I was working on an Interactive fiction game that I’ve been writing (more on that later) today and it made me feel poked. I took this as a good opportunity to tell the internet what feeling poked means. I’m going to do that though it will mostly be a framing device for making a point about how our culture treats the victims of sexual abuse. (spoiler alert: poked in some of its definitions involves sexual abuse.) I will also make a few other minor points relevant to Autism, personal boundaries, talking about tactile sensations and how not to warn kids about abuse.
So, um, trigger warnings: mostly for child sexual abuse.
I’m going to start by giving the meanings for poked in a chain of derivations alternating between the verb to poke and the adjective poked. (If tl;dr feel free to skip ahead to What’s Poked Got… The gist is poked=molested in childhood and some related meanings. You are sacrificing valuable precision, however; you have been warned.)
*To poke: standard dictionary definition (from wiktionary definition 1): To prod or jab with a pointed object such as a finger or a stick. [from later 14th c.]
*Poked: the feeling I get after somebody has poked me (usually to get my attention when I’m preoccupied with something else and don’t notice them talking to me.) The feeling is mostly a very startled shift of attention and surprise, but it can include tactile defensiveness. An important component is the sudden and unexpected invasion of personal space.
*To poke: To deliberately invade ones personal space in order to get a reaction (for example to seduce or sexually harass or as a very overenthusiastic sort of sympathy.)
*Poked: One of several possible feelings caused by a deliberate personal space violation.
I Pause To Make a Taxonomy of Reactions to Poking
In order of decreasing assertiveness/increasing expectedness:
*what the Crab?: Surprise and confusion maybe leading to anger, but probably expecting it to be an accident. This is when you’re pretty sheltered from people doing that to you and don’t really know how to react. It doesn’t last long if the poking keeps up.
*hit back: Anger and strong motivation to defend the boundary, sometimes out of all proportion. Some stereotypes of abused people are based on this reaction, but it’s not what I decided to call poked, because it’s not my usual response.
*shy away and feel uncomfortable: this is what being poked is to me. It’s when somebody invades a boundary and you’re too used to it to have to clarity to stand up for it, but it still feels wrong enough that you have token defensive body language: raised shoulders, leaning away, tensing muscles near the touch etc.
*total retreat: just move your sense of self away from the part they’re taking before they get there. The boundary isn’t really there anymore. If they take your whole body you can hide in your mind. Leads to the another abused stereotype “going to your happy place.” I do go this far sometimes, but not nearly as often as the shy away level, so I’m calling that poked.
Continuing the Derivation Chain Because I’m a Huge Geek
*Poked is the feeling of having one’s boundaries deliberately invaded but only having the confidence to put up a token resistance. Tactilely, this is is often accompanied by a particular sensation, a combination of flu-like achey, ticklish, and the feeling of holding back a tic. I keep wanting to describe it as electric, probably because it reminds me of the feeling of my hairs sticking up on end when my body is filled with static electricity. I want to describe it as gross because it has a similar emotional quality to grossness even though it doesn’t make me nauseous. It’s my usual reaction to light touch but I’m sure it feels nothing like light touch does to neurotypicals. I don’t think I’ve ever felt normal light touch. Poked feels sort of salty… Okay I give up. It’s a weird feeling.
*To poke: To break down, either over time or in one traumatic event, the resistance of a person’s boundaries, so that their reaction to further poking is at most shying away. This can last an extended time up to and including your whole life. This form of the verb is often used with an inanimate subject when for example “ableism in society pokes me”.
*Poked: Having ones defenses worn down by having been poked.
*To poke: Specifically to sexually assault, often a reliable and fast way to make somebody poked. Idiomatically to “poke a kid” is always sexual abuse. To refer to causing a child to be poked by for example aggressive grooming and allowing no privacy, one can say “metaphorically poke.” Undermining the boundaries of a child by literally prodding them with a stick without sexual intent is also metaphorical poking. The irony is not lost on me. The preoccupation with Child Sexual Abuse in this terminology does have an explanation, however.
*Poked: Importantly identifying as a victim of sexual abuse. (I don’t like the term survivor; some of my best friends are the ghosts of dead rape victims and they feel left out by the term. More seriously, the whole idea that you should feel proud for surviving something raises the unfortunate implication that you should feel ashamed of dying of it. One can argue that its harmless because the dead can’t feel shame, but I would argue that the dying can. I would not want to spend my last moments feeling ashamed of not being tough or brave enough to be a survivor.)
What’s Poked Got to Do With It
I used to primarily identify as Poked. I was, in fact, molested at a young enough age that it seemed like a plausible candidate for the cause of my weirdness. I was 5 or 6 when it started, and while I was already showing Autistic traits and standing out as strange before then, I became pretty different during and after. I was a lot more angry and scared all the time. Before then I was a happy little autistic kid, running around and stimming loudly all the time and my bigest problems were that I was lonely and that the grown ups in my life kept trying to stop me from running around stimming all the time. I could talk if I had to, but I didn’t like to. I was finally potty trained when I was 5 and my parents must have been relieved. Things were looking up.
The way my mom used to tell it, they were worried because my nannies never even tried to play with me or socialize me and payed sole attention to my little brother who they could relate to more. They just left me to entertain myself. I barely knew they existed. Then green lady came. (She wore green. Always. Still don’t know what’s up with that.) We found green lady by having a contest between several potential nannies for who showed most interest in playing with me. Green lady showed a lot of interest, because I must have seemed like a particularly enticing target.
