4 Ways Parents Teach Kids that Consent Doesn’t Matter

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.

It hurts.

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)

watch on YouTube: “4 Ways Parents Teach Kids that Consent Doesn’t Matter” by Parenting Gently

My Thoughts on Menstrual Products

I drove for 5 hours to visit Banji, then realized I was due to  menstruate soon – but I had forgotten my menstrual cup at home. I have to use tampons for the first time in years, and I’m not happy about it. I’ll admit I’m not in love with my cup or menstruating in general: my cramps are mild but can still be annoying, and emptying the cup can get a bit messy. I’ll be the first to admit that menstrual cups are not for everyone. But I’d gotten used to mine; using tampons again is just weird.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a menstrual cup is a small, flexible, medical-grade silicone cup that one inserts into one’s vagina to collect menstrual fluids. Five huge advantages of a cup over tampons are:

1. The cup only needs to be emptied once every 12 hours (as opposed to every 8)
2. Menstrual cup use is NOT associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome
3. It is reusable, and therefore better for the environment
4. It is reusable, and therefore saves one money
5. It is safe to insert before menstruation begins, protecting clothes from stains

There is an added advantage I hadn’t really thought about until I was forced to use tampons again: a menstrual cup allows one to be more in touch with one’s body. I’m finding the plastic applicator and convenient pull string of the tampons to be just a little bit too sanitary. All this pushing and pulling and fibers rubbing against my mucus membranes just doesn’t feel right; the silicone cup was much gentler. I actually kind of miss getting some blood on my hands, seeing how much had collected, even smelling it. I miss using the muscles around my vagina to push the cup out just far enough to grab the bottom with my fingers. It was a process; I had to be slow, gentle, and deliberate. I had to feel and respond. I had to touch myself *gasp* down there!

I’m finding that, for me, staying clean is not the be all and end all of this part of my cycle. It’s important, especially because I still need to participate fully in society. But it’s not enough on its own, not for me.

Menstruation is a potent, messy reminder of my creative potential – both biologically speaking and otherwise. My ability to create, nourish, and nurture a new life. That raw, primal power that rushes through my veins, filling every part of me. My connection with the generative forces of the Universe. The Muse that guides my artistic endeavors. It is an inescapable part of being alive. I want the product I use to reflect my acceptance of it.

I want to take this time – when I’m continually reminded of it by cramps, cravings, and an added process in the restroom anyway – to honor this sacred cycle, without which humans would cease to exist. I send positive energy to all people who menstruate, will menstruate, or have ever menstruated. May you be safe, healthy, and free to use (or not use) your creative energies as you see fit.

Blessed be.

Spring – er, Late Summer – Cleaning

Today was positively gorgeous. A tad chilly, with a very invigorating wind, just a handful of clouds in the sky. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

I wanted to get outside; while I was out I took the opportunity to clean up the plants in our garden. Most of the leaves on the basil have turned white, so I cut them away. This allows more resources to go to the healthy green leaves near the tops of the plants, and allows more sunlight to reach the newer, healthier-looking sprouts that have emerged. When I was done with the basil, I similarly cleaned excess, dead-looking stuff off the cucumber plant.

Once I was done pruning away the dead or sickly stuff, all that was left were (mostly) healthy plants, full of life. I thought, I wish I could do that for myself. Get rid of all the dead stuff, the clutter, and just keep what fills me with vitality.

So I went back in the house, opened all the windows so it would be full of fresh air and sunlight from this beautiful day, and proceeded to clean. I started with the bathroom and cried as I scrubbed the bathtub. I fought the mean voices that told me I was either in my rightful place as a woman (on my knees cleaning) or that I was demeaning myself by doing housework. I reorganized items so the sink looks presentable and the contents of the medicine cabinet are useful, not past their expiration date. I got that picture I don’t like off my wall, and cleaned up the stains it was covering (using white vinegar diluted in water, a paper towel, and some elbow grease).

When I was done, I moved to the kitchen. I started by reorganizing all the plastic containers we keep for storing leftovers, so they’re mostly on one shelf, sorted by shape and size with lids readily available. They look neat and there’s most of a cabinet free for storage of additional items – which is good, because the house as a whole is still intolerably cluttered. Soon after Fox got home he took care of the dishes, while I sorted through trash and recycling, found homes for items we wanted to keep, and cleaned surfaces. Before long we were sitting together in a very pleasant, relatively clutter-free kitchen, sharing a simple but delicious dinner. It felt so good to finally be at peace with my environment while in that room.

I did a lot of good work – quite the accomplishment, especially considering I didn’t see much point to getting out of bed this morning. But I’ll admit, I’m a bit disappointed that the only cleaning I got to in the living room and bedroom was trying to remove the dirt from the windowsills. (Seriously, how does dirt get on windowsills? It’s not dust, it’s dirt, like the stuff on the ground with grass growing in it outside! And it’s thick and hard to pick up. Gross!) I really wanted to change this space, make all of it more liveable. But I guess I just need to be patient with myself. Patient, and persistent.

It drives me nuts that unless we make a constant, conscious effort to maintain this, it’s just going to get intolerably gross again.

I don’t know how to assess my depression. Fox thinks the SAM-e is making me more irritable and anxious; I think he has a point. Last night I almost cried myself to sleep because I saw no point in living, no reason to care about sleep, waking, no point to even trying to do anything … and I felt trapped. I can’t end it, there are too many people who would be hurt. The thought of just going on, suffering horribly, my whole life pointless, just so my loved ones would be protected from the pain my death would cause … it was too much to bear. I couldn’t help crying.

