Compassion, Communication, and Community in Consent Culture

“I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.”

~ The Pervocracy

I do not put myself up as a poster-child for Consent. Like everyone else in the world, I have been raised with mixed messages around Consent, messages about gender roles that negate autonomy, messages about societal expectations and how to counter that. It has been a journey of great humility and some difficult lessons, for myself and for many others. But, it is a journey I am 100% dedicated to, because I believe that at least 98% of us have no desire to hurt or harm another person.

I’ll say that again- I believe that at least 98% of us have no desire to hurt or harm another person. However, I also believe that we have all done so, in moments of what I call “selfish idiocy”.

There are no experts here, we are all students.

12The deeper you go into the “rabbit hole” of Consent Culture, the more you find there is that you had never considered before, and the more you begin to see every interaction with another human being through that lens of Consent.

That can be challenging, for many people. It can be especially challenging for people who have been the victims of consent violations to realise that they have violated the consent of others.

I have deep respect for all the people who have devoted their time and energy to exploring aspects of Consent in so many different arenas of life. We, today, are better equipped, have better tools for learning consent than ever before. And change is happening, inch by inch.

However, I personally caution against anyone thinking that they’ve got consent 100% nailed down in themselves. Overwhelmingly the message about consent is linked in with sex. But, consent is about so much more than sex. Consent is something we can aspire to in every interaction.

When we are learning about consent only with sexual motivations as a reference point, I think it hinders the ability to really develop consent within ourselves.

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Got Consent?

What is a consent violation, if not something solely to do with sex? Quite simply, it is when you take what someone else isn’t willing to give, or force someone to accept something they don’t want. It could be physical, verbal, tangible or intangible, emotional, or simply a question of using time and/or space. Whether intended to harm or not it doesn’t matter. What matters is that another individual’s desires and boundaries were not respected. And any violation of consent becomes serious if it creates trauma.

Consent culture is about respecting that we have no right to take or demand what someone else is not willing to give or share.

A culture of consent is, I believe, one in which interactions are guided by compassion, respect, tolerance, kindness, and patience.

I’ve been contemplating for a long time- how does one call someone on their non-consensual behaviour? When someone within your community, your ‘tribe’, your polycule, or your family is behaving with disregard to others, how can you confront them? And, when someone has seriously violated others- whether intending harm, or simply acting from a place of selfish idiocy- how can we, a community, lovingly yet sternly put our foot down about it?

shadowsCalling someone ‘out’ can ostracise them. It can leave a long-lasting stigma. Staying silent about someone’s behaviour, on the other hand, means that they will likely to continue to engage with those same behaviour patterns, and- intentional or not- continue to hurt others. I’ve seen some community groups just quietly remove someone from their social circles. I’ve witnessed the “back-stage” type gossip, where people try to pass along the word about a potential ‘predator’ (or actual predator) without pulling things into a public spotlight. I don’t think any of these approaches really addresses the root cause.

The root cause, is that we’ve grown up in a paradigm where we’re told it’s okay to take something from someone, even if they aren’t willing to give it to you. We’re told we live in a world of scarcity, that we have to battle to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted. We live in a paradigm of fear, of distrust, and of competition. And because we- as a society- tend to default to seeing the world through that lens, we are more prone to violate the consent of others.

I think we need to change that paradigm. And I think we can do that by shifting the way we address situations where people have problems recognising boundaries, and problems recognising that they have violated consent.

“The first part of calling each other in is allowing mistakes to happen. Mistakes in communities seeking justice and freedom may not hurt any less but they also have possibility for transforming the ways we build with each other for a new, better world. We have got to believe that we can transform.”

~ Ngọc Loan Trần, in Black Girl Dangerous

If we embrace the fact that we are all going to make mistakes, I think it becomes easier to talk about our mistakes. And, talking about our mistakes brings us closer in a practice of healthy conflict process. We can accept and own our errors more readily when everyone else accepts and owns their own errors too- and then, we get to share some humble pie and look at how we can transform together.

It’s also very important to remember that, even if our own consent has been violated in the past, even if we carry trauma from that, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of hurting others. We all need to work on healing our wounds, and make sure that we don’t transfer our pain onto others.

