Far too many of us are accustomed to people invading our space and touching us without consent. It often begins in infancy, in our primary relationships. We grow up with others expecting they have the right to do whatever they want to us, even when we don’t want or like it. We end up expecting others to ignore our needs.
Safe Secure Kids defines consent as follows:
Consent means giving someone a choice about touch or actions and respecting their answer. With children, we often use the language “asking for permission.” — Teaching Consent, Safesecurekids.org
“Give me a hug” is different from “Can I have a hug?” and waiting for a response. Even babies can indicate through body language if they want people to hug them. So why do we ignore that? How can I trust you if you don’t earn it?
Often we’ve never been taught because non-consensual touch gets perpetuated through multiple generations. Our ego gets involved, some of us offended by a rebuff. It’s no longer about giving — it’s about taking what we want.
I didn’t give my consent
Recently, my neighbor, an elderly gentleman, tried to splash me with a hose as I rode by his house on my daily bike ride. I avoided him because I didn’t want him to splash me. He didn’t ask me first. No big deal, right?
I grew up with non-consensual touch, so I’m used to it. We’re friendly with each other. He offered me freshly made jam a couple of times. Does that make it ok, though? I laughed and waved at him as if it were ok with me. I guess people not asking permission is that ingrained.
The website Wheel of Consent talks about ignoring our feelings when we’ve experienced non-consensual touch:
We have all received touch we did not agree to or want, starting when we were very young. We have probably not only allowed touch we don’t want, we have learnt to adapt to it; overriding our feelings to make it seem OK. This can set up a pattern of numbing, not knowing what we want or cause feelings such as resentment. — wheelofconsent.co.uk
If we grow up without parents, caregivers, and other adults acknowledging our boundaries or asking for consent, we’re not likely to question them. We start normalizing it. That’s why I didn’t challenge an old white man about not wanting him to splash me. My parents would’ve told me to lighten up, that he was having fun.
That kind of attitude can lead to non-consensual sex. Sometimes women don’t recognize that men raped and assaulted them. We didn’t learn that “No” comes out in varied ways. We didn’t recognize when men ignored our “No.” And we didn’t honor and respect our right to say “No.”
If we want to say “No,” we’re afraid they’ll hurt us if we do. That’s how some of my sexual experiences ended up being non-consensual. I had to learn I can change my mind, that I’m allowed to say “No” to anyone touching me. “No” is a complete sentence with no need for further explanation.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) talks about consensual sexual activity, emphasizing communication as a key element:
When you’re engaging in sexual activity, consent is about communication. And it should happen every time for every type of activity. Consenting to one activity, one time, does not mean someone gives consent for other activities or for the same activity on other occasions. For example, agreeing to kiss someone doesn’t give that person permission to remove your clothes. — What Consent Looks Like, rainn.org
We might end up becoming the adult who ignores others’ boundaries, not asking them for consent before entering their space. That appears to be true for my older neighbor. He could be nice in all other ways, but if he touches my kids without asking, I’ll be compelled to educate him.
A presumably benign hose splashing clued me in to his attitude about consent. I’m more sensitive now that I’ve learned I can decide for myself how I want others to treat me. It’s astounding that it’s taken decades to unlearn growing up in a non-consensual culture.
Breaking generational patterns
I noticed recent generations have begun to pay attention to and value consent, especially when it comes to children. But it’s not only older people ignoring boundaries about consent. We also perpetuate the cycle of non-consensual play and touch in future generations.
My other neighbor is a thirty-year-old single dad of a four-year-old boy. One day I took out the trash and told the kid I didn’t want to get wet with his squirt gun. When I returned, he pointed it at me. I brought out my firm voice to remind him I don’t like or want that. Because he’s only four, I hope I can be influential as an example of respecting consent.
His father also hasn’t asked for consent in particular situations, which doesn’t surprise me. Children learn about consent by watching their caregivers practicing with them and in the rest of their relationships.
I’m not angry at the boy, but I’m concerned he’s growing up without respect for boundaries. He didn’t ask, “Can I get you wet?” So I’m sure he was baffled when I said “No” in my strong voice.
Again, it seems on the surface as “no big deal,” but I’ve come to realize that these small actions make a big difference in a relationship.
As we deepen our relationships, we can enter into implied consent. To imply consent means you have already agreed that it’s ok to for someone to offer you physical affection, splash you, or any other activity you mutually enjoy. Your consent is implied because they know you want them to touch you a particular way.
My kids and I have some implied consent. For example, I know it’s ok to hug and kiss my oldest child goodnight. However, my younger kiddo wants me to ask first, and they don’t always want the kisses I offer. Asking periodically helps clarify any changes they might want.
If I willingly engaged in water play with my four-year-old neighbor, I’d be giving him consent to splash me. If I changed my mind, I’d need to tell him so, or he wouldn’t know I didn’t want that anymore.
Acknowledging and practicing informed consent
We sometimes give informed consent before a medical procedure. You read and sign an agreement to give consent after they inform you of the risks involved.
We can also make verbal agreements in our relationships. The more you speak up about consent makes it easier to talk about it the next time. Practice giving mutual respect for boundaries.
Your friend, lover, or family member will likely appreciate it. We teach others how to treat us. You can do that when you respect consent.
I have a friend who’s especially good at asking what I’ll agree to in our relationship. I feel safe, respected, and understood. I’ve asked him what he wants, too, respecting his needs and desires. We have a strong, healthy foundation.
The first step is acknowledging the need for consent — asking others, giving yours, and establishing boundaries around that. Practicing consent in your relationships means you ask every time you want to engage, through physical touch or sharing personal information.
I’ve crossed boundaries sometimes when talking to friends about my other relationships. I have to be cautious of sharing information that only the other person consents to offering.
I grew up with a parent who never stopped sharing her thoughts about my life with others — often right down the hall from me, where I heard every word. I needed to do a couple of things: first, I told her to stop doing that (she didn’t). Second, I had to stop gossiping about others. Gossip is non-consensual.
It may not seem like a big deal to have a neighbor tease me with a splash of water, but it brought up a deeper issue that needs addressing.
Consent is a powerful tool in relationships that establishes trust and mutual respect between people. Consensual touch illustrates a willingness to respect another’s wants and needs. Respecting someone’s mind, body, and spirit offers a gateway into a beautiful, loving relationship, rich with possibilities.
We may not always get it right every time. Sometimes we might inadvertently cross boundaries. Other times, we don’t ask for what we need. But, eventually, if we’re trying to improve, our relationships will reflect that. If we can say and hear, “I give my consent,” or, “No, I don’t give my consent,” we’ve made progress.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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