It’s still April, still Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and I’m still someone who loves prevention, so let’s talk about consent!
Summary: you wouldn’t force tea on someone who doesn’t want tea, and the same applies to sex.
It was funny and true and great.
And I didn’t participate in the virality.
It’s not that I don’t like it or agree with it – I do (though I’m still looking for evidence that consent education actually prevents sexual violence. I know it sounds counterintuitive at first, but think about it: the problem is not that the majority of sexual perpetrators DON’T KNOW what consent is; it’s that they DON’T CARE. They feel entitled to the other person’s body and the person’s lack of “yes” doesn’t represent any kind of barrier to them.)
Consent education is mandated for new students on college campuses, and this tea analogy wouldn’t be a bad starting place for lots of schools. It could well be that consent education helps bystanders recognize the precursors of violence with reduced ambivalence or ambiguity. Helping people recognize the precursors of interpersonal violence is one of the goals of bystander education, along with teaching them strategies for responding and supporting them in feeling personally responsible for doing something.
And it could well be that the people who perpetrate violence “accidentally,” as it were, because they didn’t realize they didn’t have consent, would be helped by having such a clear, simple analogy.
And it could well be that consent education like this is part of changing the cultural discourse around sexual violence, placing responsibility solely on the perpetrator as the one who didn’t get that you’re not allowed to just make people do things they don’t want to do.
All of that is REALLY IMPORTANT.
I worried that ”Here’s what consent looks like” education teaches people what behaviors they need to create in the other person in order to have “gotten” consent. And – because: patriarchy and terrible sex ed and sexual shame etc – that’s a hot mess.
Because sometimes consent … well, look.
How about I put it in a 3-panel comic:
Did this person want tea? No.
Did they want lots and lots of other things that come with tea? Yes.
Alternatively maybe tea is on a person’s “Things I Want” list, but the “Things I Don’t Want” list includes things like “exposure to this person’s germs” or “to let this person see me drinking tea” or “social reputation consequences” or whatever else can come with tea.
Consent: slightly more complicated than that, because a person can both want tea and not want tea at the same time.
“This is how you know you have consent” doesn’t teach people to recognize what a person really wants when they say yes – and it certainly doesn’t teach either partner how to clarify.
And it feels dismissive of the experience of the person being asked for consent, to say it’s as simple as wanting tea or not wanting tea, like it’s an off-switch/on-switch.
But let’s imagine together a world where someone who is offered tea feels completely free to say, “No tea for me, thanks, but you know what I would love? I cup full of milk and sugar, please!” or “What I’d prefer is just to watch you drink tea. How would that be for you?” or “I’m more interested in your teacup collection than the tea itself. Can you give me a tour?” or any other variation on, “Maybe not that, but how about this?”
What would it take to create a world where everyone feels free to ask for what feels right to them in the moment, without risk of unwanted consequences, including judgment from their partner or anybody’s feelings getting hurt?
When I ask a question like that, sometimes people feel like, “Oof, that’s a heavy lift, I don’t know if people will EVER be able to talk about sex that easily,” but I honestly, genuinely, truly believe that if each of us takes tiny risks in our willingness to think about what we want and like and to tell someone else what we want and like, and if each of us practices hearing without judgment about what someone else wants and likes, we will gradually make precisely the world I imagine for us.
Imagine with me. See it as possible. And let’s make it true.
Stay safe and see you next time.