Diaries Magazine

Consent Has Many Faces and Many Lives (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism and Gender & Bakamoono.lk)

Posted on the 26 April 2019 by Sharasekaram @sharasekaram
(This piece first appeared as part of a weekly column for - The Sunday Morning - a Sri Lankan national print newspaper and an edited version was published on bakamoono.lk a Sri Lankan Relationship Education website)
Last week, I was in Kathmandu at the CREA Reconference 2019 where I was privileged to present some of the work we have been doing in creating digital content for bakamoono.lk. Reconference was a feminist expo of over 500 artists, activists, and allies from 50 countries to rethink, reimagine, and reboot the work we are doing and the world we wish to build. I will, over subsequent columns, attempt to unpack the incredible conversations and ideas that flowed through those three days, and this is one of them.
Last week, CNN ran a story on a new product developed by the agency BBDO Argentina for Tulipan, a company which sells adult toys and condoms. It is called “The Consent Pack” and takes four hands to open. The Argentinean company developed the product in a bid to highlight the importance of consent. “If it’s not a yes, it’s a no” and “without consent there is no pleasure” say the taglines in the promotional video, along with #PlacerConsentido or “permitted pleasure”.
I read this piece at Reconference on my way to the plenary panel of the second day which was titled “The Many Lives of Consent”. Many things were discussed in that hour, but two ideas really stood out for me. One was that consent is multifaceted and about more than just saying “yes”. It is also about how we communicate that “yes”, our understanding of what we are consenting to, and most importantly, if we feel like we can deny consent and have that respected. The second was the idea that we need to start talking about consent in tandem with pleasure; without understanding pleasure, we will fail to understand why consent is vital.
As Julie Andrews sang, “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start” and go back to those incredible formative years when we are taught (or in many cases not taught) the basics of consent.
How many times have we asked our children to show affection via the form of a hug or kiss to a family member or friend, ignoring their visible discomfort? We give them a gentle push towards them, even as they cling to our sides refusing to go. “Now listen here!” I can see you bristle: “Are you saying we should treat everyone we know like a potential sexual predator?” Therein lies the first lesson about consent – it is not about everyone else, it is about the individual.
Teach from the very beginning

It doesn’t matter if aunty or uncle is the most loving and wonderful person in the world, we still need to teach our children that it is their body and their feelings that dictate what they want to do. This is a seemingly simple idea that has powerful consequences if not taught early and honestly. You see that, once the child has learnt that they can’t decide on who has rights over their body, it is not them but others who are central to their giving of consent – well that script writes itself. We see young women who believe they “owe” their boyfriends a nude because “he has been faithful to me”. We see young men who pinch, squeeze, grope, and more on public transport claiming their victims dressed a certain way and thereby implied consent for such behavior. We see people who truly believe that the concept of marital rape doesn’t exist as by agreeing to a marriage you agree to sexual activity at all given times. We teach our children that it is not about them – it is about everyone else.
We need to drastically change how and when we talk about consent with our children – not just as something that is given but as something that we also take. A “yes” under pressure and duress is not a yes; consent can be withdrawn at any time and agreeing to something at one time does not mean that you agree to everything at all times. We need this in schools – just as we teach children that 1 + 1 = 2, we must teach that consent is a conversation and a journey that is central to our relationships.
Begin with three-year-olds who are starting to learn to say “yes” and “no”. Show them how you respect their “no” and talk to them about what a good touch and bad touch is. Keep going with five-year-olds when they try to force another child to do something they don’t want to – like join them in a game.
Talk to them about asking the other person for permission first and accepting their answer. Keep going with 10-year-olds as they hover awkwardly when asked to “give aunty a big kiss”. Tell them they can say no and offer a handshake instead. Back them up when other adults criticize and try to embarrass them for saying no.
This brings me finally to those messy adolescent and teenage years when we seem to be traipsing through a minefield on a daily basis. Use the foundation you have built in those early years and maybe consider even discussing pleasure with your child.
Ask them to centralise themselves and their wants, and this will lead to them thinking about those of others. This does not always have to be in the context of sexual activity – we cannot and must not limit the idea of consent to just sex. It is about asserting ourselves and our wants, be it something as simple as not wanting to drink even though everyone says its “what the cool kids do” or more complex situations of toxic friendships and clique politics.
When we teach our children that consent is both give and take, we also teach them empathy. We teach them to think of how others feel – to put themselves in their shoes. We teach our children that saying yes and no matters, but how you hear it and respond also matters. We teach children to communicate with us, with each other, and with themselves. Ask them to ask themselves: What do I like? What do I want? What do I want to feel and not feel? Ask them to begin a conversation with the people they have relationships with, using these questions.
Teach them that consent can change – it is an ongoing conversation. Teach them that it is complicated, but that doesn’t make it difficult. Teach them that it is a journey, a conversation, and not necessarily a destination. Teach them pleasure changes immeasurably when we centralise consent, and this is how it is supposed to be.
Teach them and perhaps we really can change the world.

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