Embracing affection at Nowhere and beyond

Nowhere and Burning Man circles are very huggy. I don’t think there’s a single other social group where I’ve been hugged by people I barely know with such startling regularity. Often, I like hugging. But there are plenty of times when I don’t, and responses to that are interesting. So I’d like to write a little something about unsolicited hugs.

It was especially hot that day, an intense, close heat with no breeze. In my stuffy tent, with the cacophony of a dozen sound systems pumping simultaneously, I’d slept badly, and was feeling grouchy. I was half way across Nowhere’s arid, parched site when I met him: a guy with close-cropped hair, topless and brown with sun or dust. He was wearing outrageous shorts.

They were outrageous enough that I was moved to say something, and we stood a moment in the open dust, making the usual chit chat. I went to move on: the sun was ferocious and I was squinting, one hand shading my brow. That was when he hugged me.

I wasn’t asking for it. My arms were at my sides, my thumbs hooked casually through my belt loops. I was slouched back on one leg, cool at a distance. This headachy, groggy morning, the absolute last thing I wanted was the unsolicited, fleshy attention of a complete random who hadn’t showered for a week. But he did it anyway.

I was having none of it. “Oh, I’m not hugging at the moment,” I said, awkwardly squeezing my forearms and elbows up between us.

“What’s wrong?” he said. “Are you ill?”

“I’m just not really in the mood right now,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. He was visibly taken aback, caught on the spot, thrown. He mumbled his apologies and wandered off.

This did not actually happen. But it could have. It’s so close to situations that have happened countless times, especially at Nowhere and around the Burning Man community. I tell people I don’t want to hug and they are offended, surprised, confused, disappointed, sorry. They forget that what they’re actually trying to do is put their arms around my body and squash their face, neck and possibly-bare torso against mine, without my consent.

Your head may be full of oxytocin, high on humans. But you don’t know what’s going on in mine.

When you arrive in the Burner scene, it can feel like you’ve been reunited with a vast, vibrant family you never knew you had. Coming from a culture such as my own, in the UK, physical affection is something fraught, a minefield to be navigated, a confusing taboo. Our more straight-laced friends greet each other with a handshake, congratulate with a pat on the back, and cuddling – well, there’s something inherently fishy about cuddling. It is strictly reserved for someone you’ve hooked up with. If you haven’t hooked up yet, the cuddle is a pretty encouraging sign.

Yet, many of us long for physical affection. It makes us feel close, connected, comfortable, accepted. Arriving at a place like Nowhere for the first time, you have been set free. Suddenly, hugging is the norm, the modus operandi. The sharing of comfy, happy, accepting physical connection need carry no unwanted baggage. This is part of the thrill and the joy of the Burner scene for a lot of people. But it’s important to think about where I end and you begin.

Your head may be full of oxytocin, high on humans. But you don’t know what’s going on in mine. I could have had very bad experiences that started with unwanted touching. It’s more likely than a lot of people think. There are many legitimate reasons why unwanted hugs could put my head in a really bad place.

But it goes beyond that. Perhaps I’m fresh out of a manic day, my nerves on edge and my concentration shredded. I don’t want a hug, I want a sit down and a cold beer. Maybe I’ve just come off a nightmare shift. Maybe I’m sunburnt and hung over and on my way to welfare. Maybe I’ve been hugged many times already and want to keep it special.

The point is, hugging involves us both. Don’t assume consent. Asking me with your arms half way around me is assuming consent. Asking, and then getting bent out of shape when I say no, is assuming consent.

I have an established relationship with many of my close friends, and know their feelings about hugs. Even so, I often ask anyway.

If you feel the need to hug a bunch of new people, ask yourself:

Have you asked if you can hug them?

What is this person’s body language saying?

Are they making any kind of motions towards hugging you?

What mood is this person in?

If they are giving no indication that they want to hug, are leaning back, are not hugging anyone else as a greeting or farewell in the group, or sound fraught or pissed off, you could just not hug them. Is it the end of the world if you don’t hug this person? Some people just don’t like hugs. Others do, but aren’t in the mood right now.

The euphoria of discovering that we are no longer subject to Victorian England levels of prudishness can be liberating. You want to share it. You encourage your friends to hug. You talk about how awesome hugging is. And just maybe, you start to ask them why they don’t hug.

If you were being this pushy with kissing, it would be incredibly creepy

Pruriently, accusingly, you want to know why they aren’t comfortable in their bodies. Don’t they know that it really is OK to hug? Don’t they know that it’s OK, because you don’t have some kind of highly contagious skin disease? Won’t they remain miserably single and die alone and be eaten by their fifteen cats if they have such issues touching people?

If you were being this pushy with kissing, it would be incredibly creepy. Bystanders would give you funny looks. Veiled references to you would appear on everydaysexism.com. And rightly so: because you’d be making completely unsolicited moves on someone else’s boundaries, paying no regard to the fact that they don’t owe you affection of any kind.

Most people don’t get that entitled with hugs. If they commit the faux pas of going for the embrace with someone who isn’t a hugger, they become profusely apologetic. Suddenly, they feel bad. They know they’ve just encroached on someone’s personal space, and that this is not a good thing. This raises the question: why not be a little more cautious?

Dear fictional outrageous shorts guy: you aren’t a terrible person for wanting to hug me. But you need to understand that there is nothing wrong with me, either. Lots of people on the playa would love to hug you on sight, but I am not one of them. And if you have a problem with that, you have some thinking to do.

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3 thoughts on “Embracing affection at Nowhere and beyond”

  1. I agree with the general idea and Kudos to you to find the time to write a 700 words essay about this. I’m very sorry about the experience you had with your fictional guy. If something like you described really happened, you might have find the time to write a book !

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    1. It’s not as though it’s a terrible experience for me, usually just kind of awkward (although that’s not true of everyone!). What I find interesting is the attitude that surround it.

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  2. It’s the suggestion that you are wrong for not wanting the hug, and they can sort you out, that bugs me. The suggestion that everyone feels like they do and would love a hug from anyone. And the utter incomprehension!

    it’s a proper empathy failure: the lack of understanding that other people are different to you and that therefore to make them happy you should do different things. The platinum rule: do unto others as they would like you to do unto them.

    Pretty weird for a culture into diversity that we can’t grasp that. Think it comes from a collision of the feeling of togetherness and commonality at Burns, that we come from the same place. It makes it hard to accept that in fact we may differ on some things, quite radically!

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