I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year or so about how to do consent more effectively.
One of the features of rape culture is the idea that it’s humiliating and painful for a man to get a ‘no’ from a woman, and that therefore it might be preferable not to ask. This of course is no kind of real consent. Inferred consent doesn’t mean someone consented. Pushy approaches can leave the person on the other end feeling threatened and that it is safer to go along than to resist. Rape can often be survived, murder less so. Ignoring the need for consent sends a clear message that this is not a safe situation.
One of my approaches to this has been to get into conversations with people about how we do, or do not do touch. I’m not reliably good around physical affection. I hate being touched unexpectedly by most people, and the vast majority of people I don’t want to touch at all. But, people I really like, I want to be able to be affectionate with. So I talk about it. That’s been going really well.
There have been a few people in the past who responded badly to my talking about it – guys who insisted that they kiss everyone and it should therefore be fine, and who weren’t willing to try and not do that to me even though it was causing panic attacks. It took me a while to truly realise I don’t have to accept that. I’ve had far more really brilliant conversations about boundaries and history, and it hasn’t been all about my own limitations, either.
In the last year or so, I’ve entered into situations repeatedly where I’ve been the one offering, and I’ve offered on the understanding that ‘no’ might be what came back. Is it humiliating? No, it is not. These are people I really care about, who for various reasons aren’t always in a place to say yes to a hug, or a kiss on the cheek. These are people whose comfort is more important to me than whether they say yes to me. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that making it totally safe to say ‘no’ creates an intimacy of its own. That can be a very rich and beautiful experience. It can be powerful, in a good sort of way, to offer and be turned down, and to be fine with that.
If you’ve felt unsafe, if your ‘no’ was unheard or there was never even space for it, this more deliberate space to say no, is needed, and good. Room to say no is a gift to offer someone whose ‘no’ has been ignored. Coming at this as someone who has had their ‘no’ ignored in all kinds of ways, offering someone else the freedom to say no also feels powerful. I find when I feel I can say no, I am more likely to eventually say yes. Nothing kills my fondness for a person like being forced into physical contact. Nothing feeds the warmth and respect I feel for a person like being able to talk this all through and agree where the edges are.