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So, when we need to call someone in our tribe on their behaviour, are we doing so to try and vilainise and ostracise them? Or, are we doing so because we want to let them know they made a mistake, and to ask for their support in helping the person(s) who have suffered from that mistake, while also supporting them in their learning journey?

When we ourselves are called on our errors, the moments we have pushed past thinking about whether there were boundaries or not, how do we respond? Do we fly off the wall in a rage, defending every minutiae of our behaviours, or can we listen and accept that, regardless of our intent, something went wrong, and another being has suffered. If so, how then can we atone, and show remorse?

I believe that answer to all of this, is that we need to be involved in one another’s consent journey, in the healing process for everyone. Being involved in someone’s healing journey might well mean staying the fuck away from them if your presence is going to remind them of the trauma you inadvertently caused. The things that support someone else to heal might be very different from the things that support you to heal. Ultimately though, we’re not alone. We are in this together, and so I think we need to come together, with love, with patience, with compassion.

I don’t pretend this will be easy. In fact, I have already witnessed how hard it is, both in myself and in others. However, I think an essential part of talking about Consent Culture is the willingness to examine one’s own behaviour, and willingly place oneself in a place of accountability that can be challenging or uncomfortable. Yes, this means having difficult and uncomfortable conversations, having your words or actions challenged, or sometimes interacting with people who might make you feel uncomfortable.

People are hesitant to question leaders, afraid to be shunned. I think that sometimes leaders are, just like any human, oblivious to the added power dynamic they employ in relationships through being a leader. That means it is so important for community leaders to be open to public feedback, to be humble and earnest about their own journey with Consent, and to respond with respect and compassion when they learn they have caused hurt or harm to others.

So we have also got to have compassion for the challenge this presents, and have patience with one another.

My own personal goal, is to hold space and provide experiences whereby others can really grok, that is, to know it inside and out, what consent is and isn’t. What it feels like right in your bones to ask for consent, to respect a no, to give a no, to give an authentic yes, and so forth. And, not just with sex. With anything and everything. With, “May I touch your nose?” all the way to “Would you like some help?”, or, “May I interest you in these plums?”.

Developing that awareness, that honest and heart felt consideration for one another, in the face of living in a society that gives us the explicit message that we can only get what we want by demanding or taking it, regardless of others- that’s the challenge. And that’s a process that needs to be engaged with not just at sex parties and sex clubs, but across the board- in schools, in work places, in relationships, in shared homes, within families, at dance parties, on the bus, on the street, in the stores- in any place and in any way that humans interact with one another.

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Aspiring towards Authenticity: Crusading for Consent

“A consent culture is one in which the prevailing narrative of sex–in fact, of human interaction–is centered around mutual consent.  It is a culture with an abhorrence of forcing anyone into anything, a respect for the absolute necessity of bodily autonomy, a culture that believes that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs.”
~ The Pervocracy

Consent.

One of the reasons I am so passionate about promoting Consent Culture is that I spent so much of my life ignorant of it. No one taught me what respect for another persons sovereignty and boundaries was or looked like. The models for relationship I grew up with were based on control, manipulation, and on ownership dynamics.

As I became involved in the poly scene I began to hear catchphrases like “Only Yes Means Yes”, but I still didn’t get it, not until someone asked me to talk about the rules of consent at a large event. When I sat down to think about what consent means to me, I became painfully aware of how many times, in connecting intimately with others, I had overlooked whether I had their consent or not- and also how often I had gone along with something because I didn’t know it was okay to say no. I realized that with every instance, that relationship where consent had been absent was one that became toxic, filled with drama, and ultimately disruptive and destructive for everyone involved.

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Whether we are conscious of it or not, when our right to non-consent is violated or ignored, it effects us. We can attempt to rationalize it as “Well, I put myself in that situation”- but rationalizing it is not okay. We can want so desperately to feel a Yes (because we think it means we are desirable or popular or loved) that we ignore the loud screaming No coming from deep within ourselves. And it is hard to come to terms with having done to us- or even doing to others- something which did not have explicit consent.

When we sacrifice our sovereignty to placate or please others, something damaging happens to us: we learn that it’s okay to ignore non consent. We become part of perpetuating that culture of kyriarchy and control. And the problem is, this cycle of non consent has been going on for eons; for as long as we have record of human interactions we have tried to dominate and control one another.

