From the time we are born, we are touched by numerous people; doctors, nurses or midwives when we enter this incarnation. Later, family, friends, teachers, partners, co-workers, and strangers make physical contact with us. Sometimes it occurs by total acceptance and invitation. Sometimes it is subtly or overtly against our wishes. If we are able to deflect those types of touch, we may count ourselves fortunate. If not, we may find ourselves catapulted into a traumatic response.
Touch by consent is an important topic to broach at home. In an article entitled, “We Can Teach Kids Consent Without Bringing Sex Into The Conversation,” by Martha Kempner, she focuses on the importance of parents helping their children set body boundaries. Tickling is a good place to start. She describes that amid laughing when her father was doing so, her four -year old daughter called out for him to stop. Her words were saying one thing, while her reaction was communicating something else. He responds to her words and immediately ceases. Later in the article, Kempner explains to her older daughter that consent is permission, offered willingly.
As an educator who offers classes that highlight consensual touch, I share, “When children are taught that their bodies are their own and have the right to say yes or no to touch, they experience as a sense of personal strength that they might not otherwise. We teach children about ‘good touch vs. bad touch,’ but the truth is, even what we might label ‘good,’ such as hugging or kissing a family member, can be coercive. How often do we insist that a child hug Grandmom when she might smell like cigarette smoke and the child doesn’t want to be near her because of that? We add fuel to the fire and guilt to the mix by telling the child, “You don’t want to hurt her feelings, now do you?”
What the child learns is that touch is not offered or expected freely, but rather, coercively. How does that translate into assault? When a child is not empowered to say no to seemingly benevolent touch, how can he or she ward off malevolent contact?
Some adults find it difficult to say no as well and require encouragement. One simple way to explain the concept of consent comes from a video that equates it with tea.
Betty Martin, “a Chiropractor, a Body Electric School trained Sacred Intimate, Certified Sexological Bodyworker, Foundations of Facilitation trainer, and a self-propelled erotic adventurer and intimacy coach,” created a tool called The Wheel of Consent by which people can have a greater understanding of the essential nature of human interaction. She breaks them down into four quadrants: Give, Take, Allow and Receive. Each one brings with it, an opportunity to set boundaries and be fully expressed with regards to the rights and responsibilities of relating.
On MLK weekend 2019, I attended an event called Interfusion. Heralded primarily as a dance conference that welcomes people from all over the world, it also offers workshops that focus on spirituality, relationships, creativity, and sexuality. I was also one of the instructors, co-facilitating a massive (400+ person) Cuddle Party, which focuses on communication, community building, relationship-enhancing, boundary setting, safe, nurturing touch by verbal consent.
The success of the workshop is based in part on meeting the human need of skin hunger. The words of family therapist Virginia Satir could just as easily be written on a prescription pad: “We need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance, and 12 hugs a day for growth.” Hugs and cuddling meet skin hunger needs, which are just as vital for wellbeing as food hunger. Without nurturing, non-sexual touch, by consent, we fail to thrive. Touch need not be shared only or primarily between sexually intimate partners. It is not only possible but indeed, enjoyable to cuddle/hug with platonic friends.
Since there is close and intimate contact made during the partner dances, it is essential that proper boundaries are stated from the get-go and maintained throughout. I was also on the consent committee who was tasked to be available to talk should anyone’s boundaries be crossed. Many discussions were about what consent actually means.
These were the descriptions that were helpful on and off the dance floor. An accompanying video was created by Christian Rodriguez who is the organizer and director of Interfusion.
Consent is permission for something to happen or agreement to do something without abuse or exploitation of trust or power.
Above all, consent is a human right. Everyone has a right to their own body and to feel comfortable with how they use it.
If someone seems unsure, stays silent, doesn’t respond, or says “Maybe…” then it means “no” or there’s something to clarify.
It is important for both partners to read and understand the signs when someone is uncomfortable, scared, and expressing their desire to stop either verbally or non-verbally.
Respect each other’s autonomy by respecting the answer you’re given, trusting that the individual who delivered it, did so from honoring their boundaries and taking care of themselves.
Consent eliminates the entitlement that one might feel over another. Neither your body or sexuality belong to anyone else.
A “yes” once does not mean “yes” in the future. Don’t make assumptions. In a healthy relationship, it’s important to discuss and respect each other’s boundaries on the regular.
Bottom line is, you get to decide who touches you, what kind of touch you want, how much and for how long.
— The Good Men Project (@GoodMenProject) March 10, 2019
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— The Good Men Project (@GoodMenProject) March 11, 2019
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— The Good Men Project (@GoodMenProject) March 11, 2019
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