|A woman tickling a little girl. Image source.|
One time, I met a little girl whose mother said we weren’t allowed to tickle her because “she really doesn’t like it.” I was very confused- I didn’t like being tickled either, but I never knew there was an option to be exempt from it. I figured “she really doesn’t like it” meant she hated it much more than I did, that her discomfort was high enough that it met some kind of threshold that allowed her to explicitly tell people it wasn’t okay. Surely my discomfort did not meet that threshold, because nobody ever gave me that option.
I remember another time, when one of my aunts played one of those rhyming, hand-gesture games with me. The last 2 lines were “break the pickle / tickle tickle.” For “break the pickle”, she held her hands so that fingers from each hand were touching at the tips, horizontally as if it was a pickle, I guess. When I “broke the pickle” by using my hand to separate her fingers, she said “tickle tickle!” and tickled me. See, that’s How It Works. I had been tricked into consenting to being tickled. I had broken the pickle, so it was my fault.
And there are lots of those little hand-clapping games that kids play, which end by tricking the other person into something. Sometimes it’s tickling, sometimes it’s the declaration that whatever you said or did during the game “means” that you have a crush on so-and-so. That kind of thing. It’s funny because you trick the other kid into something they don’t want to do. And it’s their own fault because they played along with the game.
(Later I probably found another kid and did the "break the pickle" thing to them. Becaue that's The Way It Works. Sometimes you're the one who gets picked on, but sometimes- maybe when you're bigger and stronger and more savvy about these hand-clapping games- you get to be the one who picks on other people.)
I guess for a lot of people, these things are just silly games. Just a joke. They’re okay with being tickled. That’s fine; there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is, there’s not really any socially-approved way to communicate that you’re not okay with it. If you say “no, stop”, well that’s part of the game. People always say that, and they keep getting tickled anyway. After all, you’re laughing. Clearly you like it.
I’m in my twenties now, so I don’t have friendly friends-of-the-family tickling me anymore. But occasionally, somebody my age will ask, “Are you ticklish?” And I always say no and do my best poker face. It’s a lie. I am ticklish. I am SO ticklish. But if I say yes, they’ll tickle me. If I say “yes but I don’t like to be tickled” they’ll probably tickle me anyway. The best strategy is to say no and hope they don’t try to verify it themselves. I lie, and I do not feel one bit bad about that.
Because come on, it’s just a game. It’s not a big deal. It’s not a big deal that they purposely did something to me that I literally JUST SAID I did not want. My boundary was not reasonable, says society, so they didn’t have to respect it. That’s The Way It Works.
Back in college, because of purity culture, I was not okay with any kind of physical contact with men- with the exception of a handshake in a professional context. But sometimes, friends who were guys would give me a hug, or poke me in a playful way, and I would put on my DEAD SERIOUS face and tell them no, that’s not okay. DEAD SERIOUS. As if I was incredibly angry about it. Bring the friendly social atmosphere to a halt and make it awkward and say hey, DON’T DO THAT.
I actually wasn’t angry. It actually wasn’t that much of a big deal, if they just did it once because they didn’t know I didn’t like it. But if I just told them politely, with a smile, they wouldn’t get the message. Because it’s totally fine to poke your friends in a playful way, just for fun, it’s just a game, and it’s funny when they don’t like it. I mean, unless they REALLY don’t like it, then it’s not okay. I had to present my objections in a way that proved I “really” didn’t like it, that I met the threshold where I would be allowed to actually set boundaries about what people can or cannot do to my body. That’s The Way It Works.
Teasing works in a similar way. In my high school French class, there was one student, let’s call him Jake, a boy with long hair. And our teacher thought his hair looked messy and he should cut it. Almost every class, the teacher would make comments- sometimes in English, sometimes in French- about how Jake needs to cut his hair. When we got to the unit that actually included French vocabulary about haircuts, the teacher called on Jake to answer every single question about hair.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s bullying. At the time, I thought it was okay because the teacher would never say anything mean to me- I was one of his favorite students. I told myself he was only picking on Jake because he knew Jake wasn’t “really” bothered by it, that he knew Jake saw it as just a joke and it was all good. Now I don’t think that’s true. That was bullying, and it was really a bad thing.
