Tips for navigating consent in a changing world

With the uptake of visibility around sexual harassment and assault, it may feel like suddenly the standards of what’s “okay” and what’s “not okay” have changed wildly leaving you scared you can’t keep up. I understand that feeling – but I also know it isn’t grounded in reality. Ethically speaking, this has never been okay. It’s not okay to treat others with less autonomy then you want for yourself – and as a moral guideline – this is true regardless of regardless of the law, or what you can get away with because our legal systems have not be set up to serve justice.

No, this shit is not new, it is just more visible at the moment.

As hard as that can be to take in, it’s imperative that folks figure out a way to wrap their heads around these facts. Not only because it will help to navigate any “negative” feelings towards this change (frustration, feeling a loss of power, perhaps even anger), but it can also aid in understanding the experience of others. Why is anyone hesitate around putting themselves in a potentially dangerous or harmful situation? Because sexual harassment and sexual assault whether direct or indirect are not new experiences for them, and now you’re one step closer to trauma-informed relating.

So, what’a well-meaning person whose feeling stuck in fear to do? Never interact with others again? Absolutely not. Humans need connection. We are hardwired to share in community with others. Walling yourself off from that will only create misery. What can be done, however, is work to bring consent into an active focus within our interacting with others.

Deciding to put consent at the forefront of our actions often requires a fundamental shift in how we’ve previously thought about interacting with others. First, we need to take the idea that consent is only relevant when it comes to touching other’s bodies and blow that out into recognizing that we need to start considering consent (that is, someone’s agreement and desire to interact with us) much sooner. Frankly, as soon as we start thinking about interacting with them. You see, by the time interactions comes to a more critical junctor, we’ve already given the person we’re interacting with a lot of information about how (if) we recognize, consider and respond to soft nos and small boundaries. At this point – for a variety of reasons – they may no longer feel like they’re in a position to say no in a way that will be respected or lead to a safe outcome. And no, yelling at the other person about how you’re an unwitting jerk who doesn’t understand women is *not* a respecting their no.

Second, it’s time to start thinking beyond consent as agreement and looking at how we centre respect, mutual enjoyment, care, and balanced entitlement in our interactions with others. How would your behaviour change if you considered your actions – every single one of them – through the lens of being in the connection of relationship with those around you? Viewing yourself as fundamentally connected through shared humanity?

And yes, I mean everyone.

I believe there is society altering potential to attempting to put consent at the root of our actions (recognizing, of course, that this complex and may not ever be 100% achievable). However, as my jam is sexuality and relationships (and not, say, corporate culture or family dynamics – though I assure you, it’s translatable!), that is where I’ll be focusing this writing.

Now, without any further preamble, here are four tips for navigating consent in light of #metoo, even when it freaks you out.

1) Dig into the root of your fears
Start by asking yourself what you’re truly reacting to here. Is it upsetting to know just how pervasive sexual violence is in our world and you want to make sure you aren’t contributing to it? Are you afraid that someone is going to think you’re a creep? Do you know you’ve had lousy consent practices in the past and are wondering when someone will be coming for you? Is it a combination of those things? What is that fear combination?
Can you give it a percentage or does something simply feel more substantial than the others?

By digging into our own truths, we discover where we stand and where we are starting. It’s only through getting to the truth of the problem that we can work to change it. Digging into reality might mean confronting some bitter facts (the world is often a violent place), or facing parts of yourself that you dislike (you have not always prioritized consent). Confronting ourselves can be scary, so finding support to do this work is critical.  Whatever you discover in this dig, remember that you are a human being, not a monster. This is about patterns and not a simple declaration of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Every single person has room for improvement in this area of their life.

2) Centre others first
One of the biggest fears among people I’ve worked with is that they’ll express a desire and that will make someone else uncomfortable, angry, or they may be mocked for their desire. There’s always a lot going on inside of fear, but the piece that relates to putting consent as a focus in our interactions with others is this: an obsession with how we’re perceived leaves little space to consider the other people in our interactions. We’re so caught up thinking about ourselves we cannot hold space to think about others. In other words, when we centre others instead of ourselves, it means we need to care more about making someone uncomfortable than someone perceiving us as a jerk – and this is a great place to start.

What would it look like to centre someone else in your flirting? Here’s a hint, it starts with figuring out if they even want to be flirted with right now. If the direct ask isn’t your style, make sure you’re paying a good deal of attention to the other person to look for cues in their body language or engagement style that can provide information about their comfort levels.

Here’s the question you want to ask yourself: what specific actions do I need to take to make sure I’m centring the subject of my desire over my own desires? Get concrete in your answer – make a plan.

Yes, this does mean that sometimes you will not get to act – like if you leave the person listening to music while reading a book alone (because that’s what it looks like to centre the other person in this situation), then no. You do not get to act. But welcome to the reality of treating others with as much entitlement as you grant yourself.

3) Normalize asking

People have differing levels of consent needed to feel safe enough in an encounter with you, and these levels will be informed many different factors. Are they a survivor of sexual violence? Have they been lied to or manipulated by others (like family members, or past relationships)? Have they already experienced a bunch of harassment today? Are they on familiar turf with lots of support around? You may not know the answer to these questions – and that’s okay. Trying to figure out what level you should default to often backfires – we cannot mind read. Instead, get comfortable with asking. That might look like direct questions like ‘Are you up for flirting tonight?’ ‘Can I join or, or are you enjoying being alone at the moment?’ Or more general questions such as ‘Do you know what you need to feel comfortable and safe at this moment?’ or ‘Are you comfortable speaking up if you’re unhappy with how things are going? You could also ask as a way of double checking nonverbals cues – ‘You seem pretty open to company – am I reading that right?’

It is okay to not have the answers, and it will serve you better to own that fact and move forward from there. And if someone thinks less of you because of that?

4) Remember your comfort matters too.
If someone tells you they don’t like your need for assurance or reassurance that whatever is happening between you two is something they desire and that leaves you feeling distressed, that could be about your own boundaries not being respected. What you need to feel safe enough to be secure in any intimate encounter is important, and it matters. While we can’t use consent to control the future (i.e., I need to know that nothing negative will ever come out of this encounter), if the person you’re hooking up with isn’t showing your needs respect? Red flag. If someone is mocking you over your needs around checking in? Double red flag.

If, on the other hand, someone tells you they don’t need you to check in so much, it’s okay to take them at their word. This is the nature of trust and connection. As we get to know people and build a history of interaction with them we set different boundaries, have different expectations around checking in, or change our safety requirements. In these moments good consent practices mean being a person others can talk to about changing needs.

If you’ve read all of this and you’re still feeling like you have no idea how to navigate interacting with other folks, or that you don’t trust yourself to be able to do these steps, these concerns are exactly what sexuality counselling is for. In a one-on-one space, we can dive deep into the specifics of fear, shame, desire, and figure out what having a healthy sense of entitlement looks like in your life.

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