Consent. You learned it all wrong. Yes, even you, reader of Jezebel, or whatever. Yes, even you, unabashed sex educator. When we discuss consent, we tend to discuss it in the context of sex. Here is a typical example of an explanation of consent in sex education. It makes sense to teach it in this context because the stakes are way high when it comes to sex, and if you read this blog, I’m assuming you roughly know how consent works here, and don’t want to be an asshole rapist. If you haven’t learned about it, there is a wealth of 101 resources to be found literally anywhere. I’m not writing another 101 post about how to not sexually assault someone. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
So before continuing on, let’s just get this out of the way. Forget everything you learned about consent and repeat after me: Consent is not about sex. Consent is NOT about sex. So by now you’re probably wondering: If consent isn’t about sex, what is it about? Good question, imagined reader. Consent is about bodily autonomy and self-advocacy. The difference between consent and non-consent is not rape (though that may be a consequence). Not allowing for consent reveals that one party believes their needs trump the need for another’s agency. Not allowing for consent means that what one person wants will compromise another’s feelings of safety, privacy, and control over what they choose to do with themselves.
Should consent be used during sex? YES. That’s how you avoid raping. Should it be used outside of sex? Absolutely. That is how you avoid rape culture. While any human can violate any other human’s consent, gender politics play a role here in that women statistically don’t have the option to consent, or feel extreme pressure when it comes to not giving consent, lest they “make a big deal” out of something or “start drama.” Historically, women also don’t tend to have a lot of body autonomy because their bodies and dress are policed, and equitable healthcare must be fought for and scrutinized. Men and women experience the world differently because of how they’re treated, and yet women’s experiences are often questioned.
Even when the option of sex is never on the table, gender roles, sexism, and rape culture inform us that men suffer when they aren’t the active participant, when they aren’t “alpha,” or when they give up too easily. Women suffer when they speak up and voice their discomfort at being forced to particpate in something they don’t want to. The act of consent, by its very nature, goes against these structures because it is not a hierarchical interaction. It’s a horizontal and collaborative one. In the next few hundred words, I will explain how to ask for consent using some non-sex related examples where consent is key. Considering the variables that affect consent, asking for it is more complicated than most people think.
How do you ask for consent?
- Wait for freaking consent – How many times has someone asked to give you a hug, only to begin hugging you without waiting for an OK? How many times has a parent or roommate walked into your room without waiting for you to tell them they can come in? (And the quick knock and barge that my parents used to do doesn’t count.) Were you caught in the middle of changing, or anything else that made you uncomfortable? When someone doesn’t wait for you to say it’s okay, it shows they don’t actually care about whether it’s okay. They might ask, or let you know, but it’s only out of politeness, and not because they have your best interests at heart.
- Respect the bubble – It’s okay to want to be touchy-feely, but a lot of people prefer to have personal space, and there are ways it can feel violated (so stop with that kino bullshit!). You might think I’m only talking about weird introverts here, but in fact, no, a need for personal space is incredibly common, and the ante goes up when you consider racial and cultural issues that affect personal space. Not long ago, I was in a park with a new group of people. One of the guys had been paying some attention to me, and ended up cracking a joke and rubbing my back. I froze because I hadn’t seen it coming. Rubbing someone’s back is definitely a more than “friendly” gesture. I have been in this situation before, and when speaking up and saying that I didn’t want to be touched, I wasn’t met with “My bad,” like I had hoped. Instead, I put myself in a position where I was seen as “touchy,” “sensitive,” or “a bitch.”
- No pressure – Do ask for consent privately. This is why public marriage proposals are so awkward. It turns a personal and important relationship decision into a spectacle where there are actually consequences if there ends up being a no. Use your best judgment. An elevator, while private, is a terrible place to ask for consent. Don’t make saying no difficult and then put the onus on them by saying, “They could have said no at any time.” In fact, make saying no easier for them. Give them an out. I’m assuming you’d give the other party an out physically by not cornering them all Gaston-like, but doing the same with words is also extremely useful in lifting the pressure. Saying, “It’s no big deal if you don’t want to,” or even “no pressure” can alleviate a lot of anxieties and really put them in control of the situation.
- Take “no” for an answer – In a lot of encounters, no is not always part of the deal because one party is too desperate for a yes. My friend had an encounter where a guy who was interested in her insisted on walking her to her car, where he proceeded to take her phone out of her hand and put his number in. Phone snatching aside, there’s a big difference between saying, “Here let me give you my number,” and “Can I give you my number?” No is always part of the deal. And if you’re not ready to hear a “no,” then sorry, you’re not ready to hear a “yes” either, and the answer is “no” by default. Put all the cards on the table and let them choose the card. Don’t palm the card that says “no thanks,” and don’t make someone have to say no more than once. I’ve had a coat offered to me five times, which I said no to because I’m fine with walking a few blocks in brisk weather. I continued to say no when the other party kept insisting because I just wanted them to take my word for it.
I am writing this as someone who has trouble picking up social cues. Use your words. Asking for consent isn’t weird and inorganic. When it comes to sex, people complain that asking is unsexy and ruins the mood because they think of it as though we’re robots going, “
BEEP BOOP. I CAN PLACE HAND HERE: (
.FALSE.).” The truth is, we ask for things all the time. “Can I come in?” “Do you need a hug?” “It’s cold, do you want my coat?” And when someone says no, or when we mess up, we respond appropriately and take responsibility. “Okay, I’ll come back when you’re ready to talk.” “No worries.” “My bad. Just wanted to make sure.” No one feels weird about these questions, and sex, or any interaction becomes less weird when asking for consent becomes a normal, respectful part of the conversation.
We need to do something about the way we treat and teach consent. Teaching it as something only for sex creates a risk where we might violate others’ boundaries in a number of different ways. It doesn’t address the root problem of non-consent, and doesn’t allow anyone to practice good communication, except for awkwardly negotiating in the bedroom (and good luck feeling comfortable with that when you don’t know the first thing about boundaries). However, teaching consent in different contexts teaches that it’s okay to say no, and it’s okay to hear a no. It might seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but letting others have agency is crucial. Letting women, in particular, have agency over themselves is especially important because rape culture keeps people from being able to make choices without consequence. Giving someone a choice who has been previously discouraged from choosing, speaking up, or feeling that they have autonomy over their body, is incredibly empowering and undoes centuries of socializing that tells us that we don’t have a voice.