Consent is like...
Tea. At least according to one amazing video that thoroughly and clearly explains consent using tea as a stand-in for sex. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now. It’s brilliant. It's simple. Everyone should see this video. Consent not only applies to tea, of course, it applies to sex. And it applies to a lot of other things because consent is not actually about sex (or tea). It’s about autonomy and agency and respect.
This more complete understanding of consent is something I have come to pretty recently as an adult. When I was growing up in the 90’s, all I learned about consent was that “no means no.” If somebody wanted to have sex with me and I didn't want to have sex with them, I should just say "no" and that would be that. End of transaction. We did not cover the nuance of power dynamics at play during any human interaction, or discuss the potential for more subtle requests or veiled demands.
It was only in the last half decade that I learned the distinction between a request and a demand, which can be most easily identified by what happens in response to a denial. For example, I ask my friend for a bite of their cake and they say “no.” If I accept that answer and life moves on without interpersonal consequences for my friend, then I made a request. If I do not accept that answer and instead get mad and hold their refusal against them or attempt to guilt my friend into giving me a bite of their cake, then I have made a demand.
Nobody taught me that distinction growing up. Nobody taught me I could say no to a demand. Nobody taught me I could say no to things other than sex. Nobody taught me I could also say no to giving up my physical space, giving up my sound space, or holding emotional space for other people.
In fact, I learned the opposite. In my family, whoever was the most upset got to take up the most sound space and was given all the emotional space. People who were not upset didn't need emotional space so they didn't get any. This created the unhealthy dynamic of unchecked emotional outbursts I learned to manage regardless of whether I had any of my own emotions to contend with in the moment. It reinforced a pattern of setting my own needs aside to resolve the needs of someone else.
This was a pattern I brought with me into my marriage and that I have worked hard to unwind in the wake of my divorce. In its place, I am cultivating consent in emotional engagement. I am practicing asking and being asked whether the listener has space for the expression of intense emotions before they are shared. I am practicing giving notice and asking for notice before an emotionally intense conversation begins.
This practice recognizes the autonomy of both the expresser and the receiver as equal participants in the emotional or conversational exchange. It recognizes the agency of each participant and respects their right to choose whether and how to engage in that exchange.
I am grateful to also have the opportunity to cultivate consent culture in my martial arts practice. One way my Mo Duk Pai teacher models consent is by requiring partners to check-in before they begin to work a drill. They discuss each person's preference for speed and intensity (within the parameters assigned by the teacher), and come to an agreement for their exchange. If one partner wants to dial it up later, they ask the other partner who must give enthusiastic consent before the pair changes anything.
My Taiji teacher models consent by checking-in as she offers additional layers of challenge when working directly with an individual student. She doesn't press a student to take the next step in their learning journey before they are willing to face it. She also encourages all students to self-check-in and understand as fully as possible what they are bringing into any partner interaction.
These practices recognize the autonomy of both training partners as equal participants in the learning process. They recognize the agency of each participant and respect their right to choose whether and how to engage in that process.
There is opportunity to engage with consent in all parts of life. Unfortunately, one place it is glaringly absent right now is in some people's refusal to wear a mask during the pandemic. In the beginning of the outbreak, this was more understandable because the medical guidance was unclear. Science didn't know the answers to critical questions like: do masks actually work and how effective are they? Nobody knew whether only sick people should wear masks or everyone should wear masks.
However, now the science is fairly settled and has been for a couple months. We know masks make an important difference. And yet, some humans still refuse to wear them. There seems to be broad consensus that many people refuse to wear a mask because they don’t want to be told what to do. I understand wanting to be in control of your own experience, but I think it's more than just that. I think these folks are also missing a fundamental understanding of consent. They didn’t grow up in a culture of consent, and so they don’t understand that consent is like… wearing a mask.
Science tells us that Covid spreads from person to person through tiny particles we breathe out. Science also tells us that wearing a mask prevents most of the particles we breathe out from floating through the air and landing on the surfaces and people around us. When people wear masks, there are fewer virus particles hanging out on surfaces I might touch and fewer virus particles sticking to my clothing and hair. That means there is less chance of me picking up the virus and spreading it around to other people or places.
I want other people to be aware of the Covid risk I bring into any interaction because that allows them to make an informed choice about what kind of interaction with me fits within their personal risk tolerance. I want the people I want to interact with to consent to the entirety of our interaction. And I want the same opportunity to consent to the risk other people bring into my personal space or the public spaces I have to interact with. So I wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from humans not in my Covid bubble.
The people who don't want to wear a mask can definitely make that choice. If they were cultivating consent culture, they would understand they can make that choice without affecting me or anyone else within their own home or other non-public spaces. If they were practicing consent they would recognize their refusal to wear a mask (for non-medical-exemption reasons), means they cannot go out into the world and do whatever they please wherever and whenever they want. They would understand that bringing their unmitigated Covid risk into public spaces takes away everyone else's opportunity to consent (or not) to that Covid risk level.
Wearing a mask, frequent hand-washing, and physical distancing from out-bubble folks recognizes the autonomy of everyone else in public spaces as equal participants in our society. It recognizes the agency of each participant and respects their right to choose whether and how they engage with the risk of Covid. It turns out Covid is just like sex (and tea).
Information and Inspiration
8/21/2020 01:16:13 am
Love this, you laid it out very well. I’d like to share it on Facebook if that is okay with you. Let me know! 😁
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.