Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hurricane Bill: Why I Touched You in Chicago

OK, so nobody asked me why I was going around giving shoulder massages in Chicago. At least I don't remember anyone asking why.
And that's part of the beauty of it. It's not about talking.

But in case you're curious, and want to waste valuable head space with an answer, here's why.

I need it.
I've got a bad back, and sitting in a chair all day just kills me. So I've gotta get up and walk around. Touching your shoulders gave me something to do.

I want it.
I enjoy touching people. I'm a bit of a touch top, to be honest. If you get anything out of it, hooray for you, but that's not what it's really about for me.

I need it.
For me, it's easy to feel misunderstood, and it's easy to be critical. I've got a lifetime of training in feeling misunderstood, and an education that stressed critical thinking to the nth degree.
So even in the midst of a bunch of passionate queers getting together, for the purpose of critiquing our own and others work in promoting health, being critical and feeling misunderstood (or un-heard) came quickly and easily to me.
That's not how I wanted to spend my time with y'all though, so in discussions with a few other critical and easily misunderstood people, I decided to take some responsibility for feeling that way, both to get myself out of the mire, and also to subtly shift dynamics that I was afraid might lead others into a similar state.

I decided to concentrate on touch.
Intimate touch.
Public touch.
Touch that is not spoken about, just experienced.
Touch that is not sexual, but could be flirtatious, and could have sexual overtones.
Touch that has no pretense of healing, but may nonetheless be healing.

In short, touch that is designed to get us out of our heads a bit, and into each others lives.

Being together without touch is isolating
Chairs in a room, aligned in rows, with talking heads at the front reading words off of Power Point slides is about the most isolating and alienating sort of group experience I can imagine, and yet, somehow that has become the norm for academic and professional meetings, even how classes are taught, and it takes a great deal of resistance for us to create other forums and formats for the sort of group experiences we want and need to share ideas and inspiration from one another.

My intention
So to break though that isolation, I hoped that by touching you, in public, it would create some sort of intimate experience. Not only between you and I, but between me and the room, and between you and the room. Most of all, I hoped it would liberate you to touch other people in the rooms, hallways, and other Summit spaces, public and private, and everywhere in between. And as I said above, a main motivation was to move me from a critical space to a communal space.

I did not ask if you wanted it. I intentionally asked only "May I?" if I asked at all. For many of you, "May I?" and a nod of assent were the first and only words we exchanged during the entire weekend. That's kind of wild, thinking back on it.
I understand and expect that for some people, my touch may have been somewhat less than welcome; perhaps because intimate touch of any sort implies sexual expectations; perhaps because intimate touch triggers a bit of a traumatic response; perhaps because inter-racial touch and inter-generational touch have incredibly complex sets of meanings, especially when done in public. And what the heck does it mean for a gay man to touch a lesbian intimately in public?
I accept that my method of seeking consent may have left some people feeling less than comfortable, and am happy to take responsibility for that. It was, after all, an intentional approach I took. And I took the risks of having a somewhat ambiguous (if intentional) approach to consent to serve what I felt a greater goal, to create a common experience that wasn't in our heads, that was in our bodies.
What would it have meant to do a more complex ritual around consent? Having been a victim of hate crime myself, I have struggled long and hard with what it means to continue to perceive myself as a victim. And I have concluded that it is really unhealthy for me to live with that status, that identity. If my consent procedure had encouraged a victimhood status in someone else, that would be contrary to my goals in creating a communal experience.
Had I touched only the people I knew, that would have been contrary to that goal. Had I sought a special level of consent from people of a different racial background from mine, from people considerably older or younger than me, that would in a sense have reinforced a bunch of stereotypes about racial and age related sexual objectification. Did I as a middle-aged White guy have a position in the room that 'allowed' me to act in a way that seemed to ignore these racial and age dynamics that another person in the room may not have been able to 'get away with'? You bet, and it pains me that that's the case. I sure don't have a fix for that one. But I hope you'll understand what my intention was, and why I tried to address chiefly the issue of intimate public touch as a matter of breaking down barriers and creating more of a communal environment where we were invested in one another.

So, how was it for you?


  1. I was shaving in the bath yesterday afternoon, contorting my lanky body to fit and move in that constrained space, and I suddenly thought Oh shit, maybe Bill gives back rubs because he needs one himself. I should have given him one! *headsmack* Thoughts? Might have been touch struggle play, though.

  2. Oh, no sweat sweetie. Like I said, I'm a bit of a top when it comes to touch, and I did get more than enough physical reciprocations from other, and enough conversational reciprocation from you to leave me quite satisfied...

  3. Bill, I loved this post. It epitomizes something I've always admired in you, the way you think so deeply about various elements of the social system, and experiment with social norms. Keep it up, as they say...

  4. Daniel: I would have gladly contorted, constrained, and shaved you. You *must* ask next time!

    Bill: Go get 'em! We need more people who think critically about the crap heaped on us by academics et al., instead of gobbling it up like good raunch bottoms!

  5. I appreciated the touch. I admit I have a lot of mainstream baggage about this if I don't take a minute to be particularly conscious-thinking about it. The good new is your touch reminded me that I was in the midst of a bunch of free-thinking radical social activists (ok well not all of us) who are probably just fine with it. SOOOOO I was inspired to touch others.

    Thanks for that.

  6. I too can see how you were operating in a context where (like all contexts) race and gender make a difference (not to mention looks and body type and perceptions around class).

    That said, I appreciated the democratic aspect of what you were doing. As someone who didn't really know many people at all at the conference and was a bit anxious about it, when I saw you come around, I wondered if I might be included in this. And I appreciated the fact that I was.

  7. Bill,

    As a guy who also struggles with feeling misunderstood and overly critical I am quite grateful for your touch and its impact. I simultaneously felt pleasure and relaxation, self-conscious, a desire for more, acknowledged, worry about what others might be thinking (particularly those who wanted the same experience), egoistic pride at being "chosen", and a desire to get out of my head, lean back and enjoy. Wow...a lot! Both then and now. Thanks for your approach to being a "touch top" and helping us grow and feel more connected to the summit experience.

    You're a good man.