therefore enable this homophobic, fatphobic, manipulative creepy lady. As a last-ditch effort, I think I should say something directly to Roommate and Friend, but I don’t know if it should be together to prevent triangulation or separate. And for my Buddy, should I ask him to be an ally somehow? Or is that putting pressure/ manipulation on the situation? Everyone acts like she is harmless… but she is gross about many aspects of my identity, and seems committed to pushing boundaries and pushing me away from my friends (or I’m being paranoid/ too judgemental?).
Any suggestions on who to speak to, in what order, and how to ask for support, and how to call out a tiny white lady who likes to play dumb and helpless without looking like an asshole would be really great.
Thank you, I appreciate your advice and the space you have created so much, even if you don’t get to this one.
– Bubble Babe, She/They.
Hello Bubble Babe:
The cats are good. Moving sucks, but it will be over soon. Thank you for asking!
I’m going to make a small Dramatis Personae of nicknames and pronouns to ground me/readers: There’s you, Bubble Babe (she/they). There’s your actual Friend (she/her) and a Buddy (he/his) who is also in your small pod. Then there is Roommate (she/her) who lives with Friend, playing the role of the creep in this story.
You’re not being too paranoid or judgmental.
Creepiness Review: If you touch someone, and they tell you they don’t like it, there is exactly one non-creepy path: Apologize, give the person personal space, and do not touch them in the future unless you are invited. Don’t argue, make excuses, punish them by sulking, or look for excuses to keep touching them. People have all kinds of reasons for not wanting to be touched, some are about you and some aren’t, and you don’t need to know why in order to respect basic boundaries.
One way to spot the difference between a creep and a person making an honest mistake is that creeps a) persist in behavior they’ve been told not to do b) complicate uncomplicated things (like consent) so that they can keep getting their way c) continually shop for loopholes.Why on earth would you want to touch someone once you know for sure that they don’t want you to? Bubble Babe, you and I are like “Uh, we wouldn’t?” but creeps will have some long story about why they can’t do the thing they were asked to do, full of “negs,” misguided appeals to “fairness,” while simultaneously – and completely without irony – arguing why they deserve an exception:
“But you hug other people!” Ones I like, with permission?
“But what about if you’re in the path of an oncoming car? Can I touch you then?”
Sure, if some tedious handsy rules lawyer wishing a life-threatening disaster on me so they can dramatically refuse to save my life out of spite is the only thing standing between me and certain death, then go ahead and give me a shove, Brave Hero, with my permission and thanks! But until then, keep your fucking distance, and afterward we’re still gonna be on a “perfunctory handshake only” basis.
Add in race, gender, sexuality, etc. and what you have is a thin white woman who refuses to keep her hands to herself engaging in a shitty dominance display. White women do this to women of color, straight women do it to gay women, cis women do it to trans women, thin women do this to fat women, because shit rolls downhill, onto people the offender perceives as having lower social status and not being fully human. The part where Roommate treats you like you’re the bully to get attention and sympathy (instead of the accountability she deserves) is all part of the dance. Hints don’t work on creeps, nor do gentle reminders, nor do logical reasons, because creeps use feigned ignorance, power differentials, fear of a “making a scene,” and other forms of social pressure to get their way. To get a creep to knock it off often requires making that scene and naming what they are doing loudly enough that other people might see and come to your aid. This risks that anyone who actually heeds the call will be like “the manager” with a bullying customer or the cops showing up in a gentrified neighborhood: Somewhere between “utterly useless” and “actively on the worst person’s side.”
You mention wanting to avoid triangulation and I think that’s a good plan. You can’t control who talks to whom about what (I would assume that everything you say about Creepy Roommate to Friend is being passed on, and definitely vice versa), but you can adopt a principle for yourself ( “I don’t say anything about people that I wouldn’t say to them”) and follow through with that. That gives you your order of communication operations as well: 1) Say things to the Creepy Roommate about her behavior as they come up. 2) Reinforce those things with the Friend and Buddy as necessary, and tell them what you need from them in terms of support directly. That’s not triangulating or manipulation.
“Hey, knock it off!”
There is no heart-to-heart you can have with someone who behaves like the Roommate. You’re going to have to disrupt the pattern where she touches you and you stay quiet because you don’t want want to “ruin” the moment and deliver matter-of-fact, consistent corrections. This is unfair and exhausting, and casts you as the one who is being loudly difficult because you’ve stopped letting it slide. It’s still the least worst way forward.