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Spiritualists might say “Oh this must have been my Karma,” or “Oh well, that was that person’s Karma,” but in my opinion that is a dangerous attitude, and one that reeks of Spiritual Bypassing. As a consequence of attitudes like this, abusers, misogynists and rapists often find too easy a home within spiritual communities- leading to the perpetuation of outdated gender stereotypes in an environment where people should be looking beyond them. At its core, no matter what your approach, Spirituality looks to encourage the growth of the soul, to improve the human condition. The most significant thing we can do to that end, I believe, is to no longer accept the perpetuation of tyrannical attitudes of ownership and control, and to replace those with a cooperative structure based on consent and communication.

One of the most important steps to being able to embody Consent Culture is nurturing authenticity within ourselves. If we are afraid to be ourselves, afraid to voice authentically who we are, what we are, what we are comfortable and uncomfortable with- then we are hindered in our ability to give or refuse consent. We have to nurture authentic dialogue with ourselves- something that I know I personally found very challenging during the days when I was partying and drinking excessively.

“Among those socialized as girls, however, there’s an often particularly extra-strong need to be nice, to put others’ needs before your own, and to follow the unwritten expectation that you must be compliant and self-sacrificing to be of value… Don’t rock the boat. Don’t talk back (especially to men). Be humble. Be accommodating. Put others before yourself. Be compliant…”
~ Marcia Bazcynski, The Good Girl Recovery Program

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We can all learn how how to hear, accept, and respect a “No”. And I don’t just mean in a sexual context. In any context. If we are unable to respect the individuality and autonomy of those around us, and dismiss another person’s “No”, potentially even arguing with them about it, we are still buying into that paradigm that says it’s okay for us to attempt to manipulate, control, and direct the decisions of others. Consent is absolutely the most important aspect of any relationship.

On New Year’s I had a great experience with consent. I was at a house party, in a ‘cuddle puddle’ with a few people- some of whom I had met that night, some of whom I already knew. There was a lot of kissing going on in this cuddle puddle. I found myself curious about one woman in particular and- well, I don’t remember how it began, but at some point, I think I started it and asked if I could kiss her. She said yes. Then she asked if she could kiss me. Yes. Then I asked if I could touch her body. Yes. She asked if she could touch my thighs. Of course. She said she liked spanking: could I spank her? Yes please. I was curious about scratching: could she scratch me? Maybe a little. Was that too hard? No. And on it progressed. It was one of the sexiest consent-fueled first encounters I’ve ever had with anyone.

I learned that night that Consent really is that ‘easy’. It’s about respecting that everyone has different boundaries, and making no assumptions about what those boundaries are. Consent isn’t time consuming- it’s sexy, and empowering, and takes a heck of a lot of guess work out of things. There’s no more silent questioning, “Are they enjoying this?” because you become comfortable with simply asking if the other person is enjoying the experience. There’s no trampling over someone’s comfort zones- rather, you get to gently glide to the edges of where you are each willing to explore. And when done right, it can build the anticipation ten fold.

It’s taken me time and practice to get comfortable with asking for consent and giving consent or non consent, but I think I get it now. It starts with a dialogue with yourself. Next time you are going on a date, or to a party- what do you give yourself permission to do, and to not do? What will you be comfortable with, and uncomfortable with, and with whom? Knowing our own boundaries, becoming intimately familiar with our own “Fuck Yes!” and our “Hell No” and the “Maybe”, we equip ourselves to be in a better position to both ask for, hear, and express consent and non-consent.

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There is strength in abandoning the masks and living authentically. We have to be the change we want to see in the society around us; living in our own truth, and being generous with our authenticity, is one of the most radical, most transformational practices we can engage with.

So, whether you’d like to buy someone a drink, or you would like to put a balloon sculptured animal on their head and serenade them with free-styled Klingon rap- always ask, never assume, and then respect whatever their answer is.

The bottom line is this: consent begins with knowing what we want, and don’t want, and maybe want- and articulating it, knowing that others have things they want, don’t want, and maybe want too-  to listen to them articulating it, respecting where those wants don’t overlap- and daring to dive in and explore where they do.

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