It’s Time We Start Negotiating Non‑Sexual Consent, As Well
Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad we’ve been talking about consent in sexual situations in this post-#MeToo world more than we used to (but less than we should). But, it’s time we start talking about and practicing non-sexual consent with children, in relationships and even between friends and family.
By doing this, we can start seeing the many ways our everyday interactions with people can empower or disempower them. Taking the concept of consent out of the bedroom also desensationalizes it; it makes consent less of a thing people have to especially do when they perform a specific act, that is, sex. Asking for people’s consent with respect to anything that involves them — their personal space, time, traumas, money, things, sexual agency — then becomes muscle memory, a necessary behavior.
Consent is, quite simply, about relating to other people through clear and kind communication. It’s something we negotiate in our daily interactions with people. Every time we plan a group outing with our friends; every time we hug a child, a partner, a colleague; every time we photograph someone — we are negotiating consent. But, we often get it wrong.
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If someone is sitting alone, it is always better to ask, “Hey, can I sit over here?” They might want to be alone. Making someone move out of your way can be as easy as saying, “Excuse me,” or, “May I pass through?” instead of touching their shoulders or waist without permission. Photographing or recording people on video without asking if they’re okay with it can be extremely uncomfortable for some people and may make them feel disenfranchised with regard to their bodily autonomy. Always ask before the act, and after, if you intend on sharing it with other people or publicly on social media.
If you are planning a group activity, ask everyone involved what it is they would like to do, eat, watch; when they are free; or if they are interested in the plan at all. This is not to say inviting someone to a pre-planned party is wrong (as long as they can decline it), but assuming their time and often, money, is yours to dictate without their express permission is a failure to negotiate consent. While deciding how the expenses of a shared meal will be split, ask around instead of imposing unanticipated financial pressure on someone who, for instance, ordered less because they want to save money. Women assuming men will foot the bill for a date, or men assuming the woman should pay, are also instances of times we fail to negotiate non-sexual consent. Dancing, smoking, and drinking with other people should also require the asking and respecting of consent. Peer-pressuring them to participate in any activity they have implicitly or explicitly disagreed with is a violation of their agency, period.
Pressuring someone to discuss something also violates the other person’s comfort zone. Prefacing your question with a “You don’t have to talk about this is you don’t want” gives them the space to leave the conversation comfortably or stay of their own volition. Revealing personal information about other people is also a crucial space in which to learn to negotiate consent. Just because someone doesn’t preface something they have told you with a disclaimer to keep it to yourself, doesn’t mean you can share it with other people in other contexts, especially those who may know them.
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Non-sexual physical touch — hugging, kissing or any other physical context, in a non-sexual setting — can be a tricky space to navigate because our culture accords some kinds of touch leniency and even deems these actions necessary for polite conduct. Think: parents making children hug their relatives or people stopping to pull the cheeks of strangers’ infants because they’re oh-so-adorable.
When it comes to personal relationships, we almost always think of sexual consent, but there are many other areas where non-sexual consent can and should be practiced, such as hugging, affectionate kissing, hair ruffling (best not to do it, it’s very annoying) or tickling. This rule applies to friends, as well. If you want or need physical touch, just ask, “Hey, can I have a hug?” or “Hey, I really want to give you a kiss, is that okay?” It might feel odd at first — admittedly, asking for permission to tickle is setting yourself up for failure — but transitioning from a space of assumption of a ‘yes’ to asking, and thereby creating a safe space for the other person to voluntarily say ‘yes,’ can add great depth to relationships, romantic and otherwise. Within a workspace, as well, where colleagues tend to spend a lot of time together and can develop deep personal-professional bonds, it is best to ask a coworker if it’s okay to give them a hug or sit next to them at lunch.
If kids are taught non-sexual touch and consent from an early age, it will necessarily translate into adulthood. This includes not forcing them to hug relatives and empowering them, by setting an example, to say ‘No’ to people who might want to touch them with the best (or worst) intentions. Acts of physical affirmation can be crucial to a child’s development; peppering it with phrases such as “I’m so proud of you, can I have a hug?” or “I’m sorry you got hurt, would you like a hug?” implants the fundamental concept of asking for permission, and accepting or denying it confidently, in their brains.
It’s quite simple, really — the deal with consent. The phrase “can I ____?” can take you a long way, sexually and non-sexually, if you intellectually teach yourself to ask it through rigorous practice. Think of it this way: what if we accepted we didn’t have a Right to Touch in everyday situations? What if we decided that what matters in a touch is not our desire to do it, but only the other person’s desire to receive it? These questions become even more pertinent to ask when interacting with disabled people or those with special needs, who may not be capable of expressing even implied consent clearly.
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Some will argue that thinking this way will make the world a cold, dry place devoid of intimacy, while others will submit that it’s entirely utopian to imagine a world where everyone consents to everything that happens to them all of the time (we all have accidentally offended someone or made decisions on their behalf). But, I propose that it’ll make the world safer, more communicative and equitable for everyone. The effects of this will then spill into the way we view sexual interactions — and rape and assault — because all touch will be considered a privilege, not a right.
Non-sexual consent, however, is not a means to the end of making the world free of sexual violence (though it could be the key). Bodily autonomy doesn’t begin and end with our erogenous zones; it matters in all situations, including those that are non-sexual. Similarly, agency over our personhood, priorities and how our daily interactions pan out is ours to exert, not for others to employ.
Just ask, really; let’s not make it harder than it is.