Five reasons to ask for consent

So, I am starting a National Organization for Men Against Sexism chapter in the Orlando area and would like the focus to be, among others, mentoring and teaching young boys and men about consent. In this case, “consent” doesn’t apply to just sex, but also physical boundaries and the always-complicated first kiss. I am developing some talking points regarding the reasons to ask for consent. If possible, I’d like to ask for your input, from your perspective. Please feel free to add/change/give feedback. We’re far away from getting a chapter established, but I am beginning to work on materials, and any help you can give is much appreciated.

While what I am writing is gender-neutral, it is important to recognize that such writing should be aimed most at young boys and men, as upward of 95 percent of sexual assault cases are men-on-women. For me, it is important to keep this focus, because too often, young men and boys are taught that we are the ones who are responsible for physical and sexual initiation. While I have no problem with this, and gladly take on the role, what is not taught is that part of that initiation also includes asking for consent. Below, then, are the five top reasons to ask for consent. Please feel free to add yours.

1) It’s about communications, stupid: While Hollywood would like you to believe otherwise, love is neither mysterious nor magical. In fact, it’s quite a simple formula — you meet someone, you like them and, if they like you back, you two are an item. It’s that simple. Because of that, rather than trying to read body language to see whether someone is interested in that first kiss, the simplest way to go about it is to ask.

This not only eliminates awkward situations, but also establishes boundaries and sets up the potential couple with the communications tools to enhance their relationship. After all, if one cannot ask for a kiss without having to wade through complicated and embellished “signs,” how can one even expect to do the same with other important issues within a relationship, including sex?

2) It’s not your body: Regardless of how much someone might like you, that person’s body is not yours. Just as you don’t grab a love-interest’s cell phone at a bar and punch in your number, expecting them to call you, you also do not break certain physical boundaries without consent. While a gentle brush on the shoulder or a touch of the hand is almost always permissable, anything beyond that requires consent from a potential partner. This is not because a lack of permission might get you in trouble with the partner (or the law), but because it’s a matter of respecting your partner’s ownership of their own body.

While having the physical desire for another human being is almost always universal and ought to be embraced, what we cannot embrace is entitlement to another person’s body. Just because someone agrees to go out with us does not mean that person agrees to physical contact or the breaking of certain physical boundaries. When familiarity has been established and non-verbal cues have been learned, verbal explicit consent becomes less important. I will also note, however, that familiarity does not breed consent, and that even in established relationships, we need to make sure, through our own different ways, that our partner consents.

3) One in 4: Chances are you’ve dated someone or know someone who is a survivor of sexual assault. While you may have the best intentions in the world and may care deeply for your object of affection, certain actions you take within a relationship may still be very triggering and traumatic for that person. Since one in four women will have been a survivor of sexual assault by the time she graduates college, men especially need to approach the initiation of physical intimacy with care at the beginning of relationships.

The trigger effect, of course, is not any of their fault. Because they care about their partners, however, it is paramount that they take step to ensure that their desires to not cause pain for their partners. While a kiss might just be a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment showing of that gush of desire and affection in our minds, for our partners, it could be a reminder of something traumatic. In short, another reason to ask for consent: because we love — or at the very least, care about, our partners.

4) People are watching: While we have an obligation to live in compassionate and unselfish ways, the character of a good person also includes setting examples for others. Unlike the movies, real life kisses don’t happen under moon-lit skies in front of our partners’ apartments as we drop them off after the first date. Oftentimes, they happen at bars, on campus, at restaurants and other very public places where people are, if not gawking, paying attention to our actions. As such, it is our obligation to set good examples, and part of that is to show that we respect our potential partners, and that our partners’ consent matter to us.

Just as it is important to change the political landscapes, it is also just as important to change the cultural landscape. We do this by showing the world we understand that our partners’ bodies are not ours, that we care about our partners’ comfort levels, and that they, too, have a say in the negotiation of physical and sexual boundaries. By doing so, we implicitedly send messages to others – not only that asking for consent is important, but that everyone also has the right to expect consent.

5) Brownie points: This is perhaps the least important reason, since the importance of consent is not something one should embrace for self-benefit reasons, but for one’s partners. Yet, it is important to understand that partners do appreciate the asking for consent. We all put our best foot forward on the first date and mind our behaviors. Part of that, too, is showing our partners that we respect them. In doing so, we are more likely to impress our partners than not.

