This is a hot topic right now because it’s so relevant, yet it seems so ambiguous. It’s been all around us lately – in the news with celebrities, politicians, many high-ups in their professions, and religious leaders being accused and held accountable for NOT getting CONSENT in the realm of sexual activity, creating a tidal wave of #metoo.
I am a woman. I am a mother — of 3 daughters. This is a big deal to me.
Consent. What is it? What does it look like? Or more importantly, what does it FEEL like?
I’d like to approach these questions as if they were coming from my daughters — from girls or women. While of course consent isn’t only given by girls or women, I am writing from the vantage point of the female being in the position discerning whether or not she consents to engage in any sexual activity.
Consent is a fundamental human rights issue, regardless of your gender, race, religious creed, or sexual orientation. Yet, I believe our culture sets up females in a very harmful confusing place. Let her get clear about her “Yes”, “Wait”, or “No” relating to any sexual behavior with her. So let me be clear here — my main intent is to empower her, from the inside out.
I’ve found myself asking these questions when it comes to consent:
What does consent feel like? How do I even KNOW if I consent to something, or am ambivalently going along to appease and not “make a big fuss”. And what about these more grey areas, outside of intercourse? What about the “I don’t know” areas? Slow things down so she can focus on her heart in this very important area.
These questions reflect the many blurred lines which create a very disempowered experience when it comes to consent. I didn’t feel very empowered to consider ME, apart and separate from the guy’s wants, or in addition to any religious values regarding sexuality – all of which have value, but do not replace or silence my voice. Even if I am married, I still have a voice. Consent is still an issue for married couples. Consent may be more open-ended when there is trust established, but not all marriages have that kind of trust, or this kind of trust has been broken some how. That’s another grey area best reserved for a different post.
If at all possible, I think reflecting on this and talking to adults you trust, before being in the position of needing to make that call is essential. And I believe that this is developmentally a very adult activity that one should use their own clear-headed and wholehearted judgment on because if not, the rewards are often pretty fleeting and costly. There are long-lasting consequences that need to be considered which requires emotional maturity and a highly tuned-in sense to your own innate worthiness. Yet I also acknowledge that unfortunately many of us find ourselves dealing with consent issues long before we even consent to that. These are non-consensual activities aka. sexual harassment and assault, and are unfortunately too common still. Our modern culture still sets up girls and women in a double-bind when it comes to her giving consent or not. Her “No” can make her vulnerable to being ridiculed and even called a “bitch”, “tight” or a “nun” for example, making a big “fuss” over “nothing”. Or her “Yes” can make her vulnerable to being called a “slut”, a “skank” or a “whore”. Who wins in this double-bind? Nobody really, with the exception of sexual predators/offenders while using their cultural privilege or positions of power (usually males) to assert their sense of sexual entitlement, at great expense to others (usually females but sometimes boys too) or those who callously scoff and blame victims of sexual abuse.
Let me be clear, I’m not just talking about intercourse, I’m talking about any kind of activity that has to do with your sacred bodies and your sexuality. This could include a hug, a touch, a comment about your body in a sexual nature, being flashed/exposed to, or even just stares at your body – this is not just about intercourse!
Regardless of what your past experiences have been, now is always a good time to reflect on consent because consent is about boundaries and expecting respect.
Consent is something I believe requires a high developmental level of emotional and mental maturity and self-empowerment. That self-empowerment comes first through co-empowerment through voices like mine, that uncompromisingly affirm your worth and your voice. In an attempt to bring concrete boundaries through legislating consent, many states like Minnesota for example, say a child under the age of 13 regardless of the age of the perpetrator cannot legally consent to sexual conduct. Their “yes” is NOT a “yes” because they should’ve even be in the position to have to decide, and if they are – it’s exploitation and the law recognizes that. However, I would even extend that age beyond 13. The minimum age for joining the military is 17 with parental consent. 18 without parental consent. Something seems off to me. It’s hard to put an age on the ability to truly consent to something so intimate, like sexual activity and the age of legal consent varies from state to state. But instead of focusing on age, focus on maturity and emotional/mental health. Who has the maturity to see the long-term consequences of their sexual activity, while weighing the negative and the positive, and making an informed and empowered decision about their own bodies? Legislating consent is complex, but discerning it within you can be less complex when you feel empowered to do so.
