Consent… Most people understand that consent is important, that touching folx without their consent is inappropriate at best, violence at worst. Yet time and time again it is shown that we, as a society, do not really understand WHAT is and isn’t consent. Surveys done by multiple organizations, agencies and groups indicate that most of us have no idea what consent looks like in a sexual interaction, but we THINK that we do get it.
Certainly here at ASPECC we see, time and time again, that many folks who are EXCITED to enter a space where we uphold the notion that consent is mandatory for touch to occur, and still engage in behaviours that are aggressive and negate consent.
So let’s talk. For Real.
Consent is a huge deal to unpack. It is not as simple as thinking someone wants you, making a move, and if they seem keen, calling it good. In order for us to really understand sexual consent, we need to be aware of all the toxic sexual scripts that we have been internalizing for years about sex, gender, pleasure and power. We have to be willing to look at some things that are going to feel uncomfortable if we are ever going to get to a place where consent is not a challenge.
The messages we get about sex are complicated, heavily nuanced, explicit and implicit. Let’s look at three of the main challenges to consensual sex:
- GENDER: From birth on we receive messages about gender that impact how we think about sex and consent. The social scripts for showing affection, the appropriateness of sexual interest, our bodies, the roles in actual sexual acts, and our ability to speak truly about our own boundaries are based on the genitals we are perceived to have. ”Boys” show affection by teasing, rough housing, stalking and ignoring boundaries, while ”girls” are not to be trusted to say no and mean it, or to say yes even when they want to. “Real Men” are rough, tough and only experience two emotions, lust and rage. “Nice Girls” are gentle, sweet and need to be protected (sometimes) and coerced into having the sex that deep down they want but are too childish to understand and/or communicate those wants. These scripts remove our ability (for those perceived as girls) to not consent with the notion that even when a girl clearly states “NO” she might be playing hard to get, she might just want us to take control, that her clothing, drinking, or mere existence contradict her ”No”. For those perceived as boys/men, they are not responsible for any ”mistake” of consent, because they are prone to unreasonable lust at the mere sight or sound of anything they think is feminine. These scripts are nonsense, and absolutely offensive when directly confronted, but their nuances permeate society.
- SHAME: Many folks, even as adults, do not know the name of their body parts, particularly those parts that come in handy when exploring sexual acts. We are taught that if we have sex we need to be concerned about disease, infection, pregnancy. We are not taught that it is healthy to explore our bodies, that pleasure is normal and diverse, that there are different types of sexuality (at least not typically). If we grow up in conservative or religious backgrounds we may also be struggling with the shame regarding sexual pleasure that comes with religious dogma Shame is an obstacle when it comes to healthy communication. It can support the gender biases above, and create angst when we do try to set boundaries, or talk about our sexual desires.
- Sex Acts As a Prize: Sex is often seen as a status builder for those perceived as men, while lowering status for those perceived as women. It is a prize you get for not being an abuser, or for purchasing a nice dinner. It is something you DO TO someone, or that someone does to you. These power based notions about sex negate our ability to have bodily autonomy and/or to respect the autonomy of others.
In order to understand consent, we might need to sit with some uncomfortable information. Most of us were raised in a society where these scripts are rampant, therefore we likely have done or sasid things that caused others harm, and that is not an idea many of us want to consider. Few folx are interseted in viewing themselves that way, and it is natural to want to shy away from information that makes us re-examine the choices we have made in the past.
But we need to.
We need to be able to feel discomfort and think about ourselves in a blunt, brutally honest way, if we are going to be able to challenge some of our ideas about sex and consent, in order to avoid harming others in the future. We need to recognize when these scripts we were taught are impacting our choices, or misinterpreting the words and actions of others.