(Except No One Really Understands It)
Have you ever accepted touch that you didn’t want – a hand on the shoulder or knee, for example – because you thought refusal would make the other person uncomfortable?
Is it ever okay to decline to shake hands? Have you ever shaken hands with someone that you didn’t want to? How long did the resistance last, and what did you do with it?
Our bodies want some things, don’t want other things, and are ambivalent about yet other things, in any given moment. This is the territory that informs the social skill we call consent. Consent is the medium by which two parties reach a mutual agreement. It seems weird to refer to consent in this way because we have been so socialised to accept touch that we have at times abandoned the premise that touch begins with consent. A scrutiny of social customs shows that for many of us there are situations where we have abdicated our power of choice so thoroughly we are no longer conscious that the choice rests with us.
Other customs that are less universal, like a cheek-to-cheek kiss as a greeting or farewell, evoke discussion around this personal choice. When is it appropriate, and who is at fault when one person thinks it isn’t? What is the proper way to navigate these interactions? We believe consent isn’t that complicated, and yet such discussions betray our reluctance to exercise our power of choice even when we realise that we have it.
We don’t care about our uncertainty around consent in these situations because they are low consequence. We care about it in situations that are high consequence, which means we care about consent in sexual conduct because we know from the experience of survivors that sexual violation is one of the most severe traumas a person can endure.
Perhaps you don’t refuse a handshake because you are concerned it will be taken as a rejection, because a lot of people are uncomfortable with being told “no”. We expect intractability from others, and it traps us. The difficulty we face in negotiating social customs proves that consent is not some instinctively learned behaviour. It is a skill that is learned through education, awareness, and practice.
Social progressives argue that sexual consent should be taught in schools. While I strongly agree with the basic premise of this position there is a problem with their justifications for doing so: when talking about prevention of rape and sexual assault it puts the lens on boys and men who are statistically the greater offenders in these issues. This prejudices the entire discussion, leaving many men and even some women feeling that men are being shamed and demonised by consent education initiatives, as demonstrated by British university student George Lawlor’s protest in 2015 about mandatory consent training and the resulting abuse and criticism directed at him. So we can argue about the merits of this justification and its resulting entrenchment of positions, or we can consider that there might be a more effective approach to the issue.
The alternative is to talk about consent as learning the communication of personal boundaries as a social skill.
Do not interpret this to suggest I am saying (for example) “don’t get raped” instead of “don’t rape”. Children who learn how to respect their own boundaries – and demand respect from others for those boundaries – are also likely to understand and respect the boundaries of others. And if that basic empathy for other human beings is absent, no amount of consent education will compensate for it.
The opposing sentiment from social conservatives is that consent, being part of Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) is not appropriate to teach to young children. This is another unnecessary battlefront. Let the debate rage about whether gender is a construct, or whether sex education makes young children an easier target for pedophile attacks, but we can keep consent out of the domain of sex education. Place it in Social Science, place it in English, place it in Physical Education, but place it anywhere that is not SRE. Not that it doesn’t belong there too, because sex involves consent. But consent is not all about sex any more than bed sheets are all about sex, and it is vital that we break this false syllogism between consent and sex. Teach consent, teach it through games, teach it thoroughly enough that children can invent their own games to play and learn it with. Consent is too important a social issue for us to let it become the casualty of other, separate ideological struggles.
Referring to “consent” and “sexual consent” as if they are the same thing, and teaching consent in a gendered fashion or for gendered purposes, are approaches do more harm than good if they cloud people’s comprehension of consent.
“Yes means yes”, otherwise known as “affirmative consent” has gained in popularity with educators, lobby groups and officials. The problem with “yes means yes” is that “yes” is not consent, not entirely: it is a type of consent, of which “no” is also a type. “Yes” declares what we want. “No” declares what we don’t want. “Yes” is permission. Consent and permission are not the same things. Placing the priority on “yes” makes the initiator the focus; in sex, behaviourally this usually means men. (Spot the agenda.) “No” is just as valid, and makes the recipient the actor. Once again, this isn’t “don’t get raped”. Being consent-aware means you realise the importance of “no”, whether it’s your “no” or anyone else’s. One of the objectives of consent education should include learning how to hear someone else’s “no” without getting uncomfortable. If this standard of behavioural awareness is not good enough, “yes means yes” doesn’t improve the situation.
If we can agree that it takes practice to receive a “no” gracefully, it also stands to reason that giving a “no” takes practice. Stating that there are a lot of people who find it difficult to say “no” shouldn’t seem heretical. It’s painfully and glaringly obvious.
Affirmative consent advocates say things like “only a verbal yes is a yes, ask first and ask often because consent can be withdrawn at any time”. What kind of sex are these people having where one person is taking all of the initiative? This doesn’t look like the majority of sexual interactions. The plain fact is that many people have active sex lives with a regular partner that are mostly or wholly reliant on non-verbal consent cues.
Affirmative consent can also be lied about, as the trial verdict agreed Brock Turner did in his court testimony.
I could make a cup of tea, offer it to my best friend with a wordless gesture, and receive a smile, a nod, an outstretched palm, or any number of silent body language gestures and we would come to a mutual understanding without anyone’s intelligence or sensibilities being insulted in the slightest.
As Cathy Young once wrote, the quest for perfect consent is profoundly utopian. It is not for us to say whether anyone has an awareness of consent. Having an awareness and having an understanding are necessarily two different things, and lacking the latter does not abrogate anyone’s responsibility for the former.
All of this confusion and inability to see the opposing sides – this basic inability for us to have a discussion – demonstrates one thing very clearly: Most of the voices in the argument don’t understand consent as well as they should by their own standards. If there is some basic truth to the premise of consent then this truth will be evident to that majority who are fair-minded and reasonable human beings. The truth at the core of consent is that we have a right to our physical integrity. It is a human right that governs the medium of touch and the boundary that is our body, which is to say we have the right to choose when, if, and how we receive touch initiated by another person. If in your advocacy for consent education your audience does not gain an increased understanding of consent and its importance, maybe they’re not the ones in need of education.
This hypocrisy on our own ignorance of the understanding of consent is unspeakable. It is as if we cannot admit that most of us, if pressed, would not actually know what our bodies want. This is forgivable when we consider that so many of us were never encouraged to honour our own desires – our “wants” – and have spent our lives shut down from our own bodies to the point that speaking of “honouring our desires” sounds dangerous or selfish or subversive or bacchanalian. It’s backwards. We have been set up to traumatise ourselves or be traumatised by others, so disconnected from our truth and numbed-out by our ignorance that it takes a significant violation to indicate to us that something is wrong.
We can intellectually agree with the premise of consent as a human right, even as we have no idea how to defend that right for ourselves. The dirty secret is that those who don’t know how to defend that right includes most of us. It’s a social skill we were never taught as children ourselves, or poorly taught, our understanding of it superficial at best. Yet as we slowly find, develop, and share the tools to change this situation, we can embed consent in our culture. The responsibility for this cultural transmission doesn’t rest with our public education systems, although that is a great place for it to happen. It rests with everyone, including us. Caring about consent means taking personal responsibility, committing to deepen our relationship with consent through practice, and along that process recognising that our social and physical interactions with others become the point of transmission.
If we’re going to care about rape as a crime warranting serious punishment (which we do – and we should) and we accept that sex is an integral part of our lives, then we set ourselves on a course where desires and boundaries must be respected and understood. And culturally, our confusion around consent makes it clear that we don’t understand or respect these things very well at all.