Thursday, May 29, 2014

Living in a Culture of Consent

Image courtesy of Spread the Health
This past weekend, a man killed several people, both men and women, because he was angry no one had ever "given him" sex. (I am not using his name because I have no desire to elevate him to a celebrity for his actions.) This event sparked a tremendous Twitter trend, #YesAllWomen, by which women shared their stories of rape, abuse, and harassment. Feminists shouted. People who had not been feminists became feminists. People cried, and railed, and gnashed their teeth. "We hate this culture," they declared, "but what can we do?"

While this was all going on, I was blissfully unaware, spending my time out of phone and wifi range at a regional burn, similar to Burning Man. I experienced firsthand what it's like to live in consent culture, and I want you to know about it.

The night of the effigy burn, emotions ran high. It was difficult not to feel a deep and abiding love, not only for your closest friends and relatives, but for everyone you met who was part of your experience. Hugging was, well, inevitable.

And yet, for my group at least, consent was consistently requested and given. Friends for years, some spanning decades, asked, "Hug?" before embracing their loved ones. Some felt the desire to be closer, and asked, "May I kiss you?" Even those who had done these things before, even those who had dated, lived together, had sex, etc. Everyone got consent. I was blown away by the beauty of it.

Later that night, I was having sex with my boyfriend in a public place (at a private event, mind you, this was still a legal action). A crowd formed around us, and many people wished to join. My boyfriend and I, however, didn't want anyone else to be inside our experience. These people as well, strangers to us, asked before touching, and respected our denial of consent. One person even asked, "May I watch you from here?" while sitting too close for comfort. He, too, respected our wish to have some space when we told him we'd prefer if he moved a bit farther away.

All of these people, strangers and friends alike, understood when and how to obtain consent, and how to accept the denial of consent. This is consent culture. How, you may wonder, did it come about?

First, we demystified sex. Sex is not the most defining human experience. It is not a goal, but an act. It can be deeply meaningful and emotional, but it need not be. We believe and practice this, encouraging sexual expression, discouraging myths about "purity," and refusing to engage in shaming over someone else's sexual choices. Sex is a thing people do, like eating and sleeping. We recognize that we all do it, so it really can't be that special. When we make it another part of the human experience, rather than the greatest part, we remove the taboo about it so that we can actually talk about it.

Second, we repeatedly discuss personal boundaries and consent. We praise each other for setting good boundaries ("I don't really like hugs; would you like a handshake instead?" "Of course! Thanks for making that clear.") and for obtaining consent before crossing someone else's boundaries ("I would love a hug; thank you for asking!). When someone does violate boundaries (yes, it happens, we're not perfect) we go over why their behavior was unacceptable and how they can change it in the future. We discuss consent and boundaries with the children of our community, so that they understand how to respect them long before they become sexually active.

We intervene when we see someone violate a boundary, even if it isn't ours. "Hey, I know you're friends, but you really need to ask before you pick her up like that." When people respond by saying that it's okay and they do this all the time, we remind them that others see the example they're setting and follow it, and modeling consent is a practice we want to encourage. We don't take offense when someone points out our mistakes about consent, even when it's a stranger.

We communicate. Every action I've mentioned above is an act of communication. Discussing boundaries, asking for consent, calling out nonconsensual behavior, educating each other—these are all about communication. Talking with each other about sex and personal agency is the only way to change the culture.

Also, you will notice I've included hugging, kissing, and other forms of touching in this conversation about consent. Consent, remarkably, is not about sex. It is about personal agency and having control over what happens to your body. Consent for a hug is just as important as consent for sex. A culture of consent focuses on each individual having total say in what happens to their body at all times, not just when clothes come off.

Consent culture is learned. I may seem like a guru now, well versed in requesting and giving consent, but only three years ago I failed to realize I had been raped. I didn't understand consent well enough to recognize that my lack of consent meant the sex people forced on me was rape. I had to learn what consent was, how to ask for it, and how to give it, how to deny it, and how to accept denial of consent, just like anyone else. I learned these things in my thirties. It's never too late.

If I can learn this much about consent in this little time, imagine what we can do together! Let's stop wringing our hands and wishing the world were better, and start actually making it so.

Talk to each other. Practice giving and receiving consent. Recognize your mistakes and apologize for them. Explain consent and agency to your children, and praise them when you see them practice it. Take no offense when consent is denied to you. Thank those who obtain your consent before touching you.

I've written a lot on this blog about consent. Please read it. Please practice it. Please ask if you don't understand.

This is how we move forward. This is how we change.

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