Three Dimensions of Consent

Michael McDonald
Oct 1, 2018 · 5 min read
photo by Allef Venicius on

Consent is important. Don’t underestimate the power of something as simple as asking “Would you like a hug?” (and pausing to make sure that their yes is a yes not an acquiescence) instead of just hugging someone. In a just, compassionate, and enlightened society asking for consent is something that would happen naturally. But in our current society, consent is a revolutionary act. Instead of riding on our egos and expectations, we make our intentions explicit. We welcome a no just as much as a yes. Because it is not the norm, it is something that must be consciously addressed and practiced. It is a new and evolving conversation; we’re still figuring out what it should look like and how to help it spread. Consent shines a light on hurts that we’ve been ignoring, and role models a world which honors both autonomy and connection.

Note that by consent, I don’t mean just consent around sexual activity–though that is obviously vital–I mean consent around anything that might cross a boundary or hurt someone. Like offering a hug. Or offering advice. Or even offering to do someone a favor. Sometimes even the smallest well-meaning actions can inadvertently step on people’s toes and erode trust when a foundation of consent is not present.

One of the hurdles to normalizing consent is that consent can be confusing. “No means no” is only the tip of the iceberg, and the conversation becomes much more subtle and nuanced under the surface. Consent, before it is being practiced, can appear redundant, or distracting, or impersonal–a sort of chicken and egg problem. And how can you get verbal consent in a context where you’re not supposed to speak? How much consent is enough? How do you really know if you’re a yes or a no? (Even responding to a request with a clear yes or no can become an existential crisis.) What if even making a request is crossing a boundary? And then what happens when something goes wrong–when a boundary is crossed, when someone gets hurt, when someone wasn’t paying attention, when someone wasn’t honest with theirself or with others?

As I’ve been learning more and more about consent–primarily from women who have been teaching in this territory long before me–I think I’ve found a way to simplify the conversation by organizing the topic of Consent into three dimensions or sub-topics: Honor Other, Honor Self, and Cleaning Up.

Honor Other is what most people talking about Consent are shouting at the top of their lungs. This includes the importance of asking for consent, attunement, and accepting anything other than an enthusiastic yes as a no. Maybe means no. Silence means no. Even a verbal “yes” when you check it out is sometimes a no. Honor Other is rightfully the best thing to teach first about consent because teaching people to ask and to celebrate both a yes and a no reduces unwitting violations. This is the part of the consent conversation that everyone should hear, whether they’re interested in consent or not.

And, there’s a lot more to the consent conversation than just the request. The next level of triage is Honor Self. Honor Self brings into account the person being asked for consent. A lot of my clients confess that they are ‘bad with boundaries’, that even when asked they don’t know how to respond and their confusion often results in suffering. It can be hard to speak up! It can be hard to know if you’re really a yes or a no! It can be hard to interact with most of the world, who are bad at Honoring Other. Even after the fact it can be hard to know whether saying yes or no to something was really honoring yourself. It can be a bit too easy to either blame yourself or blame other–both products of learned helplessness–rather than taking constructive responsibility for what you can do.

And finally, there is Cleaning Up. The emphasis on Honor Self can create a sort of fire and brimstone, black and white, right and wrong story around consent. The fear of violating boundaries and of not doing consent right can drive many people who are already quite repressed further into their shells. Showing attraction or even casually touching someone, which already was terrifying, becomes not just painfully awkward but also feels ‘criminal’. While Honor Self creates bright lines for what to do and what not to do, the purpose of Cleaning Up in the consent conversation is to create ease and antifragility when something goes wrong. Mistakes are inevitable. People get hurt. Cleaning Up covers the territory where it’s not ok to ignore an issue, but it’s not extreme enough to be criminal. Instead of ‘calling out’ someone as being a bad person, there is a ‘calling in’ to engage them. Hurt people hurt people, so compassion and restorative justice can not only heal a violation but also bring more connection and compassion to everyone involved. A healthy consent culture becomes stronger through how it engages violations.

Organizing the consent conversation into these three perspectives of Honor Other, Honor Self, and Cleaning Up created a lot of clarity for me. It helped me organize how to teach consent, giving a general sequence to follow where some perspectives are more urgent than others. And it helped me dig into some of the paradoxes that happen within consent, e.g. “Just don’t cross this line.” vs. “But what happens if I do?” and “Clear yes or no.” vs “How do I know if I’m a yes? How do I know if I’m a no?” and “What if I say yes but then regret it after?” I’ll share more about some of those explorations later, but I wanted to first offer this map of the territory.

If you enjoyed this article, please help these ideas spread with a like or a share.

Michael McDonald is an Integrity Coach, writer, facilitator and speaker. “Something awesome is trying to happen, and your job is to allow it.”

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