We are having important conversations as a culture, but there are times I find the conversation surface deep with the real progress below where we’ve been willing to go. Consent is more than a verbal “yes” or “no” and until we discuss the implications of that, we can’t do the important work necessary to reduce sexual assault in our society.
In order to make true progress, individually and as a society, we have to be willing to lean into discomfort and talking about consent can be an inherently uncomfortable conversation for a lot of people. That’s okay. We are all adults and we are in this together.
Let’s talk about consent.
I want to start with a brief discussion about how the body responds to trauma. When confronted with potential harm to our person and our psyche, humans typically respond in a couple of ways:
Depending on who you ask, there’s possibly even two more responses that come after the freeze response, but I’m not going to get into that here. We are here to talk about the freeze response.
Do you know about the freeze response? I know it well. I went into freeze response the second time I was assaulted and for years, I didn’t fully understand why I felt like I couldn’t move as I watched myself from above, my consciousness floating above my body. I struggled to understand why I didn’t fight and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with.
It’s actually pretty common for people to respond to trauma this way. It’s basically your nervous system shutting everything down in order to survive. Think playing possum.
So every time I hear somebody question why a woman (or man) didn’t fight back when they were being assaulted, I just want to direct them to some good resources about how our nervous system works, because to think that anybody can just will themselves to fight when confronted with a violation of their body is just plain ignorant.
At that moment, their body decided the best course of action was to freeze so they could survive. Let me be very clear: this is NOT a conscious decision. It happens first in a part of the brain that looks for potential threats (the amygdala) and it takes a few seconds for the rational brain to catch up, but stress hormones have already been released at that point. This is also why you can’t “think” your way out of a strong nervous system response. You have to let your body process through it naturally.
In any case, I needed to talk about the freeze response because I believe it is the missing piece from the conversation about consent.
Consent has traditionally focused on Person A being able to articulate to Person B that what is happening to them is not okay and unfortunately, this isn’t always a possibility physiologically.
What this means is we cannot always rely on people to tell us their consent is rescinded. I know, this sounds IMPOSSIBLE. Do we have to make sex even MORE complicated? Yes. We do if we want to reduce the amount of sexual trauma in our population. Plus, I see navigating consent as far less complicated than healing from sexual trauma.
How can you have consensual sex with somebody if they can’t always tell you if they still consent or not?
Here’s the good news: there is a way to navigate this reality. The bad news: you’re going to have to pay attention, listen, and communicate effectively. I don’t believe this is actually bad news, and these qualities are applicable to most situations you encounter in your adult life, so do it now: learn to communicate and pay attention.
I’ll remind you again: if we want to reduce the amount of sexual trauma that exists in our society, we have to be willing to do the hard work to make it a better reality for every adult that wants to enjoy a healthy sex life.
If we want consent to be a somewhat infallible system so nobody has their lives ruined, it requires emotional intelligence on the part of all participants involved. I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve come up with three main tenets of a System of Mutually Beneficial Consent.
1. Consent is an ongoing conversation
Consent has to be an ongoing conversation. Before having sex with somebody, it’s generally a good idea to discuss what gets them going and what they don’t like. It’s like a sexy little preview of all the fun you’re going to have.
As you start to get physical, it means continuing to adjust so everybody is having an enjoyable time. That means you may have to pause, ask if they want to change directions or if they want to keep doing what you’re both doing.
But what about the heat of the moment stuff? The drunken escapades. The hookups after weeks of unspoken innuendo. You. Still. Need. To. Get. Consent. If you have that much sexual energy a-brewing, I don’t think it’s all going to dissipate in one moment of asking the object of your lust if they are down to get down.
If it fizzles out after a few sentences of communication, maybe it wasn’t there, to begin with. Or maybe you get off on a lack of communication and honestly, I’m worried for you if that’s the case.
2. Pay attention to body language
To secure initial and ongoing consent, you have to pay attention to the person you are with. Are they just laying there, not moving, completely silent? I would bet they aren’t enjoying themselves.
If you think that some of the women you’ve been with were enjoying themselves laying there not making a peep, I would guarantee they weren’t. Perhaps it was still consensual and it was just sex they’d rather not repeat, but if you don’t have an engaged, interactive partner, it’s time to stop and check-in.
People who enjoy themselves show it. There will be indications in their body language they are present and with you, enjoying the moment. Do you really want to be having sex with somebody who’s eyes have glazed over as they’ve mentally left the room? It’s an honest question to ask yourself. What’s more important to you: getting off or having active participation from your partner?
Prioritizing only your pleasure is the root of poor consent.
3. Value and respect for the bodily autonomy of others
This one is tough. Repeat offenders of sexual assault don’t have this quality. Shocking, I know. However, the elephant in the room people are trying to talk about, but with much resistance, is sometimes rapists are people you know. Sometimes those people are not satan incarnate, they are just misguided and have a lot of personal growth to do.
Let me be clear. Choosing to rape somebody is 100% the fault of the rapist, but I don’t think most people arrive at that life path without some adverse influences. Maybe their modeling was disrespect for women. Maybe they were abused as a child and externalized that pain on other people in comparable vulnerable positions. Maybe they are entitled and don’t respect the wants and needs of others. Maybe they are a legit sociopath. Who knows?
The foundation of consent is a value and respect for the bodily autonomy of others.
In my opinion, if you don’t cherish this within yourself and embody it in your behavior, you have no business having sex. Harsh, I know, but sexual assault keeps way too many people up at night and struggling to lead productive lives.
You can’t force somebody to value the lives of others. Just like you can’t force somebody to respect you. You can, on a personal level, be aware of the people you interact with.
I’m not even talking about explicitly sexual situations here. I’m talking about hanging out in a group of mixed company and hearing one of the men make a disparaging comment about a woman’s body. You can probably guess the guy is not well-versed in proper consent. He is demonstrating a disregard for the foundation of consent: value and respect for others.
People who make unwelcome comments about the bodies of others.
People who make sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace.
People who display predatory and manipulative behavior to exploit sexual conquests.
People who have demonstrated violent behavior.
These are things to look out for. I’m not implying everybody who makes an offhand comment about a woman’s body is a rapist in waiting. They may just be an asshole. However, when we live in a society that is complicit in the degradation of other people’s bodies, we fan the flames of rape culture.
Don’t balk at the term. I know it’s been commandeered and used inappropriately at times, but what rape culture is to me is a cultural phenomenon that permits and encourages the disregard for the bodily autonomy of its individuals.
There’s a ton of factors that contribute to this: power dynamics in the workplace, objectification in the media, drinking culture on college campuses, poor modeling in the home, and on and on.
In order to create a culture of positive consent, we have to be willing to dismantle the pieces of rape culture that bolster it up and keep it alive and well. Sexual harassment and patterns of violent behavior keep rape culture a reality.
Speak up when somebody makes disrespectful comments towards women. Intervene if you see predatory behavior at the bar. Keep an eye out for each other. Have blunt and honest conversations with the people you know and care about.
For the love of all things beautiful, stop questioning why she didn’t fight back.