Consent from the Start

Although I have advocated for consent for over a decade, I only began to practise consent after a life-changing event three years ago.

I am not talking about sexual consent. However, I am betting that when I said “consent,” you thought I meant “sexual consent.” If the campaign to normalize sexual consent in the effort to reduce sexualized violence worked, then that is exactly what you thought.

Consent is synonymous with healthy sexuality. Ideally. We’re making strides in the right direction, but I wonder if this narrowing of how we teach consent may in fact be reducing it to subpar results. Consent is something we can teach from the very start. By bringing the language of consent into all areas of our lives, we’ll weave a culture of consent into the very fabric of our community.

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The life-changing event happened when I moved into a bus with my three children and husband. We had always lived in a small one-bedroom house so time together was not uncommon. Now, though, we’re on raw land, and the only indoor space is a 40-foot school bus; the intricacies of relationship and family dynamics have become all too clear.

The baby of the family, our nine-year-old at the time, was an expert at getting what he wanted. The word “no” was just an opportunity for him to add pressure and use every card possible to change that “no” into a “yes.” As his tactics increased, it was easy to become agitated by his desperate pleas. And, why not? Please, make him quiet, give him what he wants. At a certain point, though, I began to ask myself:

“If I support my son in getting what he wants at the age of nine, when will I teach him that no means no? If I allow my child to shout, cry and whine for what he wants when he is young, will I then expect that when he’s 15, he’ll know better and even see the need to ask?”

Outside of being a mom, the other part of my life is spent with youth. I deliver programs based in the themes of respect, empathy and connection. This is how I believe we build a future free of violence and abuse. Consent is an obvious and integral part of my work. I have to be willing to ask what others want, without bias, and be willing in return to be clear about what I want as well. Too often, I see that the first time youth hear about consent, it’s in the framework of sexual consent. I believe this is far too late.

I learned how consent could be taught to a child from a good friend. Over a cup of tea, I watched her navigate consent with her two-year-old, clearly, efficiently and without any blame or shame. In relationships, we may well want different things. Accepting that, without any feelings of shame or being wrong, allows us to be more willing to find out what those differences are. Her son wanted to wrestle. She did not. Calmly she pointed out to him that he wanted to wrestle, which represented a “yes,” and she did not, representing a “no.” See, she said, one “yes” and one “no”—what does that make? A “no.” Then she furthered explained: A “yes” and a “yes,” makes a “yes.” But when there is a “yes” and a “no,” that means that someone does not want to. That is a “no.”

Even at two, this seemed acceptable to him. Obvious really. Life moved on. I could not help but think, if we all raised our children with this language, of asking and accepting, would sexual consent need to be taught? I imagine that it would occur naturally, as it would already be imbedded into the language used in any relationship.

I’m curious about how we can change the language we use with our kids, our students and our friends to include the opportunity of consent. How we can practise a willingness, without judgment or shaming, to allow others to say how they feel and share what they want? How we can demonstrate our own boundaries without anger or bias? Just as fact.

It’s up to me to examine the ways I ask others to show up and the ways I may push my biases or opinions onto others. What does it really mean to allow others to participate in a way that is most comfortable for them? In classrooms and in my own family, I’ve seen that when I ask people for consent they seem more willing to engage. Consent when met implies an agreement. This is a beautiful standard for any interaction. It means we truly want to interact, in our own way. No matter what we’re doing, it is always better and more enjoyable when we’ve consented to doing it.

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