Consent: A Dirty Word?

Are we creating a negative emotional reaction to the word consent? Maybe.

With the lingering presidential elections, it’s easy to say that in the last few months, the issue of consent has been blasted in our faces – whether it is overwhelming our social media or flooding the airwaves, there is no getting around the issue. But what do we mean when we talk about consent?
 
More often than not (which is crazy!), when we speak at events with young people, they wonder how to ask for consent, how to give it, and how to obtain it. Most don't want to “ruin the moment,” so they shy away from the conversation all together. Where does consent begin? How do we make it a natural and expected part of the relationships we engage in?

The fact is that the misunderstanding of boundaries and the rampant ignorance of what consent truly means is all around us. It is with us at the supermarket when a man reaches over our daughter to pick up fruit without so much as a muttered apology or forewarning. It is with us when we watch our children at play. It is with us on first dates, on walks through the mall, and even during phone conversations.
 
Listen, I’m a mom. I get it. I have spent the last 17 years raising four very different kids. I’m also an advocate for women's rights. You’d think I have this all figured out, right? Truth is, I don’t.
 
I recently found just how much I have overlooked this topic. A few weeks ago, my husband and I went bowling with a large group of friends. My two young sons, seven and four years old, came along with us. The kids were bowling and the grown-ups were catching up and goofing around – it had been a long week. It hadn’t been long before my seven year old began “peacock-ing” all around the adults. This is when, out of nowhere, my son begins to speak louder, when he puffs up his chest and shows off any skills he can muster, and becomes uncharacteristically helpful.
 
This only happens when there is a girl around. It’s been happening for a few years now and although it’s mostly funny, it scares me to think of what puberty will look like. So the peacock is doing his thing and helping my friend’s daughter bowl. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then she hits a strike. He is so excited and caught up in the moment that he runs over, picks her up, and plants a huge kiss on her cheek.
 
It would have been super cute if it wasn't for the look of terror on her face. It was a flash, less than one second, but I saw it. Up until this moment, the two of them had been sharing high-fives, endless laughter, and the occasional discussion on bowling balls. Then the kiss happened, and it noticeably threw her off. My son was none the wiser. Now, I get that to most of us, this is not a big deal - it was clearly innocent. But this moment made me think about the importance of speaking to my boys about consent, a conversation I didn’t expect to cover for a few more years.
 
A while back, I read a blog in which a mother wrote about asking her children permission before she gave them kisses. I thought that was insane. I always kiss my kids, whether they like it or not. But lately, I've been thinking twice. There are times now when I’m squeezing my four year old and kissing his belly and his face shows a kind of discomfort, “Mom! Stop!” and I think, “What am I teaching him?” so I let him go. It kind of sucks as his mom to stop smothering him with physical affection but I’m honestly not sure how to create patterns in his mind that teach him that his boundaries must be respected and that, in turn, he is responsible for respecting the boundaries of others. Maybe it’s too much. Maybe it’s just not enough.

So in a society where men are serving just days in prison for harassment and rape crimes, where a man running for the highest elected office brags about sexual assault, I feel that I must do all that I can to teach my little men that bodies are sacred and belong to no one but the person walking around in them. It lies on us as parents, as community members, as activists, and as human beings to raise children that aren't afraid of or insulted by the word consent. I'm not 100% sure of what the steps to raising respectful and empathetic adults looks like but I'm taking steps and I'm asking for help. Together we can permanently change the way we think about consent to something that is natural and easy.
 
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Debbie & Patty