Why is this such a big deal? There are serious consequences to sexual activity that many don’t acknowledge or understand until later. These consequences can be experienced either immediately or much later on, or both. I’m not just referring to the obvious ones; sexually transmitted infections and unplanned/unwanted pregnancies. I’m talking about your emotional, spiritual, and mental health that significantly overlaps with your sexual health. You cannot compartmentalize these any more than you can compartmentalize the food you eat from only being pumped into certain parts of your bloodstream. Wait. Let me semi-amend that statement — At least not without putting in a lot of effort to abandon, deny, or numb out from core parts of yourself, which unfortunately is all too common also when it comes to sexual activity. Sexual health isn’t about black and white rules of conduct or conforming to “norms”. Just because something is common or “normal” doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Looking at your sexual health holistically, as it relates to your whole well-being is something not being emphasized nearly enough, and the fallout can be very painful.
There are definite risks and rewards tied to sexual behavior. Sexual touch or any kind of activity in this realm is such an intimate and vulnerable activity, which is why it is so extremely violating in the absence of consent or knowing what all you are consenting to.
It is my belief that sexual activity is most safe AND most pleasurable when it is thoroughly and mutually consented to by mature enough people living from a place of worthiness, not using their sexuality to hustle for crumbs of fleeting worth. Therefore I believe giving consent is an adulting activity, but am aware that many pre-adults are exploring this adult arena thinking they are mature enough to handle it. I just hope for their own sake, it is all safe even though I’m reluctant to call that consensual. It truly takes a high level of maturity and agency to give this kind of centered, empowered, and self-aware consent.
This is important, not just for those who have yet to make their first sexual debut, but for subsequent activity even when you’re in a long-term relationship because your consent can always be taken away. In a long-term relationship like a marriage, the consent may be more open-ended because enough sustaining trust has been established, but it’s still your body and your sexual health. In the places where consent isn’t mutually open-ended like in a new dating relationship, think of it as entering into a binding agreement or contract that requires your signature. What are you consenting to? Since it’s not as concrete as signing your name on a dotted line when you consent to any sexual activity, it can become very ambiguous.
So, in addition to your own set of conscious values and beliefs when it comes to any sexual activity, whether they be religious or not, here are some things to also consider. Hopefully they will help you clarify how consent in the “grey areas” may feel.
Remember – if you aren’t even given the opportunity to say “yes” or “no” because there wasn’t explicit communication about any kind of sexual activity beforehand, it’s not consent. It’s a violation. But if you are presented with an opportunity to give empowered consent while you’re adulting in life, notice what you notice. Give consent to yourself to feel what you feel inside! Girls and women need to hear this because we are so bombarded with messages that lead us AWAY from ourselves when it comes to our bodies and our sexual health.
If you aren’t confident AND relaxed in your “yes” – don’t just go along with it. You don’t have to just take it even if it’s “just” a lingering hug or wandering hands. Know your “No”. Consent is about empowerment. Give yourself permission to speak up as clear and as loud as you feel you need. This is your body. This is your sexual health.
It’s a bit more obvious when talking about sexual intercourse and consent. But hear this — You have the right to not consent to activity way before it gets to that point, and if that’s not respected, it’s NOT OK. You have a Green light, a Yellow Light, and a Red Light — be connected to it. Any consensual relationship will give plenty of space for both people to do that. Listen to all of your body’s wisdom, and if it’s hard to tell what it’s saying, know this is your Yellow Light. Honor it.
If you can’t get comfortable in feeling confident AND relaxed in your “Yes” and your “No” — it’s a NO, at least for now.
If your answer is “oh fine” because it’s not a clear enough “no”, than it’s not a clear enough “yes” either.
I cannot over-emphasize this — If it’s not a self-aware and authentic “Yes!” – Honor that and expect it to be honored also or it’s not consent – even if it’s not about intercourse. Consent starts way before intercourse. Girls in our culture, beginning from a very young age are raised to people-please and care-take, even to their own expense. We are groomed from a very early age to direct our focus and care away from us and towards others. This is so harmful when it comes to our sexual health. Start practicing redirecting yourself back home, within your body.
Notice. Honor. And enjoy that space of authenticity in your consent for your sexual health.
It takes practice. If you are with a man who does not honor this space, your empowerment to have boundaries that value your worth outside of sex, that is a huge red flag that needs to be considered, not glossed over. It isn’t a good sign of his character.
Consent is about clear, empowered, and authentic communication, between you and your body, then between you and another. This goes for a kiss, hug, touch, or of course, intercourse — anything that has to do with your body and your sexual health.
The bottom line is you are worthy of respect, and so is your “No, and so is your “Yes”. Engaging with life from a place of worthiness most certainly includes our sexual health.
I really wish every girl has a strong and loving woman to empower her in this area. I aspire and hope to be that strong and loving voice to empower others now, as a mother. And how awesome would that be to have strong and loving men to add their voice to empowering girls in this way also?