One of the favorite slogans of the sex positive crowd is that consent is sexy. Now in certain contexts this absolutely can be true (imagine someone screaming in ecstasy “Yes!”), but in other contexts wherein consent is not particularly sexy at all it can be just as important. Generally we relegate the concept of consent to sexual situations. However there are all sorts of situations in which people need our consent to use, touch, or otherwise interact with our bodies. Our time, our energy, our thoughts, our bodies: these things are our own, regardless of the context in which someone is asking for them. It doesn’t matter whether the context is sexual or not, we need to respect people’s rights to say no when we ask them for the use of their bodies.
This morning I read an article about swing dancing and consent. This is one community where people are encouraged to say yes all the time no matter what their reservations might be. Because it is not considered sexualized, it’s rude or unfriendly to say no to something. Well that’s just downright silly to me. Each of us has the right to do what we choose with our bodies at any time. Sometimes this may mean bursting another person’s bubble, but we still do not owe that individual anything.
Another area that this has been explored before is in the relationships between gay men and straight women. Fairly often, gay men feel entitled to the bodies of straight women, and brush away complaints about groping or touching with “I’m not attracted to you, it didn’t mean anything”. Other people have explained better than I have what’s wrong with this attitude, but suffice it to say that someone still has a right to their own space and autonomy regardless of their relationship with the person who is touching them.
Beyond these two areas, many people today get the message that it’s inappropriate to say no. You owe your time and energy to someone else if they ask for it. You owe them a handshake or a hug or a kiss because it’s the socially appropriate thing to do. If your friend wants to go out you should. If your dad wants you to help him paint the house, you should. However in all arenas of life, our time, our bodies, and our autonomy are our own. You get to say no. It is allowed. You don’t necessarily need a really good reason that the other person can readily understand.
Now many people are worried about being polite or kind. It’s easy to interpret this kind of advice as telling people to be a complete jerk and blow everybody off all the time because you want to be lazy and never give back. That is not what this reminder is. This is a reminder that at no point in your life are you obligated to give yourself in any way to another person. You may still want to choose to give people your time, energy, hugs, dances, or sexytimes because you care about them, you’d enjoy it, you want to help them out, or they’ve helped you in the past. In addition, it’s not generally conducive to relationships to never give any piece of yourself. So if you’re motivated to be social in any way, you will likely give some. But you never have to, even with your friends, even when social rules dictate it.
Consent is for all times. It’s not just sexy, it’s also respectful, it’s also necessary, it’s also affording each individual their rights to autonomy and choice in all walks of life. And consent is for anything that involves me changing around my body and life for you.