Let’s Talk About Consent, Baby

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What comes to mind when you hear the word consent? A man and a woman on the precipice of having sex? Him asking, are you okay with this? and her saying yes? Or maybe not really saying yes, but meaning yes? Because, in this culture, the lack of a definitive no is considered a yes. Hell, sometimes a no that isn’t forceful enough is considered a yes. The ever shifting guidelines are murky at best.

The problem with the concept of consent is that we don’t teach the full range of what the word actually means, only the most extreme example, and in a way that skews the reality of real world examples. We should rewind, talk about the basics, and drill them into kids the moment they start to understand the meaning behind words and how those meanings apply to everyday life.

Let’s start with a basic definition. Dictionary.com defines consent as: permission, approval, or agreement; compliance; acquiescence.

Simple, right?

Then, why the fuss over the concept? Why the perpetual confusion over what does and doesn’t indicate consent?

Well, by narrowing our collective focus to sex acts that occur between willing partners, or aggressors and victims, we fail to teach children the depth of meaning contained within the word. Because consent isn’t just about sex. It’s about leaving people the fuck alone if they want to be left alone. It’s about respecting a person’s autonomy over their own time, body, and choices.

These kinds of lessons should start early if we want them to stick. When Grandma comes over and wants to give little Susie a hug, allow little Susie the freedom to decide whether or not she actually wants to be hugged. Forcing kids into situations in which they are touched without their enthusiastic consent only lays the groundwork for future breaches of their bodily autonomy. Though girls are often treated as society’s mobile petting zoos (the amount of times I’m touched, uninvited, in a day is staggering, and pregnant women are like community property), this lesson is just as important for boys to learn. No one should be subject to unwanted touching, nor should they touch others without an unequivocal invitation.

But it goes beyond just touching. Kids should know that they don’t have to give of their time and energy unless they choose to do so. What does that mean? So glad you asked.

In public, men will often start talking to me as though they have a right to my thoughts and feelings, asking personal questions and invading my physical space as they wait for answers. These inquiries fall well outside the realm of friendly small talk. What the hell kind of nerve must you possess to demand another person smile? Or ask that other person why she doesn’t seem happier? Why she’s so dressed up? Where she’s going? Etcetera.

Think of how quickly society would change if we taught little girls that their time was a valuable possession they could spend or keep to themselves as they liked. Think of how the world might shift if we taught little boys that they had no inherent claim on a girl’s time simply on the basis of their biological sex. If we taught kids that they controlled how their bodies moved through the world, as well as the conditions in which others could touch their bodies. If we bred respect instead of constrictive gender roles that nourish toxic masculinity and the heightened sense of alarm that is so closely intertwined with what it means to be female in America.

I’ve had my time stolen, wrenched from my hands when all I wanted to do was venture out in public, safely ensconced within my own head, pondering any number of things. I’ve been touched by men without my consent, shrugging out from under the unwanted weight of muscular arms, or stepping back to stay safely out of hands’ reach, lest my proximity indicate tacit agreement to being touched again. And again.

And some of those overly demanding men — complete strangers — haven’t taken too kindly to my refusal to answer their rapid fire questions, to give freely of my time and attention. Some have seemed annoyed by my obvious discomfort at their unwanted physical contact. I’ve watched for those men as I moved through whatever public space I was inhabiting, trying to avoid another encounter. As I walked out to the parking lot, keys fitted between my tense knuckles, I fully expected them to spring from behind a car, grimly determined to seize what had earlier eluded them. I wondered what might happen when, one day, my no, my complete lack of consent to give of my time and access to my person, would not be accepted.

What then?

So, I like to imagine instead a world where little boys learn to keep their goddamned hands to themselves. To mind their own business. A world in which girls are empowered by the knowledge that they own their bodies, their time, their rich inner lives, and they don’t owe anyone access. Because when half of the population is vulnerable and at risk, mostly from the other half of that same population, it infects everything, and no one is healthy. We can be islands unto ourselves if we like. Or we can consent to allow a ship to dock at our rocky shores. The choice should be ours alone.

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