16 May Consent-More Than a “Yes”
When I was teaching healthy sexuality and relationships back in the mid 90’s I wasn’t allowed to discuss anything that ‘looked like’ sex in the middle schools. This was Alabama and I was the director of a brand new sexual assault crisis center. Discussing sex and date rape in fraternies in the local college was a little less restrictive, yet no less challenging.
I recall a particular session where one of the young college men made a flippant comment about having sex with girls who had passed out. I asked the group of young men why they wouldn’t rather have sex with a wide awake, consenting female. Consent was something we wanted these young men (and women) to understand and to practice in their lives. I wanted that smart ass of a young man to really understand the distinction of being with a woman who fully consented to play with him. What a heady feeling to have someone eager and ready, taking control in their own decision-making and being active and engaged.
Today it’s much easier to talk about consent in the sexual context, though there are still many times and places where consent is still problematic.
What does consent look like when we talk about our lives, specifically our emotional and physical relationships with people?
Consent is more than confirming it’s a yes. It’s more than ‘she didn’t say no’.
To give consent implies that one is a willing participant. To give consent should mean that we are wholeheartedly engaged in whatever this action is. Otherwise why would we say yes?
Woven into the conversation about our ability to say Yes and to say No is the acknowledgment that girls and women are schooled to be polite, to put others first. And, that means sometimes we say yes when we really want to say no. We agree to stay another 30 minutes at the party because it seems rude to leave. We say yes to a slice of pie so as not to offend grandma. We agree to have sex with our partner, when we’re not really in the mood, because it seems easier, or expected. I call that charity sex!
Our ability to step into our personal autonomy is determined for us at an early age. Well meaning parents insist we kiss Uncle Joe or make us sit next to the cousin who hits us when no one is looking. They don’t think to ask us if we ‘want to’ do the activity; the assumption is that children do as told. See the set-up that comes later in life when we feel like our choices are limited? Our personal space, our boundaries, may not feel as strong because we don’t have enough experience in deciding, of our own free will, who is allowed into our space and how we want our activities and relationships to play out.
Apparently as a teen I told a date (boyfriend?) that I didn’t really feel like going out that night. I cancelled. My mother chastised me and made a comment to the effect of ‘you won’t find a guy if you’re too outspoken.’ I was being criticized for making a choice that felt right to me in that moment. Her message was that others’ feelings/thoughts/judgments were more important than my sense of what I needed to do, for me. I said No because that was what I wanted in the moment. I ‘owned’ my ability to consent or not consent. But I let that ‘learning’ trap me for many years.
Consent opens the door to mutually pleasurable intimacy.
There is nothing more wonderful than 2 people coming together to enjoy an intimate moment. It’s much more fun when both partners feel a desire for connection rather than a sense of obligation. When we speak our “yes” our minds and our bodies are full engaged. We can participate without reluctance, without feeling used or disrespected. We want to be there.
Consent is really about communication. With a long-term partner you might be able to implicitly give consent by actions. Walking into the living room wearing nothing but a pair of lacy panties and sitting on your partner’s lap is a pretty good signal. In newer relationships it’s more important that couples talk about what each person wants to happen. It’s about getting clarity, listening to your date or partner and sharing what you want in the moment. “Yes, I want Chinese.” “No, I’m not in the mood to be tied up tonight; ask me again tomorrow.”
Communication between the sexes has been explored, joked about and researched. And, it’s still an enigma for some of us. It’s complicated if one party is comfortable sharing emotions and the other is not. It can be a burden to constantly ask for clarification but it’s better than making assumptions. Why not learn to say No when we mean no and Yes when we mean yes? And, be willing to share our ambiguity – “I’m not really sure what I want right now but can we try ______ and see how it goes?”
Bringing consent into your relationships will give you a sense of power and bring clarity to all parties. Consent allows you to relax a little, to step into the adventure and to feel more confident about the undertaking—whatever it is.
What would your life look like if you intentionally looked at consent in everything you did? Would you find that you say yes too often when what you really want to say is NO?
Original image by Ttronslien at Morguefile