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How We Can Contribute to Consent Culture Every Day
In discussions about sex and sexual violence, a common topic is the importance of consent. For some of us, we may feel like we already know the basics of a comfortable, consensual sexual experience, or say, “I’m not hooking up right now, so is this even relevant to me?” To which I say, “100% Yes!” Consent is essential to sex, but it’s also essential to many other daily activities, and is practiced any time we set and respect boundaries. It’s how we build healthy relationships with both ourselves and others- so here are a few ways we can take care of each other in a culture of consent.
Knowing It’s Not Just About Sex
Any time we touch other people, whether it is sexual or not, the rules of consent apply. When we hug, tickle, cuddle, or offer physical support to other people, we have to consider that the other person may not want to be touched, and that accepting physical contact on one instance doesn’t mean it will be desired in the future. Because we can’t make assumptions about what another person wants, the only way to know is to ask and to listen. For example, many of us have friends that LOVE hugs- and many of us have friends that don’t. For those of us that love physical affection, it may be tempting to immediately embrace someone you recognize, whether it’s a person you just met, a new friend, or a distant relative. However, it’s likely not everyone will want this affection- and when the situation arises, the best way to know is simply to ask. “Can I hug you??” is an approachable way both to greet someone and to identify boundaries.
Another key to respecting boundaries is remembering that they can change, and paying attention to body language. For example, your partner may normally love to cuddle, but if you’re in an argument where emotions are high, they may find it disrespectful to be touched, even if your intent is peaceful. Or, you and your partner or friends may find it playful to tickle each other, but also not like to be tickled in certain spots and not all the time. Even in a casual situation, if someone looks tense while you’re touching them, it’s important to check-in by asking “do you want me to avoid that spot?” or “do you want me to stop?”
Knowing It’s Not Just Physical
For every boundary we draw surrounding physical contact, there are many others we navigate in order to respect each other’s emotional space and personal autonomy. Here are a few examples:
- DON’T make decisions for another person or make assumptions on their behalf: “I have time off on this day, so I’m coming over!”
- DO make collaborative decisions: “I’m free on Monday, do you want to hang out?”
- DO ask before you post: “I think this picture of you looks great, is it okay if I post it on Instagram?”
- DON’T force a conversation or make other people’s boundaries about your feelings: “I’m angry that you won’t talk to me right now!”
- DO check-in: “do you have time to talk?” or “is it okay if i ask you about x later?” or “I don’t want to talk about this right now; I’d like to talk about it at this time.”
Knowing It’s Not Just Romantic Relationships
A culture of consent is necessary not only in close interpersonal relationships, but also in casual hangouts, in the workplace, and in the classroom. For example, in an age where smartphones and the internet make us feel like we must be constantly accessible, it’s important that we have a say in when we are available, and for what. A common boundary between work time and off time is to choose to only answer work emails during work hours, and not to respond to them outside of work. Another favourite boundary of mine is to put my phone on airplane mode when I’m focused on something else- I don’t want to be interrupted by incoming messages, and at the end of the day no one is entitled to have constant access to me!
In friendly situations, it’s important to avoid peer pressure and to not guilt others for drawing boundaries. Even if a friend initially agrees to something, their consent can always be withdrawn. This goes for:
- Drinking - it might be a wild night, but don’t pressure your friend into taking “just one more shot”
- Scary Movies - you might not find it scary at all or love to see others’ reactions, but no one has to watch something they find horrifying
- Declining Plans - if a friend is busy with school and doesn’t want to meet up, it’s not your right to try to change their mind!
Finally, it is essential we think about consent in the way we share space. Consensually sharing space means taking steps to avoid potentially harmful environmental conditions. In more official cases, this can take the form of making a space nut-free, scent-free, or banning other common allergens. On an individual level, this means committing to checking-in with the people around you, even if you don’t know them. For example, when carrying food or other products with common allergens while in close proximity to others, such as in the lecture hall or on the bus, it’s important to ask for your neighbours’ consent before you bust out a potentially harmful snack. Another example of this happened to me just last week, in a public meeting where someone asked for consent to light incense. Because I had the opportunity to refuse, the incense was not lit, and I was able to avoid both a bad headache and possibly missing out on the activity. You can’t know someone’s sensitivity by looking at them, so you have to ask! And that brings us to the heart of what consent is- simply an ongoing commitment to asking people what they need.
About the author: Hannah Babki is an undergraduate student in Linguistics, Psychology, and Counselling and Human Development at Simon Fraser University. She is a member of the Active Bystander Network through the Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office (SVSPO) and is passionate about anti-oppression work.