Fox heard me, of course, and asked what was wrong. I started telling him all this stuff and somehow the conversation turned to composing music. I said, “I really like exploring different sounds. That could be a good reason to live.” Next thing I knew, I had a melody in my head that wanted out. I got up and started writing; a few hours later I had the melody written down, a list of instruments with timbres appropriate to the mood I want, some ideas for harmony and counterpoint, and the beginnings of a composition in Notion. It felt so good to be intentional in making choices that created the effects I was looking for, while also allowing for spontaneous creativity (e.g. a second melody that practically wrote itself).

So I have severe symptoms of depression and anxiety – including some suicidal ideation – alternating with incredible energy that I can consciously direct: last night into a new piece of music; today into improving my environment.

It doesn’t make any sense. It seems horribly contradictory. … or is it?

Unpleasant as they may be, those intense emotions are overflowing with energy. At their core is an intense desire for (possibly mixed with a fear of) change. “I can’t live like this anymore!” really amounts to “I want all these things – maybe even everything – to change!” And what greater change is there, than death?

We have to admit, looking our fear in the face and accepting it, taking direct action to cause such a huge change – THE huge change we are wired to do everything in our power to avoid – that is an incredibly powerful act. Not a good or desirable or advisable act, mind. But a powerful one, nonetheless. Like Voldemort.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I’ve had the support and force of will to take that power, that immense energy, and channel it into something less self-destructive than suicide. Even something creative. Last night, for better or worse, a new musical being entered the world. In the past I’ve sculpted and drawn and improvised music. Today I removed a lot of gross dead stuff that was standing between me and the life-giving sun.

If the price of such power is suffering, well, I guess I’m willing to pay it – as long as I can still have my moments of joy, which I do. I’ll take this power and put it toward making the world a better place. For myself by cleaning my house, and beyond by doing Spock knows what. I have the power – the raw energy – to do it. I just need to get better at using it instead of feeling overwhelmed.

I Don’t Need to Be “Beautiful”

This random guy tried to call my attention to him as I walked down a busy street the other day. He said, “Hey, beautiful,” as I passed by. My first response was to feel harassed, but I tried to talk myself down from it: “Feel good – he thinks you’re beautiful!” “Maybe he wasn’t even talking to you. He was probably calling someone else beautiful.”

The thing is, I don’t want or need to care what a random stranger thinks of my appearance. I just want to go where I’m going in peace. That’s what it all comes down to: people just want to go about their lives without being subjected to everyone else’s (observable) appraisal of them. Half the population is (generally) able to do this. But the half with boobs (or the ability to grow them) are subjected to it so frequently it’s considered “normal.”

Even just having one’s attention drawn to one’s appearance is invasive: it distracts from more important thoughts such as where one is going, what’s going on in one’s surroundings, whatever else is on one’s mind – such as thoughts related to one’s job or family life or important social / political / economic issues, etc. In my case, I went from feeling confident and happy about the task I’d just completed to questioning whether anyone could possibly consider me “beautiful.”

Why should I care? That’s his opinion; they’re his thoughts. They have nothing to do with me, my strengths and weaknesses, what I’m doing with the rest of my day, my interpersonal relationships, my career, etc. Let his thoughts stay with him. I have enough thoughts of my own, thank-you-very-much! And, frankly, I have enough mental health issues to work through, without being plunged back into the insecurity about my appearance that plagued me in high school.

Why do men do this? The only answer I can think of is that they want that “beautiful” woman to pay attention to them, even if only by making eye contact for a moment. Why? To inflate their ego? To feel powerful?

But it’s not really fair to blame the man who does this on the street. Yes, he should choose not to do it, but he’s just repeating what society tells him is appropriate. He might not know about the potentially harmful aspects of what he’s doing. He probably thinks he’s paying me – or the woman behind me – a compliment.

The real problem is much bigger than he – or his ego! –  will ever be. Why is this man’s self-esteem dependent on a “beautiful” woman paying attention to him? Is his social, political, and/or economic power so limited that the only way he can feel powerful is by expressing his opinion of and demanding attention from women? Why does he feel entitled to solicit attention from a random stranger by breaking the usual unspoken rule: let people go about their day in peace!? Okay maybe he wanted to be friendly – there is certainly a place for that. But it’s better accomplished by saying “hello” or “good day” – some greeting that is appropriate between beings who regard each other as equals. There is no need for one such being to give hir opinion of the other, especially not regarding something as shallow as physical appearance.

And then we come to the other side: Why are those of us who have boobs programmed to feel flattered by the word, “beautiful,” to seek it out, to respond automatically when someone applies it to us? I know I am smart, creative, resilient, determined, compassionate, etc. Why should I need or want to be “beautiful,” too? All “beauty” does is make me – or a moment of my attention – desirable to someone who knows nothing about me. I don’t need that! Why would anyone want to draw that kind of selfish attention to zirself?

If I care that you think I’m “beautiful,” then I am acting as a mirror for you! I’m reflecting that your opinion of my appearance matters more (at least in that moment) than everything else that’s going on in my life. No! I’m not a mirror, I’m a person! I have places to be, people to interact with, things to do, thoughts to think, masterpieces to create, a royally fucked-up world to change. If you need a mirror, go buy one at the dollar store.

I don’t want to be “beautiful” and I don’t need it, because I’m already powerful. That is, I have a lot of personal power – my social and political power are limited by the structures of inequality that privilege the few at the expense of the many. But I can use my personal power to work through my difficulties, to weaken the foundation of those structures (e.g. cultural values such as “beauty” which limit one’s ability to tap into personal power), to empower myself and others, and to live a life that I find meaningful.