Last night I went to the local Changeling LARP*. It had been a high anxiety day, and I almost stayed home. Even the first half hour I was there I contemplated bolting to the car. But it was cold out there, and I had gone through the effort to put on a corset, and my hair was looking particularly cute. By the end of the evening I was glad I had gone. I had a good time. I ate cupcakes and meatballs. And I got lots of good role play in. Being able to be someone other than myself for a few hours has always been helpful in ways that I can expound upon later. Today, though, I’m spending time reflecting on two incidents that happened at game that highlight one of the issues I’ve been dealing with lately.
My social anxiety fluctuates. Sometimes it is high, and I have a hard time leaving the house, or even letting people I don’t know into it. Sometimes it has eased up enough that I can run errands and attend events with little stress. But there is another aspect to it that involves touching. I am physically demonstrative in ways: I talk with my hands, I am affectionate with Stephan out in public, I love to cuddle with my kids. But I find touch with anyone outside of a small circle of people to be uncomfortable.
This goes beyond sexually motivated touching. The pat on the ass, or the shoulder massage that creepers use as an excuse to touch targets. Those bad touches are universally uncomfortable for the recipient. I mean the personal space invasions that are part of our culture, most specifically hugging. With the group of gamers we played with last night this is a regular form of physical contact. And none of the huggers first ask permission before they swoop in, arms wide, for some physically enhanced social contact. And thanks to social conditioning, people go along with it because it would be rude to not.**
The first half an hour of game, I was approached for a hug from a regular. Previously I have acquiesced to his embrace, but I couldn’t this time. The game room was small and crowded and I knew I would have issues if I didn’t firmly establish my boundaries. As he came at me, I spoke up. “I’m not really a hugging person,” I told him. He seemed to understand and offered a high-five instead, which I found reasonable. Of course later my words came back to bite me in the rear.
Later, as I was leaving game, I gave my friend Chrissy a hug. Reasonable Regular saw this and I found myself having to explain to him that there are exceptions to my no-hugging. An awkward situation was made worse when he took it to the place of “Oh, I get it, you just don’t like me.” Even though he was joking, I found it infuriating that 1) I felt I had to explain myself, and 2) he seemed unable to accept that there are distinctions and levels when it comes to social interactions. If I say I’m not a hugging person surely that might not apply, say, to my husband or children. So why is it unreasonable that I might have different levels of touch when it comes to others?
Later, I had to deal with another regular. While sitting in a circle during mass combat, he tried to cut in front of me. When informed that, actually, it was my turn, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, you can take your turn.” Around the circle of gamers I heard snickers and laughter. Oh how funny! How cute!
The shoulder pat is the snot-nosed, sagging-diaper baby brother of the head pat. Insecure men—and it is always men—use it to get their patronizing misogynism on but still maintain plausible deniability. Having been on the receiving end of such I knew exactly what had just happened. As did the regular. As did all the others in the room.
My feet firmly planted on the ground of “You Fucking Did Not,” I looked down at my shoulder, swiveled my eyes to his face and stared at him for a long, uncomfortable second. Then I turned my back to him and addressed the storyteller. Suddenly it wasn’t cute anymore. The circle of others acted like our personal live audience and provided a collective “Oooooohhhhh!” Once I had finished my conversation with the storyteller I turned once again to my would be belittler. “Okay, you can have your turn now.” I patted his shoulder and turned away from him again.
Like my social anxiety, my ability to maintain my boundaries is ever changing. Tomorrow I may find myself unable to speak up. I might feel obligated to accept another hug. I might find my borders crumbling again under enforced niceness. However, there are at least two gamers who now know where they stand with me.
*LARP = Live Action Role Play. Where you dress up as your character, only to end the evening standing around in a crowd to resolve mass combat.
**Oddly enough, in game, if a character refuses to shake hands, no one bats an eye and accepts it, no questions asked. Of course game has rules about touching. Go figure.