When you have to interact with Creepy Roommate, tell her not to touch you immediately, every time she does it, and move away. “Oh hey, don’t touch me.” “But I didn’t mean…!” “Ok, but you did. I don’t like it when you touch me.” “But you touched ______.” “Sure did! But I’ve told you not to touch me. Are you going to keep making this weird for everyone?”
When you see a touch coming at you, throw up a hand between you and this person and take a big step back. “Whoa, you weren’t going to touch me, were you? We’ve talked about this.” If you can’t anticipate a touch, remove her hands from your body and step away. “Whoa, bad touch!”
If she sits right next to you or too close, it’s okay to move/get up/switch seats. If she pouts or sulks about this, I wouldn’t be surprised, and I’d ignore it unless she actually says something or provokes someone else to say something, at which point I’d be like, “the CDC doesn’t have social distancing guidelines for handsy people, but I do. Anyway, who wants something to drink while I’m up?”
Same principle for “Whoa, that’s pretty homophobic.” “Yeah, don’t talk about people’s bodies that way.” An automatic, matter-of-fact, consistent correction right then and there and a giant step back.
Cue the excuses from her and be ready to deflect them:
- “I’m sorry, I forgot.” “Uh huh, that’s why I reminded you: Don’t touch me.”
- “You let So-and-So touch you.” “Sure did! Good thing So-and-So only has to hear the word ‘no’ once.” “It’s not that I have an aversion to all human touch, but I definitely do when I say ‘no’ and you keep doing it anyway.”
- “But you touched Whatshername.” “Did I? Can we talk about how creepy it is that you monitor that about me?” “Sure, and if Whatshername told me to stop or not do it anymore, unlike you, I would listen and respect her wishes about that.”
- “You don’t need to be so cranky/rude/mean/hostile about it.” “Huh, it’s weird that you think I’m the rude one, when I’m not the one who can’t keep my mitts off of other people.” “What would get you to actually stop so we never have to have this fight again?”
- “Why are you ruining everyone’s good time?” “Why are you ruining my good time by not keeping your hands to yourself?”
- “I’m just a touchy-feely person.” “Right, and I’m not, unless there is explicit consent. What you and I have is the opposite of that.”
If Friend and Buddy treat you like you’re the jerk when you do this (because you’re The Reasonable One and they know that this Roommate is Absolutely Not), try to keep it pretty brief and also as matter-of-fact as you can. “Roommate has been told not to touch me. If she needs reminders like we’re at day care, that’s what she’s going to get until she stops touching me.” “This will stop being awkward for everyone when she stops touching me.” “She can stop this from being weird any time she decides to stop touching me.” “It’s not my fault that she would rather deliver bad touches than let everyone relax and have fun.”
When the flood of excuses comes, be ready.
- Umbrella scripts: “I’m not the one making it weird right now.” “What I need from you is backup for making the bad touches stop. If you won’t help me make it stop, the least you can do is stop blaming me for causing it.”
- “But she has problems!” “Uh-huh, and the problem today is how she keeps touching me.”
- “But she’s going through a really hard time right now.” “I can have sympathy for whatever she’s going through and still expect her to respect me and my personal space.” “Why is her bad day an excuse for putting her hands all over me? I don’t think that’s making the argument you’re hoping for.”
- “But it’s not that bad!” “If you’re cool with her touching you, great! She can transfer that attention to you. I will never actually be cool with it.”
- “But you’re making a big deal out of nothing!” “No, I’m telling you that this is already very big deal for me.”
- “Ugh, you’re just too sensitive!” “Yup, I’m pretty sensitive about this! And yet, I’m not the one violating someone else’s personal space and trying to pretend that’s a normal thing to do?”
- “But she doesn’t mean it!” “That’s a relief, because if she did mean it we’d have to literally fight.”” I don’t care what’s in her heart, I care that she stops commenting on and touching my body.” “Okay, but what would it take for her to stop? She knows I don’t like to be touched without consent.”
- “But it’s all so awkward!” “Yes, it is awkward to have someone keep touching me when I’ve told them not to more than once! If you know some quiet way of making her knock it off forever, let’s do that! But it’s going to stay awkward for everyone as long as she refuses to control herself.”
You can let your Buddy know that you’re instituting a Zero Touch policy ahead of a gathering and ask for backup if things get weird. That isn’t manipulative. That is asking for help. It’s also not manipulative to ask Friend if you can do stuff with just the two of you. She’s tired of this conflict, you’re tired of this conflict, why not make it easy on everyone and be clear about what is a group event and what is not?
