tw consent and non-consent, sexism
CW: Gender normativity (reflecting the social message that gender is binary), consent violations, assaulting supportive values
Consent seems so simple. Planned parenthood uses the FRIES acronym for Freely Given, Revocable, Informed, Enthusiastic and Specific. Canadian law, in theory, agrees, noting that consent must be given freely, that the person consenting must both be free to say no (not under pressure to say yes) and able to retract consent at any time; that consent for one act in one moment is only consent for that act in that moment; and that consent must be more than the lack of a no or lack of resistance, but involve verbal and/or physical cues that they really do want to continue.
In practice, however, things get murky really quickly. Not because we cannot intellectually grasp the concept of enthusiastic, affirmative consent, but because we live in a society where we have been taught so many conflicting and confusing things about sex.
Many families did (and many still do) teach young children that they do not have the right to determine who does and does not touch their body. We demand all kinds of affection from youngsters, from giving auntie a kiss to holding a screaming toddler down to wipe their nose or bottom. While these acts are typically well intentioned, the message is clear: I will touch you when I want, even when you clearly do not want.
As we moved from toddlerhood to youth, we are bombarded with messages about our bodies, sexuality, normativity. We are taught what it means to be a boy, and what it means to be a girl, that our genitals come with a prescribed set of traits and characteristics. Amongst our young peers these lessons are affirmed, with quick ridicule for anyone daring to step outside those gender roles. In the home these roles are often reinforced as well, with our family members also acting as expected for their gender role. These messages prevail in our children’s stories, our TV shows, Disney movies and in our communities.
Men are leaders. They take charge. They, likely due to their lack of hyper-emotional states, are better designed to make reasonable decisions. They are strong, tall, and rowdy. Boys are aggressive, goal orientated, less likely to consider the emotions of those around them. They are more physical, less prone to arts, crafts, dance and domestic tasks such as cooking.
Women are gentle and nurturing. They can be bossy, but not leaders. They, likely due to their hyper-emotional states, are better designed to raise children and look after other people. They are weak, short and demure. Girls are passive, socially orientated, more likely to consider the emotions of those around them. They are less physical, more prone to arts, crafts, dance and domestic tasks such as cooking.
Young boys mow lawns, young girls do dishes. Boys play with trucks and tractors, girls play with dolls and princess clothing. Women enter into the workforce (if they are unlucky in love and can’t find a male provider), as nurses, teachers, day-care workers, waitresses and cashiers. Men enter into the workforce as labourers, engineers, doctors, tradesmen and professors.
When it comes to sex and sexuality there are even more blatant divides in the messages. Boys are naturally sexually aggressive. As they hit puberty they have urges and desires and will pursue the object of their desire relentlessly. Girls are naturally sexually passive. As they hit puberty they are to ensure they dress and act in all ways innocent and pure.
But the messages get messier.
Girls are told that they need to be ”nice” and ”polite”. That it does not hurt them to just dance with that boy who asks them. They are taught that saying “no” is rude.
They are taught, by experience and exposure to media, that saying ”no” is often reason enough for them to be hurt.
Boys and girls are taught that girls say no when what they want to say is yes. Girls are taught to feel shame in their sexual curiosity, often to such a degree that it is easier for them to ”allow” a boy to pressure them rather than say yes. Both boys and girls are taught to value the masculine aggression in pursuite of sex, to shame the female sexuality.
Boys who have sex are heros, girls who have sex are garbage.
Let’s take a moment here to acknowledge that these messages are pretty shitty, and if you happen to be someone who is not hetero or gender conforming, these messages are even shittier.
These messages are shitty, and although based in bizarre beliefs that have no grounding in science, they govern a great deal of our social environments.
So yes, we want sexual consent to be affirmative and enthusiastic.
But we are also programmed for resistant, passive, non-enthusiastic sex to be the norm.
More and more people are speaking up about how this mentality is/was the norm for them (thank you to the strong voices out there who have risked much to speak up), and as a society we need to acknowledge that although we NOW are starting to really get what consensual sex should look like, that we too were raised in this sexually repressive, gender binary world where men and women were taught conflicting messages about their desires and their bodies.
We need to acknowledge that by casting men as aggressors and women as passive receivers of sexual interactions consent is not clear, and in many cases not even possible.
Then, and this is vitally important, we need to really be willing to work on changing how we, as individuals, behave when interacting sexually. We need to learn to celebrate enthusiastic consent, to be willing to admit we WANT that connection (if we do want it), and willing to hear from our potential partner that they do NOT want that interaction (if they don’t). We need to work at relearning what it is to be a person (rather than a toxic male or helpless female), someone who has bodily authonomy and respect for the rights of others.
We need to check our entitlement. To examine how we communicate for sex.