Each time I’ve asked for permission to kiss a woman for the first time, I’ve always gotten consent, yet my asking is almost always met with positive responses, because potential partners see that I care about their desires; and even if the answer is no, asking for permission shows that you respect and care about your potential partner. If it doesn’t work out, you’ve at least gained a good friend in whom from whom you’ve earned respect, because you showed respect.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted April 1, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    It starts there. I wish you luck in your endeavor and hope to hear about its progress.

  2. Posted April 1, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I think that the concept of affirmative consent is great in theory, but not always desirable in practice. I (and numerous other people that I’ve spoken to) do not always expect or desire a conversation before the commencement of physical interaction.

    I point this out not because I think that you’re wrong to advocate for this, but because I think that the actual desires and experiences of real people sometimes get ignored in conversations regarding affirmative consent.

    • Posted April 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      It’s understandable that few people want explicit consent like this throughout a relationship; it would get very tiring to ask your spouse for kisses every day.

      That said, this article is talking about the beginning of a relationship, when there is no long term consent, no assurance of mutual attraction, there’s limited trust, and no understanding of your partner’s personal issues/boundaries. Under those circumstances, affirmative consent is necessary –even if it’s awkward, even if it’s not “romantic”–to avoid hurting your partner.

      People who want spontaneous physical contact–because they’re kinky or they think it’s romantic–can easily ask for it later in the relationship. Rape survivors, people with strong boundaries, people who don’t actually want to be physically involved with you–can’t easily handle unwanted sexual advances. So this general policy is really the best.

      • Posted April 2, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        As a general policy I agree that this is the best that we can do. That is not to say it is a good policy, just that the alternatives run a higher risk.

        That being said, my point isn’t that affirmative consent is a bad thing or a poor standard, but rather that framing affirmative consent as something that all prospective partners are likely to appreciate (as the OP did) may not be accurate (and is definitively inaccurate in my own lived experiences and the experiences of many other people with whom I have spoken).

        Presenting the idea of affirmative consent as “hey, this is the best overall strategy because it minimizes potential harm” is 100% accurate and valid. Presenting it as “hey, this is the best overall strategy because it minimizes potential harm and also represents what all of your prospective partners will want and appreciate from you” is not.

        Again, I want to stress that I’m not suggesting people don’t seek affirmative consent; I am just noting that this is, in fact, something that is likely to be unappreciated in a substantial subset of prospective partners, and ignoring that fact (as the discussion around consent sometimes seems to do) is not doing anyone any favors.

        • Posted April 3, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          I’ll have to say in my own experience unequivocal is right. I definitely support the point that ideally in new relationships explicit consent is the least likely to cause emotional and mental harm or stress, and perhaps in time that will become an expectation and those who don’t ask will be the “strange” ones, but for now I’m not sure how much that is true.

          As for point #4, perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve never had a ‘first kiss’ as a restaurant, bar, etc. For me and most people I know it’s a private moment. And for #5 I’m glad it’s worked that way for you, and I’d appreciate a woman who appreciated me asking for sure. But the last woman I dated actually told me prior to one of our early dates that she was ready to begin exploring a physical relationship as well, but I had to make the first move. It was nice not to have to worry about rejection or that I would be ‘moving too fast’, and certainly it took consent issues out of the equation, but at the end of the day she still wanted something of the traditional “man as pursuer” element to the relationship. There are enough women who want that and aren’t a vocal as the woman I mentioned that it makes drawing such broad conclusions as the OP difficult in my opinion.

  3. Posted April 4, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    You may well have come across these already, but they’re excellent advanced guides to consent:

    http://millicentandcarlafran.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/what-i-didnt-know-about-consent/
    http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/03/the-nonexistent-terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad-consequences-of-enthusiastic-consent/
    http://www.scarleteen.com/article/boyfriend/drivers_ed_for_the_sexual_superhighway_navigating_consent
    http://www.scarleteen.com/article/pink/an_immodest_proposal

    Also, a mention of the existence of non-heterosexual relationships wouldn’t go amiss – likelihood is that some of the guys you’re talking to won’t be straight.

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