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MISS CONDUCT

People at my church liked to hug my husband. What to do when we return to in-person services?

The pandemic has provided an opportunity for many groups to make cultural changes.

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What do you advise when women, uninvited, touch my husband or give him full-body hugs at church? For 45-plus years, we have both worked in professional office environments and have rarely encountered such uninvited overt affection. I am not looking forward to this unwelcome aspect of in-person church attendance when the pandemic ends.

Anonymous / Boston

People — of all ages, of all genders — should not be touched without their consent, or in a way that makes them uncomfortable. That’s a given. You don’t say if your husband is unreceptive to or discomfited by the hugging; if he isn’t and you are, you have a couple problem, not a church problem.

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That said, I’m a little astonished by your equating a worship space with a workplace. Sure, maybe you dress up for both, but I grew up in churches and among the churchgoing, and my experience was that there’s an immediate level of intimacy and fellowship among congregants, an assumption that we’re all friends or family who haven’t met yet.

As we all know, this assumption can be exploited by predators and scammers of all varieties, from sexual harassers to pyramid schemers to good old-fashioned energy vampires. Even without these snakes in the garden, a person might not want to be touched for all kinds of reasons, from childhood trauma to arthritis to not having showered that morning. But I don’t think the answer to the problem is to default to a formal, contractual, disembodied way of relating. Humans need touch. We need nonsexual physical affection. We need a level of intimacy between the routinized politeness of the office on the one hand, and the intensity of romantic/family life on the other. Churches, like other social and community groups, are one of the places people can meet these needs.

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I’m not a churchgoer anymore, but I’m involved in theater and occasionally science-fiction conventions, and those communities have been doing a lot of work to come up with a new kind of etiquette that normalizes both physical touch and expressing boundaries around physical touch. This would be an excellent thing for your church to look into, before in-person services resume, with the idea of developing its own new set of practices for the post-COVID era. Talk to your church leadership about it!

The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for any organization — from a megachurch to a neighborhood book club — to make cultural changes around physical touch. We’re all going to need to negotiate boundaries more or less constantly once we’re back together. And a year-plus of lockdown has made us all keenly, painfully aware of the risks of being close to another person, and of how profoundly necessary physical contact is. We need more hugs, and more boundaries — pro-consent cultures, not just anti-harassment ones. Doing unto others as they would have done unto them, not as you would have done unto you. It seems like good work for a church to take on.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.