The issue of consent has been a recurring theme on my blog, even though I haven’t always used that word to address it. (I’m using “consent” in a broader context than safe positive sex – an important issue in and of itself.) Whenever I’ve written about feeling like my wants and needs don’t matter, or my difficulty setting and enforcing boundaries, in a sense I have been expressing lack of consent in my relationships.
Dictionary.com defines consent as “permission, approval, or agreement; compliance; acquiescence” or “agreement in sentiment, opinion, a course of action, etc.” I’m concerned about the inclusion of “compliance” in the first definition because it is usually used in situations where a person, corporation, or other entity has power over an individual person, and the latter person is required to obey rules, regulations, etc. set forth by the former – or face some kind of undesirable consequence (e.g. being laid off, disciplinary action, fines, etc.). This definition does not reflect the meaning I intend to convey in my discussion of consent. The second definition, “agreement in sentiment, opinion, a course of action, etc.” is much closer to the meaning I intend; it implies or at least allows for equality among the people who are in agreement.
The thing is, I find it all too easy to express (and I often feel pressured to express) such agreement, even when I don’t agree or haven’t made up my mind yet. There are often times when I want something but only under certain conditions, which I may not feel comfortable expressing nor have the opportunity to express. There are also times when I don’t feel comfortable saying “no,” whether it’s because a) I don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, b) I haven’t made up my mind yet and I don’t want that possibility to be gone forever, or c) my mother will give me a hard time if I say “no” and try to manipulate me into saying “yes,” so I might as well just agree to whatever she wants to get the interaction over with. (That last possibility is pretty much exclusive to interactions with my mother.)
Expressing agreement when one feels pressured or coerced into doing so, or when one is afraid not to do so, is not consent. Definitions of consent in the realm of safe, positive sex emphasize that the person giving it must be “free,” “willing,” “active,” and “informed;” the best definitions encourage clear verbal communication.
In her article on Everyday Feminism, Shannon Ridgway encourages the person seeking consent to also consider the other person’s nonverbal communication:
- Look for visual clues – Does the other person seem excited or happy? Are they smiling? Or do they seem scared or unsure?
- Check body language – Is the other person seem to be in a positive mood or have high-energy? Or do they seem tense and uncomfortable?
- See if they’re engaged in the sexual act – Is the other person proactively kissing or touching you? Or are they still and only move if you ask them to?
And lastly and most importantly,…
- Just ASK and watch for if the answer is said with fear or joy. If it’s a “yes” said in a small or fearful voice, wait before progressing and find out what’s going on.
As much as I would love for the people who are closest to me to apply the above guidelines whenever I seem to be agreeing to something, I can’t rely on that for my own safety and well-being. At best, I can show them the guidelines and ask them to consider the above questions, then follow up with me if something seems amiss. Whether they’re willing to try or not, they might not always be able to read and respond to my nonverbal cues. We all make mistakes.
I need to ask these questions of myself, before expressing agreement or willingness to do ______. Am I excited about this possibility? Or do I feel unsure? Is there any tension or discomfort when I think about ______? Do I proactively take steps to make sure ______ happens, or do I only move when asked? Do I feel pressured to agree to ______? What would I choose if I could choose freely? What questions or concerns do I have? Do I need more time to consider? What can I say right now, besides “yes” or “no”?
To be honest, I tend to be painfully aware of my responses to these questions, even if I’m not consciously asking them per se. (I still think it’s worth reminding myself to ask and answer them, though.) The true difficulty I face lies in acting on them (e.g. expressing disagreement or uncertainty), largely because I have been raised to believe that my feelings, opinions, desires, and needs matter less than those of other people. I don’t think my parents, other caregivers, and family members intended to convey that message; they just didn’t understand how their actions might affect me. They were coping (often poorly) with their own problems. And yes, at times they were too focused on themselves to consider my needs. Without knowledge of alternatives, they were repeating the lessons they had been taught, the imperfect ways in which they were raised… even when they meant to do what’s best for me.
But there is hope in that pain. For one thing, it’s easier to forgive them for the mistakes they made, knowing that the pain they caused me was unintentional. Then I don’t have to waste energy being angry or resentful and can instead focus on taking better care of myself. I also don’t have to blame myself, but can instead ally with myself to make sure my needs are met, my opinions heard, etc. going forward.
And I have access to resources that were not available to the people who raised me. This whole post was inspired by a video I wish my parents could have watched when I was a young child. I can’t bring it back through time, but I can use it as a tool in my own healing and incorporate its messages into how I parent my own (someday) children. I hope others will find it to be a valuable resource as well.
(content note: includes mention of sexual and other abuse; quotes potentially-harmful things parents may say to their children)