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Cultivating a consent culture

Cultivating a consent culture


Let’s talk about consent. It is something about which many of us might have a fair idea, but perhaps could use a refresher. It is predicated on the concept of free will: that a person has certain rights to body sovereignty, rights to self-care. It involves recognizing the boundaries and the personal space of others and their right to that space. Consent is inviolable to personhood and it is something that we don’t often think about.

So, what exactly is consent?

According Monica Rivera, director of the Women and Gender Advocacy Center, consent is a sober and enthusiastic yes before any activity. Lisa Osherow, a health and sexuality educator, says that consent is clear, unambiguous, voluntary, and revocable at any point. For example, if someone gave consent to an activity yesterday, it does not mean that consent is automatically given today, or tomorrow. Finally, as Bianca Villani, a rape crisis centre educator, states, consent is not the absence of “no” and it certainly is not coercion. Thus, pressuring, bribing or threatening someone until they give up and give in to you is still not consent.

How does it work for us?

We have legal definitions of consent where sexual relationships/marriages are concerned. But beyond a legal definition, our ideas of how men and women relate to each other are problematic. In the first place, we do not have candid or mature conversations about sex, sexuality or sexual health. We tend see relationships in terms of harmful binaries that set both men and women up for a lot of grief. From an early age, men are socialized to be boundless, assertive, aggressive pursuers. A sense of entitlement is instilled in them: entitlement to success in every aspect of their lives, including relationships and, unfortunately, women’s bodies, often with tragic consequences.

On the other hand, women are socialized to be more passive, and their sexuality is often framed between dichotomies of the Madonna/Jezebel type. Women’s bodies are commodified in mass marketing, popular songs, music videos that present them as objects for sexual consumption. Or they are held up for their virtue, for toeing the respectability line, a line reinforced by educational, religious and other institutions.

The institutions that shape us do a disservice, because they do not emphasize ideas of consent in a way that is meaningful and enabling. As it stands, they police the bodies of our young boys and girls, without instilling the type of confidence that is key to building a consent culture. They do not teach girls or boys bodily autonomy from an early age.

Building a consent culture would mean teaching children to respect their bodies, and to respect other people’s bodies, and that it is okay to say no to unwanted or harmful touches.

Building a consent culture would involve teaching teen girls, especially, to be confident in articulating their feelings in a relationship, or saying “no” when situations develop that cause them to feel uncomfortable. It would also encourage them to nurture their dreams and to be strong enough walk away if they are not happy in a relationship. Building a consent culture would also involve teaching young men that they are not entitled to a girl’s body: that a teenaged girl has the right to refuse a young man’s advances; that she is allowed to change her mind; and that neither her value nor his, is dependent on their genitals.

Cultivating a culture of consent would require us taking a long and hard look at who we are as a people. It would mean honest conversations about sex and sexuality and how we perceive the bodies of women, men, boys and girls.

We need a culture of consent. Are we ready?