She molested me, like a lot. It wasn’t penetrative but it did really poke me, mostly because it was really overstimulating and the intensity of attention was very confusing. It also made me feel ashamed later when I knew what it was. But she also really communicated with me. She was the only adult in my childhood who consistently accepted my autism traits as part of who am and also still treated me as a person. I don’t know how much of it was an act. She implied that she was acting out things that were done to her and felt close to me through the shared experience even though she was causing it. I only understood a lot of what she was saying much later, but I always had complicated feelings for her.
I wasn’t diagnosed with any kind of Autistic Spectrum Disorder until adulthood, mostly because of my parent’s zeal to deny my abnormality to the world, partly because i was born in 1981 and therapists didn’t really know much back then. I always assumed everything weird about me was because I was molested. As a teenager, I thought that meltdowns were PTSD flashbacks. I made myself think about Green Lady in every flashback because I still though of diagnoses not as descriptions of reality but things I had to obey to be legitimate. It was easy enough to do. Even though Green Lady was only my nanny for two years I have always stayed obsessed with her.
Toward a Moral: That Which Can Explain Anything Explains Nothing
Sexual abuse is bad. It was really bad when it happened to me, and it’s a lot worse for a lot of other people. It is not incomprehensibly horrific, nor the worst thing somebody can do to somebody. It is a lot less bad than killing somebody, for example, because they might totally still have a happy and/or meaningful life afterward. Our cultural responses to being poked are either based on “worst thing ever, if you disagree you’re minimizing” or some sort of “healing process” that is supposed to lead you back to the “person you were before”. Maybe the second makes some sense for adult rape victims, but the person I was before was a lonely vulnerable five year old. I can do better. I’ve already done better. As for the first, it’s great for motivating prevention efforts, but its disheartening to be told that your life was forever destroyed a long time ago.
For both of the ideal is to become a non-poked person. But I knew I didn’t want to be a normal person. Both memes felt like they were trying to erase me, even the survivor community online, feels like it’s trying to erase itself. This should all sound familiar for readers that are familiar with the Autistic Community and our struggles to stop the obsessions with cures and the rhetoric of calling our existence a tragedy. Indeed most of the differences I saw in my self I wanted to defend came from Autism rather than abuse. It was hard to find that out though when everything could so easily be explained by being poked. That’s another problem with thinking of your self as totally broken by one thing; I no longer looked for reasons why. It was hard to find other problems, other differences and the things I could fix. Various times I’ve had normal problems for normal reasons but gave up on trying to solve them without a therapist’s help, because I assumed they were from poked.
Also, there really are permanent personality changes caused by being poked, but they’re not all bad. I think I’m more compassionate because I’ve been weak. I think I’ve learned forgiveness by being hurt by somebody who I was close to but who I could see the pain of. And I’d never want to give up the inspiration to make stories inspired by what happened. I think experiencing sexual aggression is a big part of the human condition and art should explore it more in more familiar and less othering terms. I think we should let it into our mental worlds with no more distaste than any other very serious crime. If you can talk about murder, you should be able to a fortiori talk about poking. Even some of the obvious ill effects are just part of who I am now, part of what I have to work with. I would miss all the nightmares and triggers if they were gone. I’m used to them and I’m used to their bright side. They give me good ideas and they make me feel alive.
I used to think Poked people were my people. They still sort of are. I feel a huge commonality with poked people of all kinds. That basically started with Green Lady. (She didn’t lose her card for poking me or anything, anymore than an autistic person would stop being an autistic person if they were a child molester. She’s probably a bad person, but she’s a bad poked person. I leave my True Scotsmen at the door.) But I don’t feel at home the same way I do with Autistic people. I’m in process of transferring my primary identity and it feels weird. I’m intersectional. (I love that word.)
But it’s not all a coincidence. I’m certainly not autistic because I got poked, but I probably got poked because I’m autistic. My loneliness and need for acceptance came from that. Green Lady would not have had as much to offer a normal kid in return. She might also not have had that desire for closeness without a sign of weakness. She never touched my little brother. It also made keeping it secret easier. She never told me not to tell. It never occurred to me that she was doing anything wrong. Adults gave me unwanted affection all the time, and often it hurt. This was the worst, but it was only a difference of degree to me. I though I was supposed to cooperate.
Sometimes it even came up in conversation, but I parsed the world so differently that I told many adults about the abuse in what I considered great detail without them realizing what I was talking about. (Which body parts she was touching did not seem like the most relevant features of what she was doing for example.) I think I eventually got her fired, but my parents didn’t know till I was in late high school what she was being fired for. I had a bit of a realization when my high school girlfriend did something very similar while making out with me.
I knew she was touching me in private places, but the talk my parents gave me about private places when I was little was quite deficient. They used the same word private that they used primarily for things that should only be done indoors or with strangers, but are obligatorily shared with family and close friends. I knew not to show my privates in public or to let a stranger or teacher touch them, but would have not expected to have any say in which relatives, family friends, nannies, or other kids got to touch them. To say no wouldn’t be social. If there was more nuance to the way they said private, I totally missed it. This seems like I pretty Autistic reason to get poked. Because Green Lady never used force, threats, demands anything. She just said that she wanted to, that it was one thing I was really good at and that it would make her happy. I wanted to make her happy. I was being good.
Conclusion and Valediction
I think the ways that I am poked bear on the ways I am Autistic. They definitely reflect on the ways I just am. I’m going to be talking a lot about this and how it all fits together. The internet will get to hear me figure out how it all comes together. But right now, I mostly want to express that I want the Autism community to be a model for the poked community. We’ve figured what being okay means. That’s something of value we can export.
Wow I really need to learn how to write shorter posts!