Making space for no

Image credit: Kevin Krejci

cn: mentions of r*pe, non-consensual touching, suicide

A lot of sex education resources rely on the assumption that the concept of consent itself is commonly understood, and that the mis-understanding comes about when you try to apply it to sex. For example, the famous ‘tea and consent’ video, which seeks to demonstrate how ridiculous common justifications for rape are by comparing them to someone’s attempts to justify forcing someone else to drink a cup of tea. Implicit in the video’s message is the notion that society holds a double standard where consent is concerned: individual autonomy will be respected everywhere but sexually. This message holds some truth— scores of psychological literature has been written exploring why sex specifically brings up such weird and horrible things in people. But equally I think it is important to recognise that the average person’s weak grasp on sexual consent is founded on an equally poor understanding of consent in general. Without radically developing our discussions of consent and boundaries in a non-sexual setting, we will have no foundations on which to build when we discuss consent in an explicitly sexual setting.

I didn’t realise just how much consent was swept aside in my own daily interactions with people until long after I was already breaking down my own experiences of toxic and abusive relationships. In looking over my own interactions with toxic people, I began to see that abuse exists on a spectrum of coercive behaviours in which we all partake occasionally. I realised that all of the tools we utilise to persuade or manipulate people into doing what we want them to can be utilised as tools of abuse. These are tactics that negate someone’s ability to consent to something, and lots of us are guilty of employing them in non-sexual interactions with our peers on a regular basis. We are also often not mindful of respecting other people’s boundaries: both physical and emotional. I am not attempting to compare these kinds of interactions with instances of sexual abuse and violence, but simply suggesting that to confront these endemic issues we must attack the cultural foundations on which they depend. We must start by reflecting on the roles we have to play.

For example, until recently it did not occur to me that a conversation could be non-consensual. I hadn’t realised that pressuring people into telling you things, even in what you consider to be a friendly or playful way, are examples of non-consensual interactions. More confusingly, but perhaps more notably, it is possible to share information with someone without their consent. We might forget that certain information might be triggering for someone, or we might draw them into keeping a secret for us that they don’t want to keep. This issue becomes especially tricky when it comes to discussing mental illness, and the very subtle nuances between reaching out for help and coercing people who might not have the capacity to support you into carer roles. The implicitly threatening nature of discussions about suicide and self-harm are now commonly recognised as tactics of abuse within spousal relationships. It is important to recognise that these patterns of behaviour can also develop between friends, and often with the purest intentions of mutual support.

Low-level physical boundary crossing is also something many of us are guilty of. These might be subtle but disconcerting, like standing too close to someone when you speak to them, or pulling them in for a hug when they don’t want one. Again, whilst these are arguably minor instances of non-consensual behaviour, they are often very unpleasant, and can be triggering for people who have survived sexual violence in the past. They can also lay the groundwork for more extreme cases.

Many of the people I know to have been abusers were disrespectful of boundaries in a more general sense: often inappropriately touchy-feely, invasive in the questions they asked and the things they shared, and guilty of invading the spaces of groups of which they were not a part. For example, adults who inappropriately associate with underage people. Or, less obviously, those people who turn up at your house uninvited and who you struggle to ask to leave. As noted before, these examples exist on a spectrum of behaviour: they are not all equally dangerous and each instance is individual is distinct. Nevertheless, the commonality of these types of interactions suggests a general incompetence or laziness in regards to navigating our own and other people’s boundaries. Many of us do not put in the effort to think about how we make other people feel, or fail to make space for refusal and rejection.

All of us need to take steps towards creating a society where conversations about consent are normalised. This might be as simple as asking people if its ok for you to talk about something graphic and triggering before you initiate the conversation, or it could be the trickier thing of intervening when you see non-consensual and abusive things going on around you. It might be about addressing those weird blurry friendships you have with people where you’re just not sure if all the cuddling is sexual or not, or asking your mates who overstay their welcome in your room to leave before midnight tonight. For those of us who hold even some kind of structural privilege (racial, sexual, gendered, class-based etc.), we should be especially wary of the way we navigate boundaries with our friends who do not hold these privileges. Not only are we probably more likely to dismiss or forget about their boundaries than we might with people who have more privilege, but when we cross their boundaries it has the added dimension of playing into wider structure of oppression. Lots of these conversations are difficult and will have to be ongoing ones, but each one makes a difference to the way we think about consent. These are necessary steps to create a world where sexual violence is not a totally normalised aspect of the lives of women and non-binary people.

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