The Courage of Consent

The first time it happened I was five years old. I went to a friend’s house after school and we were playing with toys upstairs in the attic. When my mother came to pick me up he suddenly pinned me down on the floor and wouldn’t let me go until I kissed him. I don’t remember much from that time in my life, but I remember that as if it were yesterday. The feeling of fear, of helplessness, of freezing up. I wish I could say that nothing of that nature ever happened to me again after that. That I told my mom, and we had a big talk about what it means to say no and how to respect my body and have boundaries. I wish I could say that a childish kiss was the worst thing anyone ever did to me without my consent.

As I mentally scroll through the images and experiences of my past I ask myself, how did I become a girl who never learned to say no? I realize now that it’s because I wanted to be liked so badly that I would put that before my own value and self-worth.

When the Stanford rapist flooded the media this past spring, the little girl deep inside of me started fighting to get out. Brock Turner got a six-month jail term for sexually assaulting a woman who had passed out after drinking too much. I had a major realization that brought me to my knees; I have been this woman more times than I have ever admitted to anyone, even myself. I have time and again blamed myself for things I let happen when I drank too much, or when I was incapacitated to make clear decisions or speak up.

A charming video made by the UK police force began to circulate, explaining the meaning of a woman giving her consent. In the video, two cartoon stick figures played out different scenarios under which a man could engage in consensual sexual activity with a woman– only instead of sex they were using a cup of tea. “If she says she wants the tea, and you go and make the tea and bring it back to her, and she no longer wants the tea, she doesn’t have to take the tea,” it said.

This simple yet effective cartoon about tea made me instantly aware that at no point in my life had anyone sat me down and explained this to me. I never knew what it meant to give another person my consent– that it is a willing agreement that I have the power to give and to take away. I always drank the tea, whether I wanted it or had changed my mind about it, and unfortunately whether I was coherent or conscious enough to even drink it.

No wonder my inner five-year-old is one seriously pissed off little girl.

Consent is defined as giving permission for something to happen, or the agreement to do something. And this is something that at almost 41 I am just getting into head-on. The truth is I still blame myself. Up until I watched that video a few months ago I still had no idea what it meant to give someone my consent. Saying no, meaning it, and not caring about the consequences it might have seemed to require an amount of bravery that I couldn’t locate within myself. Sure I don’t make the errors in judgment I did when I was 16 or 26, (or 36), but I still have a very hard time standing up for myself, and I still continue to place my own value on how I want other people to think about me, which strangely translates as never saying no to anyone.

As a child born in the 70’s there were a lot of white old men telling women how they should raise their babies. A lot of things just weren’t talked about and a lot of things were swept under the rug. I had to learn at a very early age to take care of myself, but I was also extremely sensitive in a way no one understood, and I desperately just wanted to belong.

As far as I have come and as much as I have grown, consent has dogged me. It is the ball and chain I have dragged around with me for 35 years. Learning to stand up for myself, to dictate how I want to be treated and to be okay walking away from anyone who doesn’t respect those wishes is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things I have ever had to work on.

I recently have had to acknowledge that the only reason people treat me the way they do is because I allow it. By telling them they no longer have that permission, I fear I’ll risk the friendship. But really, in the end, what kind of friendship is that when we cannot show up for ourselves or treat each other with respect?

The same goes for a date, a boss, a client, a teacher, or a student. Any dynamic where one person holds the power and requests your consent for an exchange of some sort. If that exchange is not mutual, respectful, or if it makes you feel anxious or bad in anyway then that is the indicator that it just isn’t right. The courage comes in the next step. In knowing your worth– in not being afraid of what comes after you say no.

If I could go back and speak to that little girl that day in the room, I would tell her not to be afraid. That she is strong. That she is special. That she, when she grows up one day, will be kissed by a boy she loves who will look into her eyes and tell her he loves her. That she can say no as much as she wants, whenever she wants. And then I would tell her to stand up for herself without being afraid, and to walk away with her head held high.

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