Usually when I’m talking to students about consent, it is in the context of sexual activity.
Over the past decade I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in the way that (and the frequency in which) sexual consent is discussed.
The biggest and most influential being the shift from a “no means no” view of consent to a “yes means yes” or affirmative view of consent.
Affirmative sexual consent highlights the complicated nature of consent by recognizing that:
- consent should be communicated throughout a sexual encounter;
- it can be revoked at any time;
- pressure and/or manipulation is not consent;
- consent for one sexual activity does not mean consent to another;
- being in a relationship or having engaged in the sexual activity in the past does not assume consent;
- consent cannot be given when someone is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs; and,
- everyone involved in the sexual encounter should be an enthusiastic participant!
Some of the ways that we consider consent in situations involving sexual activity are also relevant and even intuitive in non-sexual situations. For example, you wouldn’t take something from someone without their permission (this is called stealing), nor would you assume that just because you borrowed something in the past that it is okay to take it again without asking.
In other situations, consent is not as obvious.
So, here are three non-sexual ways you can practice communicating consent.
1. GET PERMISSION BEFORE TOUCHING SOMEONE IN A NON-SEXUAL WAY
Last year, I was building a relationship with a potential client. We had already met several times and were beginning to form a friendship. One evening we met up for dinner. When I greeted here, I gave her a hug.
She hugged me back.
No big deal, right?
Months later during a conversation, my client mentioned that she hated when people hugged her.
I immediately felt awful…and so utterly embarrassed that I didn’t even consider this when meeting her (since I teach and discuss consent for a living…GEEZ!). At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that I should have asked her first.
The overall lesson here is that anytime you touch someone you need to ask if it is okay. This includes hugging, kissing as well as other forms of non-sexual physical contact. Touching someone without their permission violates their personal boundaries.
Here are a few simple things you can say to ask for consent or to state your own personal boundaries when it comes to non-sexual physical contact:
“Is it okay if I give you a hug?”
“Can I hug you?”
“I know people usually hug, but I’d rather not if that’s okay.”
“In my culture, we kiss each other on the cheek when we greet them. Would this be okay?”
“Excuse me. Can you please move over so I can get by?”
2. DISCUSS HOW MONEY WILL BE SPENT, SHARED, OR SPLIT
I’ve had several uncomfortable conversations with friends about money. For example, just last week I met up with some friends at our favorite happy hour spot. I wasn’t drinking and only ordered an appetizer. However, when the bill came, one of my friends decided that we should split everything evenly (meaning I ended up paying WAY more than I actually owed).
Awkward conversation involving money are also common in dating situations. Traditional gender roles often put an expectation on men to cover the cost of a date (in heterosexual relationships). Of course, some men (and people in general) want to pay for a date, but you should never assume this is the case.
What all these situations have in common is that an assumption was made about money and who would pay without asking. In other words, someone did not consent to how their money was being spent.
Here are a few simple things you can say to ask for consent or to state your own personal boundaries when it comes to money and finances.
“When we go out, I only want to pay for what I order.”
“I would like to pay for our date this evening.”
“I will pay for the [ENTER THING/ACTIVITY HERE], and you can get the [ENTER
THING/ACTIVITY HERE]. How does that sound?”
“Is it okay if we split the bill evenly?”
“I will send you [ENTER AMOUNT HERE] for [ENTER THING/ACTIVITY HERE]. Let me know if I owe you more.”
3. DISCUSS DIGITAL BOUNDARIES
One of the most common sources of conflict in our lives involves technology. No surprise there, right?
Though conflict is an inevitable (and healthy) part of our relationships, we can limit conflict involving technology by asserting our own and asking for others’ consent.
This means asking someone before taking a picture or video of them. Keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable having their picture taken or being recorded in any way. Just like you shouldn’t touch someone without their consent, you shouldn’t take a photo or video without their permission either.
This also means asking others’ before posting a picture or video on social media. People may not want certain things posted for personal or professional reasons. For example, some people are friends with, or followed by their boss and/or coworkers and do not want those they work with to see their Spring Break shenanigans, or their rowdy night out last weekend.
Finally, this means asking how others feel about sharing their location. Some people are totally okay sharing their location with friends, family, or a significant other. Others feel as though this violates their privacy and autonomy.
There may be a time and place for location sharing. For example, when someone’s safety is a concern. But, you should not assume that someone is okay with you knowing where they are at all times…no matter how close the two of you are.
There are many reasons why people want to have digital boundaries. Whatever the reason, it is important to consider how consent can be violated when using technology.
Here are a few simple things you can say to ask for consent or to state your own personal boundaries when it comes to technology.
“Is it okay to tag you in this picture?”
“I took a video of you while you were [ENTER ACTIVITY HERE]. Can I post it or would
you like me to delete it?”
“How do you feel about me posting pictures of us on social media?”
“I want to tag you in these pictures. Is that okay?”
“I’m glad you like taking pictures of us, but can you ask me before you post them
“I do not think that we should share our location with each other unless we discuss it in advance.”
“Can you share your location with me tonight while you are on your date? I want to make sure you get home safely.”
Some of the suggestions I made in this article may seem awkward at first.
Heck, I thought they were awkward at first…and, [full disclosure] sometimes they still are.
Remember that communication in general (and communicating consent specifically) is a skill…and like any other skill we aren’t always all that great at it in the beginning. But, with time and practice we can continue to improve.
Feel free to use any of the suggestions I’ve provided here or begin to experiment with ways of communicating consent that feel comfortable to you, and that match your unique communication style.
With each interaction it gets easier to incorporate consent into a conversation, and you will find that most people are appreciative that you paused to consider their personal boundaries or to communicate your own.