When and if you get resistance, I suggest *asking questions* and *naming specific behaviors* at every opportunity, especially when you have private one-on-one conversations with Buddy and Friend. Don’t talk around it, joke about it, brush it off, or use euphemisms or smooth it over.
- “When someone else says homophobic things around you, do you just let it go? Is that what you’re asking me to do here? That can’t be right.”
- “If a creepy person –let’s say, cis dude — were touching you all the time after you told him not to, what would you do about it?” “Would you try to argue with the person being touched and tell them to let it go?” “What would you want a friend to do to help you feel safe?”
- “I’ve tried every reasonable, direct, civil way to try to get her to stop touching me and insulting queer and fat people around me. What will it take to make her stop?”
- “How can I explain how violated and on edge it makes me feel to be touched all the time and know that if I say ‘no’ it won’t stop? I ‘m afraid that if I ask you for help your solution might be to stop inviting me places instead of risking telling her ‘no’ or backing me up.”
- “What would she have to do to me before you’d take this seriously, and at least stop having her tag along to events at my house?”
That Excuse Cannon will come pre-loaded, so let’s shore up your defenses.
- All purpose excuse-busting question: “Wait, are you telling me to just be quiet and put up with it when someone touches me in a way I don’t like?”
- “But what will we tell her?” “Tell her maybe she can be invited again when she goes one calendar year without touching me? That she should stop embarrassing you and creeping out your friends in public? I don’t know! She’s your friend, she clearly doesn’t listen to anything I say.”
- “But she really tries, she can’t help it!” “Hrmmmm, I believe she thinks that, but if so, then she should stay away from hangouts with me where it might become a problem.”
- “But she hates to be left out!” “We’re not eight. She will survive an afternoon on her own! Or, if she won’t, that’s a sign that some big time professional help is needed, not a thing that I have to solve.”
- “She’ll think you don’t like her.” “I do my best to tolerate her because she’s important to you, but that tolerance ends when she puts her grabby hands on my body. ‘Like’ left the building months ago.”
- “Why can’t everyone just get along?” “I want to get along, and I’m honestly scared of losing our friendship if I become too ‘difficult’ about this, but it’s not fair to put this on me. I’m not the one who keeps putting my hands on someone who knows they don’t want to be touched. I’m not the one making my friends make excuses for and apologize for me. I’m not actually the one making this complicated.”
- “Why are you making this so hard?” “Friend, with all the love in the world, why are you here trying to convince me to let someone keep violating my personal space? Why is it easier for you to argue with me than it is for you to tell a fellow adult to keep her hands to herself and expect her to actually do it?”
I realize that you want to keep Friend in your life, but she hasn’t been trustworthy about helping you resolve this conflict. She brought Roommate to your birthday, knowingly risking your ability to enjoy yourself, yet had no problem disinviting you from social events in the pod, presumably to protect Roommate’s feelings. I can give you some scripts and tactics, but you might want to think about a long-term strategy where you widen your social circle after quarantine and consider Friend a Sometimes Friend that you invite to solo hangouts now and then but not as a social anchor.
I wish I could tell you that these scripts and approaches would guarantee that your friends will have your back with this person or that she will stop, but I can’t. I hope that this at least gives you some reassurance that you’re not causing this to happen. I hope you leave with a few more ways to shut it down quicker and with less second-guessing when it happens, and some backup in dispelling excuses, justification, and gas-lighting about the bad behavior. Most of all, I hope that a few months from now you don’t feel so socially isolated and dependent on people who keep choosing their worst friend’s feelings over your safety and comfort.
For those in the shoes of “Friend” and “Buddy” in this story:
If reading this made you feel defensive because you have That One Toxic Friend and have become their unofficial buffer/enabler/ambassador to other people you know, I hope this helps you place the awkwardness back where it belongs and rethink your priorities. The person forcing fun events to become awkward confrontations is the person who won’t keep their hands (or toxic words and beliefs) to themselves, not the people who object to that. If you frequently find yourself in the position of explaining to Friend A why Friend B should be allowed to keep treating them like crap, that doesn’t make you The Great Peacemaker who brings people together; it makes you the person who is forcing a friend to endure harm if they want to spend time with you. As everyone becomes vaccinated and starts to reknit social ties later this year, maybe it’s time to step down as the resident Asshole Whisperer, lest you find yourself surrounded by assholes.