Because yes, that’s The Way It Works. People tease each other and it’s just a joke, so it’s okay. Yeah, I know for some people, they do think it’s funny when their friends tease them. They’re okay with it. That’s fine, that’s their decision. But the problem is, what if it’s not fine? Why is it the responsibility of the person being teased to clearly communicate that it’s not okay, rather than the teaser’s responsibility to check if it’s okay or not?
That’s what we were taught to do: if another kid is being mean to you, you should confront them and say “I don’t like it when you do xyz, it’s mean and you should stop.” (If that doesn’t work, that’s when you get adults involved and get them in trouble.) Because maybe they don’t realize they’re being mean. Because we exist in a constant state of consent for friendly teasing, and it’s up to us to put a stop to it if we don’t like it.
(And I'm guilty of this too. There have been situations where I've teased someone over and over because I thought it was funny, and they didn't think it was funny but I determined that they were wrong, it totally was funny and therefore I didn't need to respect their boundaries. Yeah that was bad. That's not okay.)
But if we decide to teach kids “if you tease or make jokes about someone, you need to ask them if it’s okay” that’s still not good enough. Because even if the person being teased doesn’t think it’s okay, there’s social pressure for them to say it’s fine, or else they look like they are No Fun. Or if they say it’s fine, but then later they change their mind, well that’s not allowed either. You said it was okay before, which invalidates you current statement that it’s not okay.
It needs to go farther than that: we need to explicitly teach that everyone is allowed to make rules about their own body and about “jokes” made at their expense. It’s your right, and other people MUST respect it. Don’t let them say you are “no fun.” They’re the ones who don’t respect you; they’re the ones who should feel bad.
And no, there cannot be any kind of “threshold” for what’s a “big enough deal” that you’re allowed to tell people to stop. If you don’t like it, then you don’t like it- that’s enough of a reason. You’re not required to prove your case in front of a group of people and wait for them to judge if you have a valid case for not letting people touch you. (Note: I’m excluding situations where it’s necessary to touch someone for practical reasons, for example, a parent holding a child to keep them safe.)
Because this whole thing about tickling and teasing is an example of rape culture. Your body is public property- if you’re a little kid, it’s totally okay for any of your parents’ friends to come and tickle you. Your feelings don’t matter- unless, of course, you can prove that you “really” don’t like it, but that’s hard to do, because doesn’t everyone say “no, stop” through their laughter as they’re being tickled? Of course your “no, stop” isn’t something that should be taken seriously- it’s funny to do things to people they don’t like. And besides, you’re laughing. Obviously the tickler is a better judge of what you want than you are. That's The Way It Works.
From a young age, we internalize the message that our consent doesn’t matter. That we’re only allowed to tell someone “stop” if we have a “good reason.” And even then, we might be in the wrong because we are “no fun.” We’re taught that others have the right to judge if our boundaries are justified or not, and they don’t have to respect those boundaries if we don’t have a “good reason,” or if it’s really funny when they violate them. Come on, it’s just a joke.
It’s funny to push someone into a pool. Unless they have a cell phone in their pocket and the water ruins their phone. Then it’s not funny, it’s just mean. That’s the standard that society has set, that’s the boundary between “funny” and “mean” on the issue of pushing someone into a pool. It doesn’t matter how the person who was pushed feels. Society has determined that what happened to you was totally funny. We don't care how you feel about it. It was funny, so it was totally okay for them to do that to you. And that’s The Way It Works.
Rape culture. The general public gets to decide what is and isn’t okay to do to your body. Wow, that’s messed up. We need to teach consent instead. We need to create a consent culture, where people have the right to set boundaries about their own bodies and they don’t have to justify those boundaries to anyone.