Consent is now a word trending on social media and for good reason. The #metoo movement looms large as people are speaking out about sometimes decades old boundary violations that may have been mildly intrusive on one end of the spectrum, such as an unwanted platonic hug, to sexual in nature. Regardless of the language you speak, the four words used in the title of this article are essential to learn in order to safely navigate the relationship waters.
Dictionary.com defines consent in this manner:
as a verb (used without object) – “to permit, approve, or agree; comply or yield”
as a noun – “permission, approval, or agreement; compliance; acquiescence” or as “agreement in sentiment, opinion, a course of action.”
And it defines boundaries as “something that indicates bounds or limits; a limiting or bounding line.”
Consent is a broader topic that extends beyond touch. It relates to any aspect of human interaction. If someone asks you if they may borrow your car, you have three choices. You can say yes, you can say no, or you can ask for time to consider your options. The response you offer may be a direct correlation to what you were taught about your freedom to make your own call on anything asked of you. You are also at liberty to change your mind about any decision you make. One key is to re-negotiate your agreement, rather than impulsively pulling the rug out from under the person. Trust and consistency are also components of healthy relationships.
In my work as a therapist, I have sat with many who were not permitted to speak their truth. Saying no often felt dangerous, either physically or emotionally, so they learned to nod, smile and say yes when everything within them was screaming, “no!” It takes courage to stretch beyond those established comfort zones.
Other reasons people say yes is fear of hurting the feelings of others or rejection if they don’t “go along to get along.”
One of my activities is offering platonic touch by consent via the FREE HUGS movement. It was created in 2004 by someone with the pseudonym Juan Mann and since then it has become a world-wide phenom.
On Valentine’s Day weekend 2014, I took a group of friends to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia for a Free Hugs Flash Mob. In about an hour, I estimate that we hugged a few hundred people. We had our signs and open arms and inquired if people wanted a hug. If they said yes, we shared a moment in time with each other. If they declined, we thanked them and moved on.
One person who approached us was an Iraq war vet who told us that he was the sole survivor of his platoon and that, as a result of survivor’s guilt, he had contemplated ending his life, “Until I met you people. Can I join you?” Of course, through tears, we gave him a sign and he was off to the races. My thought was, “Hugs save lives.”
I was to discover a few months later, how prescient that revelation was. On the way home from the gym on June 12, 2014, I had a heart attack. As part of my cardiac rehab, I walked around Doylestown, PA. What occurred to me was that I could add hugging to the mix since hugs are emotionally heart friendly as well as physically heart healthy. Friends had begun to refer to us as Hugmobsters and I added the tagline Armed with Love, since the word ‘mob’ has negative connotations. One artist friend designed the logo which is a heart with arms and hands. Since then, this mission to help people meet the need for connection across all self-created chasms and divides has taken me to several states (NJ, PA, DE, NY, MD, DC, VA, OR) and two countries (Ireland and Canada).
The ways in which it (no pun intended) touches on the topic of boundaries and consent is that if someone declines a hug, there are other options such as handshakes, high fives, fist bumps or virtual hugs. Some people, for their own reasons are simply not at ease with touch from a stranger. I have many affectionate friends and family members who would not take it to the streets as I do. Since its inception, Hugmobsters has received wonderful media coverage (print, radio and television).
Touch by consent is an important topic to broach at home. In an article entitled, “We Can Teach Kids Consent Without Bringing Sex Into The Conversation,” by Martha Kempner, she focuses on the importance of parents helping their children set body boundaries. Tickling is a good place to start. She describes that amid laughing when her father was doing so, her 4-year-old daughter called out for him to stop. Her words were saying one thing, while her reaction was communicating something else. He responds to her words and immediately ceases. Later in the article, Kempner explains to her older daughter that consent is permission, offered willingly.
As an educator who offers classes that highlight consensual touch, I share, “When children are taught that their bodies are their own and have the right to say yes or no to touch, they experience as a sense of personal strength that they might not otherwise. We teach children about ‘good touch vs. bad touch,’ but the truth is even what we might label ‘good’ may be unwanted. What the child learns is that touch is not offered or expected freely, but rather, coercively. How does that translate into assault? When a child is not empowered to say no to seemingly benevolent touch, how can he or she ward off malevolent contact?
Some adults find it difficult to say no as well and require encouragement. One simple way to explain the concept of consent comes from a video that equates it with tea.
Betty Martin, “a Chiropractor, a Body Electric School trained Sacred Intimate, Certified Sexological Bodyworker, Foundations of Facilitation trainer, and a self-propelled erotic adventurer and intimacy coach,” created a tool called The Wheel of Consent by which people can have a greater understanding of the essential nature of human interaction. She breaks them down into four quadrants: Give, Take, Allow and Receive. Each one brings with it, an opportunity to set boundaries and be fully expressed with regards to the rights and responsibilities of relating.
- What are your current values, beliefs and practices around consent and boundaries?
- What were you taught about your body and your sovereignty over it, deciding who touches you and how they touch you?
- Who were your role models for respecting healthy boundaries?
- Who modeled unhealthy boundaries?
- Have you chosen which to follow?
- What do you say yes to and what do you say no to in your life?
- Do you ask for your needs to be met, with the growing ability to hear either answer?
- Let’s explore in what ways these have served you and in what ways they have held you back from fully honoring your deepest needs and desires.
- What would it be like to have healthy and strong interactions with the people in your life in which you could easily say YES to what you want and NO to what you don’t want and realize you have the right to both?