Taking care of a tiny little guinea pig who is terrified of everything is a daunting experience – for Pepper more than for me, I’m sure. Pepper dislikes heights, the wind, loud noises, oranges, and just about everything I introduce to her. She is often really reluctant to be held by humans, which makes me think that nobody really held her before she came to me. I have to socialise her, however, if she’s to cope with things like being picked up and moved so that her hutch can be cleaned, or being examined by a vet, or even just coping with hearing the sounds of human daily life around the household (sneezes, for instance? Very scary).
I am trying to be very gentle with Pepper and listen to her wishes, but it’s quite difficult when you both don’t speak the same language. I’m learning about guinea pig behaviour, and it’s pretty obvious that persistent squeaking means ‘I’d like to go home now’. I’m following her squeaks and movements and eyes in order to learn about the kinds of touch she likes and doesn’t. Very gentle and slow strokes along her back are okay, as are having her ears and sides tickled, but petting along her back that is firm or is of a more usual pace, rubbing her hair in the opposite direction to its growth, and touching her face and feet are not. We are gradually getting used to each other, and she has stopped being quite so scared and forming daring escape plans.
I am trying my best to treat Pepper, in short, like a being with her own preferences and the right to be handled and not handled in the way she wishes. And I am balancing this with my responsibility to maintain her health and pleasant environment, which sometimes involves making her unhappy.
I don’t consider that I have the same kind of ethical relationship to animals that I have to human beings, but I am glad to think that feminist ideas of consent and autonomy have influenced the way I treat my guinea pigs for the better. (Cardamom, for the record, is pretty chill with everything I’ve tried except for having her coat rubbed in the opposite direction to its growth.) There are too many people who treat the animals in their homes like toys, able to be tossed aside and handled roughly, rather than as beings. I am trying to respect all the beings in my life, and reflect on the capacity I have to harm them.
This made me think of something Cara wrote at The Curvature on The Importance of Consent in Everyday Situations:
“What if we didn’t assume our right to touch in everyday, non-sexual situations? What if we didn’t just take for granted that a certain touch will be okay? What if we were to not consider our own desires and thoughts about a certain touch, but those of the person we’re touching? Many would undoubtedly argue, and have argued, that the world would be a much colder and less intimate place. But I argue that it’d be a far more communicative place. It’d also be a world much safer to a wide variety of people. It’d be a world with a far more genuine respect for bodily autonomy and personal rights.”
I’ve found such application of specifically constituted feminist thought to other situations really helpful. Respecting other bodies as something I can’t access without permission has in turn helped me set my own boundaries about the extent to which I am comfortable with particular kinds of contact in everyday life. For instance, I love greeting and goodbye hugs with my female friends, so I’m a physically affectionate person, but having my hands and arms touched in the course of a conversation without warning is something I find a bit jarring. The proliferation of feminist thought in my consciousness is helping me to identify my preferences and to ask for them to be respected. And it makes me more aware again that there is joy and respect in not assuming that you have the right to touch another person.
Touch that is conscious and negotiated feels better, no matter the situation.