1. permission for something to happen or agreement to do something. (dictionary.com)
For Vicki, early experiences with sex and drugs were wrapped together. The week after she graduated from high school, she and her friends rented a house on the New Jersey shore. “We just got drunk,” she says, as she began to describe the experience. “Everyone that I knew would do this. That is the rite of passage that I went through after graduating high school.”
At the time she told herself it was fun, “but I ended up breaking my shoulder, getting a concussion, and being raped all in the same night.” When we spoke, Vicki recounted her story with very little emotion. “It was with this kid that was my kindergarten crush,” she said. “We went to the same high school from kindergarten to 12th grade. He was Mr. Popular and was very good looking. I think that is sort of why my friends let it happen. I have no memory of even seeing him that night. I woke up the next morning feeling as though I had had sex.”
Vicki reached out to her friends for information, and they told what happened. “I said to one of them that I don't believe it. And they were like, ‘oh there are pictures.’ Thank god, it was the time when disposable cameras were a thing and people didn't have smartphones. Because if it was a time that smart phones and social media play the role that they do now, I have no idea what would have happened to me. I think it would have been 10,000 times worse.
“I completely normalized it, because he was Mr. Popular and the hot guy at school. I was just like ‘great, I just slept with the hottest guy in school.’ I did not really realize what had happened or what I had done. I think that another part of it was the fact that I could not remember it made it so much easier to normalize it and push it under the rug and sort of deny that it even happened.”
As she’s gotten older, Vicki’s perspective on what happened has changed. “I would never call him a rapist but that is what he did,” she says. “I think that the word rape is so harsh that no one wants to use it. It’s such an extreme accusation. But on paper and legally I was raped and therefore he is a rapist. But in my mind, this person that I know and that I have known since kindergarten, can't be a rapist.
“The one thing that I keep thinking about, looking back on my life, is the number of times that I was technically raped or assaulted. I just wonder if any of the guys that I had been with, ever looked back on those relationships and realized, that girl was actually drunk and I technically raped her? Because I didn't have this realization that I was actually raped until this summer, and that was ten years ago.”
While there are many things to say about Vicki’s story, one really important thread is about consent. Vicki’s level of intoxication (she was so drunk that she had blacked out) left her unable to consent to sex. If Vicki and her peers had received adequate education in what consent is all about, they might have made different choices, both during the incident and after—choices that could have left Vicky feeling a deeper sense of health and sovereignty in her body, and left the young men who raped her free of having been perpetrators of sexual assault.
Consent is a word increasingly used in classrooms and popular culture, most commonly in reference to sexual encounters. It’s been a legal concept for hundreds of years, and deeply studied and practiced subject in sex-positive and anti-rape circles for decades. Recently, it’s become more of a household concept, especially in the aftermath of the #metoo movement, a social media phenomenon in which thousands, if not millions of folks, mostly women and gender non-conforming people, spoke up to say that that they had experienced sexual violation, and a number of public figures--mostly men--faced public humiliation, loss of their careers, and sometimes legal charges. Questions of consent are finally being considered urgent at this moment.
Understanding consent ensures that you don’t violate your own or another’s boundaries. Even as notions of consent becomes more commonplace, we still live in a world where things frequently happen to us without our permission. Sometimes, this is as extreme, or even more violent, than what happened to Vicki. But most of the time it’s far subtler, like the person behind us in line touching your shoulder or asking a really personal question. Sometimes it has less to do with someone personally violating our space, and has more to do with systems that violate us, like the expectation that while in school we’ll sit quietly at our desks even when we can’t concentrate and our bodies need to move. Whatever the form, most of us regularly receive messages to deny what’s happening in our bodies and in our hearts, and submit to the needs and desires of others.
For many of us, this started early on. Part of the natural process of human development includes learning about personal space: where I end and where you begin. The way a child learns about personal space is through a combination of experimenting with asserting their own needs and boundaries, and experiencing others doing the same. Ideally, we come to develop a strong awareness of what we want and need for ourselves, while at the same time gaining awareness of the verbal and nonverbal cues that others use to signal what they want and need as well.
However, in the dominant culture, we are frequently taught to override the wants and needs our bodies and emotions are signaling, and to collude with others to do the same. Because so many of us receive this conditioning, we often come to believe that this is normal. This leads to pervasive boundaries violations of those around us, in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. By the time folks are in their twenties, they are typically very good at denying messages from their own body, and ignoring the nonverbal (and sometimes verbal) cues that others send as well.
Consent violations are often related to power. There are always power dynamics in any given relationship, whether or not they are understood or acknowledged. Power dynamics can develop from a range of places, like social locations, roles, verbal skills, charisma and strength of personality, and more. Those with more power typically feel more comfortable violating the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual space of those with less power, and those with less power typically feel more comfortable overriding their own needs and desires to please others. For example, those that are socialized as female are typically trained to say yes in attempts to please others, even when something doesn’t feel good to them. The peer pressure that can lead to substance use is another example of how one individual (or the power of the group) can cause someone to do something that doesn’t feel right to them.
Paying close attention to how we ask for and give consent helps us each become simultaneously empowered and humble. The root of the word consent literally means “to feel together.” I like this way of looking at the concept--it speaks to the empathy and partnership required to really know that consent exists in any given situation, paying close attention to the subtle forces playing out.
There is so much power in the spoken word, and so much power in asking permission, even if it’s just to put a loving hand on a friend’s back while they cry. I’ve noticed how helpful it is, for example, when someone asks if it’s okay before offering words of advice or feedback to me. I can actually feel my body relax and become more open to receive what they have to say when I feel I’ve had the opportunity to choose. In a world where so many of us have things happen to us (even small, innocent things) that aren’t what we actually want, changing the culture to one where we ask can be super empowering, even healing.
Engaging deeply in the practice of asking for consent means being open to the possibility that consent will be withheld. To actually ask for consent is vulnerable—it means you might have to drastically alter your plans, and it means you might be sad and disappointed. It’s hard to be rejected. Yet supporting others to maintain their boundaries—even when those boundaries are with you!—helps to develop trust and deepen connection in the long run. And engaging with someone who has any level of ambivalence about what’s going on is very unsatisfying.
It’s a practice to ask for consent, and it’s also a practice to encourage others to ask you for consent. “Hey, would you mind asking before you touch me?” you might say to a colleague at work. “Mostly I don’t mind, but sometimes I do, and I appreciate the opportunity to choose.” Short and to the point, asking for what you need with those around you can both help you assert your own boundaries, and encourage folks you know to be more conscious in the rest of their lives and relationships, as well.
Ultimately, consent is far more than asking before kissing or touching someone. It’s a whole way of orienting to the world, a political stance that believes in respecting the sovereignty and dignity in our own being, and in others. It has to do with developing the ability listen to what is a true “yes,” and what is not, and learning how to hear the answer from your own body and heart, from other humans, and from other beings in the world.
What consent is, what consent is not:
Asking before touching
Believing in the rights of each being to choose what happens to them
A way of caring for one another, and recognizing the differences between us, and the ways we change from moment to moment.
Understanding the power dynamics that exist between us, and how these can make it difficult to refuse
Something that can be revoked at any time
Consent is not:
Something that can ever be coerced
A barrier to intimacy
Something that remains fixed or assumed over time