Luis Rubiales, president of Spain’s football federation, has resigned, three weeks after kissing Jenni Hermoso on the lips without her consent. Abi Thomas reflects on her own experiences, and what the Church can do to make sure physical contact is helpful, honouring to God and one another
The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was 14. On a family holiday in Italy, a man on a crowded ferry began rubbing himself against me. As I tried to get away, he followed. It was only recently that I discovered this is not an unusual practice, and even has a name, “frotteurism”. But at the time I told nobody. I barely understood what had happened myself; I just knew I felt deeply uncomfortable about it.
I’m now 41, but it’s still not unusual for me to receive unwanted sexual advances, comments or even touch. The difference now is that I know it is wrong, and I’m prepared to answer back. On one occasion while riding my bike wearing shorts, a teenager on a school trip made lewd comments from the pavement. When I had processed what he said, I cycled back and explained to the (now silent) student how his words had made me feel. Flustered, his teacher - who had clearly not been planning to address the issue - muttered that he would “take it up back at school”.
I now simply ask someone: “Are you a hugger?” It is a reminder to us both that it is good to check
Three weeks on from Luis Rubiales kissing player Jenni Hermoso on the lips after the team’s World Cup win, the president of Spain’s football federation has finally resigned. But he continues to insist that the kiss was consensual. Hermoso disagrees, and has since filed a legal complaint againt Rubiales for sexual assault and coercion.
As the drama rumbles on, there has been much scrutiny of the video footage of the incident, in which Hermoso can be seen smiling as she walks away. Footage has also emerged of her on the team bus soon after, laughing about the kiss. But a smile or a laugh can indicate nervousness or discomfort as much as happiness or joy. Many times, as a teenager, the father of a friend would initiate hugs with me in church. They were always too long and too close, but I would walk away smiling nervously, brushing it off as nothing. In the heat of the moment, it’s often hard to know how to respond to unwanted touch.
Perhaps the furore around Rubiales provides a moment to reflect on our practice. For too long, women both in the Church and outside of it have accepted unwanted touch as part of life. And it’s not just women. My church has many Persian members and, for some of these men, hugs from women are just as inappropriate. From family to family and culture to culture, expressions of affection vary: in Latin America and parts of Europe, cheek kissing is normal. In parts of Nigeria and South Asia, it is common for male friends to hold hands.
When I read Paul’s instruction in the New Testament to “greet one another with a holy kiss”, I hear him encouraging Christians (who were experiencing persecution) to show affection - but in a holy way. Positive touch can promote wellbeing, and honours God. For some in our churches, a hug or a handshake may be the only physical contact they have all week. Positive touch has even been shown to help babies’ brains develop.
But ensuring that our touch is always positive requires us to be thoughtful, says Amy Woodfield, a drama therapist and church leader. “You’ve got to think: Why do you want to give someone a hug?” she says. For some, physical touch can remind them of abusive situations. It’s important to make sure we reflect on our behaviour: Am I doing this for myself, or for the person I want to support?
In Amy’s work with as a therapist she always gives children the power to decide how to greet her, never forcing a hug or a handshake. But she also creates opportunities for positive physical touch. In a simple game of “rock, paper, scissors”, for example, a child can instigate how much hand touch there is when the paper wraps the rock.
Leading a church youth group, I spend time with young people who are growing up in a pornography-saturated culture that presents mixed messages about consent. I want them to understand that it is their choice who they allow to hug or kiss them. I want to help them understand how to react when something makes them uncomfortable - even if it is after the event.
The power imbalance between adults and children is perhaps obvious, but it is important to consider power in other contexts too. Are you an older man approaching a younger woman? Are you a leader greeting a new church member? If you are in a position of power, consider whether your physical contact could convey a false intimacy, cause fear or leave someone feeling awkward or confused.
Recently, I received an email from a man who I met for the second time at a conference this summer. He had been reflecting on our encounter: “I want to apologise for something. I came up and hugged you without asking - and I realised that this physical contact was not requested. I was meaning simply to express affirmation but I am sorry if I made you uncomfortable in any way.”
A smile or a laugh can indicate nervousness or discomfort as much as happiness or joy
As it happened, I hadn’t felt uncomfortable. As I explained in my reply, we were both adults in an environment where I felt safe, and the hug was friendly and not intrusive. But I was also heartened by his email. He had reflected on how his behaviour could have impacted me – which is the first time I’ve known anyone to be so thoughtful about consent around touch. It contrasted so strongly with Rubiales’ response to Hermoso, which was to double down on insisting that he had done nothing wrong, and that the fault lay with her instead.
As a hugger myself, I have too often found myself awkwardly embracing someone while belatedly remembering that they hate physical contact. I’m learning to read the signs. Crossed arms, taking a step back, no eye contact = no hug! I now simply ask as I approach someone: “Are you a hugger?” It is a reminder to us both that it is good to check.
I would love to see more adults in the Church pausing to reflect on how we show love to one another. The more we talk about it, the more we help each other to learn the language of consent, how to speak out when something is not right and admit when we get it wrong.