If you’ve been on social media over the past week, you may have noticed your feed being flooded with #metoo and #Iwashim posts.
It’s been a heavy week for many.
Some of us have been reliving past traumas. Others of us are grappling with the fact we’ve been perpetrators – knowingly or otherwise. Some of us are doing both. Most all of us are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the issue of sexual harassment and assault.
Am I Doing This Consent Thing Right?
If you’re coming out of this week feeling concerned that you’ve violated consent and contributed to the problem without meaning to, you’re not alone.
The world of human interaction is messy, and we all make mistakes. Even those of us who know all about consent bungle things up all the time. The key is learning to recognize it, take ownership on our part, and simply keep working at it.
So here’s a rule of thumb I live by these days: if you’re not sure if you have consent, you don’t.
Here are 5 questions I ask myself to establish whether or not I am acting with consent.
1. Are they informed?
Does this person know what they need to know about me, and the full context of what we would be agreeing to? Am I withholding any details for fear that they would change their mind? If so, that’s a red flag that I don’t really have their consent.
I’ve learned that the more detailed and forthcoming I am, the “cleaner” my interactions become. It takes a little more set up time to communicate our full intentions, but this way, I avoid any hidden agendas on either of our parts.
2. Can I accept “No” for an answer?
This is a big one for me. All of the times I can name where I was manipulative, coercive, or a bulldozer (both in sexual and non-sexual situations) have stemmed from either entitlement, desperation, or both.
To quote Marcia Baczynski, co-founder of Cuddle Party,
“A request where there’s not room to say no isn’t a request. It’s a politely disguised demand.”
If we aren’t able to accept “No”, then our only option is to take or steal without consent.
The only way to avoid that, is by learning to sit with not getting what we want. Getting really comfortable with hearing no for an answer – without pushing back, or trying to change their minds – is fundamental to being able to respect another person’s boundaries.
3. Are they able to say “No”?
If you don’t have a “No”, then I can’t trust your “Yes”.
Consent is a two-way street, and it requires each participant to be a freely acting agent. There are a few things to consider that can inhibit someone from saying “No”.
- Is this person able to be clear on what they want and don’t want? If the answer is no, they won’t be able to fully participate. Someone who is sending mixed signals is not a safe person to engage with. What they need is space and time to figure out what they want without being influenced by another person’s requests.
- Is there a power dynamic between us that disempowers them from saying “No” to me? Is there an age disparity, or are you in a role of authority? These are a few factors that can negate an authentic response.
- Are any substances or other circumstances influencing their decision? If you think that they would be choosing differently otherwise, that’s a red flag that they may not be in a position to give you consent.
4. Are they a gatekeeper or participant?
Consent at its best isn’t just about giving permission, it’s about wholehearted participation. If I notice myself looking at my partner as the gatekeeper to something I want, then it’s a clue that I might be too wrapped up in my own desires to actually pay attention to what they are needing and wanting. That’s when the cajoling, convincing, game-playing and manipulation come into play.
When we both are engaged, contributing input, and taking initiative, that’s when I know when I’m practicing consent to its fullest.
5. Did I get a clear yes?
Learning how to ask is an essential tool in consensual exchanges. Nothing takes the place of a verbal yes. However, sometimes even a verbal response can be unclear.
I’ve been taught that there are 3 parts to a yes:
- Their verbal yes
- Their body language
- My gut
If any one of those isn’t in place, then it’s not clear enough to move forward. If you’re getting mixed signals, it’s good practice to simply take it as a no. And if everything seems good on their end but you’re feeling unsure or hesitant, this might be a good time to take a pause.
Keep Checking In
Desire is something that is very fluid and can change at any time, so checking in periodically is key. This makes room for the other person to communicate something they may not have volunteered otherwise. I like to ask things like “How’s this?”, “Would you like to stop here or keep going?” or “What would make this even yummier?”
I’ve learned to recognize that when I’m unclear about something, or if what the other person wants feels muddy in my head, all that is needed is a little communication.
Really practicing consent has been the work of setting aside my ego. I had to let go of the idea that I could read my partner’s mind, or that my needs are more important, and make room for what actually is. I’ve come to embrace the awkwardness of feeling like I’m over-communicating. Because if given the choice between being awkward, or being harmful, I’ll choose the awkwardness any day!
These days, I don’t live in the grey area much anymore when it comes to intimacy and touch. And still, it’s not a perfect process. I still bungle things up, and there are still many awkward and humbling moments.
But I’m learning to be patient with myself, and keep practicing. Consent isn’t about arriving somewhere and staying there. It’s about the process. And while it does mean that I don’t always get what I want in the moment, it does mean that I stay in connection and communication with those around me. And that’s really what it’s all about.