If this is one of the first times that you’re reading the phrase “normalize consent”, then it may sound like a foreign concept. “Normalizing” something requires that we think about it often, talk about it openly and do it every chance that we get.
“Consent” requires us to consider permissions, what’s legal vs. illegal and, probably the most commonly thought of, sexual intercourse. Normalizing consent requires us to think about, talk about and practice respecting the act of giving and receiving permission. And, believe it or not, we do this in our everyday lives. We do this both verbally and nonverbally according to our comfort levels.
When we say “excuse me” on the street or in the grocery store, we’re asking for permission to pass someone. When we “request a meeting” with a boss or coworker, we’re asking for a moment of their time. It’s in these everyday moments that we have the opportunity to discuss and practice consent, but are we actually taking advantage of them?
For as long as we’ve been dealing with consent, you may be wondering why it’s still so difficult for us to understand why we need it and why asking for it needs to be normalized. Thankfully, sex educators have done the work of wondering and determining for us. Their consensus is that it all comes down to power exchange. Some people consider even the most minor decisions to be moments of power exchange causing them to fear asking for anything simply because they associate it with losing power.
For example, I grew up being afraid to ask for permission because I’d somehow learned to view it as being synonymous with losing power. So, I actually ended up making things harder for myself by choosing to do things on my own when I really needed help. And, while not wanting to ask for permission for that reason differs greatly from those who like to abuse consent, it’s not that far off. The root of these issues is along the same lines and this is where agency comes into play.
Taking into account your own agency as well as that of the person you’re interacting with helps you to operate from a place of respect. And rather than deep diving into why people disrespect agency (and minimize consent), let’s talk about the “how”. Disrespecting agency comes down to not wanting to ask for permission. However, asking is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of respect. And, thankfully, asking for consent when it comes to sex is no different. Sure, it may feel like it could ruin the mood, but that’s not actually true. When someone respects your boundaries enough to ask you what you like and what they can have access to, it’s powerful.
On the sex front, consent is particularly important because without it the parties involved are creating an environment where physical and/or emotional abuse can take place. Respecting “no’s” and nonverbal versions of no is critical. If your intent is to enjoy yourself, then much of that depends on the other person enjoying themselves too. And that can’t happen if people are made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Particularly in situations where one or both parties are vulnerable physically or emotionally, respecting boundaries, establishing consent and revisiting permissions are necessary. It may feel unnatural to ask questions during sex because of how we’ve been conditioned to believe it should happen. Which begs the question…how big of a role do expectations play in sex and how does that impact consent?
It may feel tricky deciding when and how to discuss what you’re comfortable experiencing and exploring with a partner whether it’s a casual or long term situation. Sure, maintaining the mood is definitely a priority, but safety and comfort are just as important if not more. That’s why sex educators suggest discussing comfort levels before, during and after sex. The after sex discussions/activities are what’s called aftercare, something I didn’t even know existed until a couple of weeks ago. Checking-in throughout processes that are characterized by consent go beyond desire or expectation, they circle back to respect.
Whenever respect is at the center of an exchange, no matter the nature, all parties involved can walk away better for having experienced it.
This reminds us that permission is not scary, that agency and consent go hand in hand and that it’s our job to have the hard conversations regarding these topics. Practicing in nonsexual situations will help us to operate that much more comfortably in sexual situations and vice versa. The two may seem totally unrelated, but how we operate in one setting can have a direct impact on how we flow in another. All of this is key to personal development.