After reading this article, written by someone who committed a sexual assault, I got to thinking. We do not teach kids about consent, not really. Because we don’t talk much about emotion, empathy, and human connection in school (and certainly not sex), we don’t talk much about how to know if someone is consenting to what is happening to them. We also don’t teach people to understand their own boundaries and how to say no or how to ask someone to stop a behavior we don’t like.
In fact, I would argue that we usually teach the opposite. I was told growing up that bullies “really are very unhappy people,” and the silent implication was that I should simply accept their emotional abuse. When I finally caved and talked to a teacher about my ongoing struggles with the bullies in high school, she talked to the class and—to my astonishment—the bullying ceased. It turns out that if you say something isn’t OK, people sometimes stop doing it. I don’t remember what she told the class because I was deep in my own shame and humiliation, but I do remember one of those bullies giving me a hug and apologizing after that class. Why hadn’t I spoken up earlier?
Sometimes you can scream your truth, and no one will listen. Parents, teachers, and other adults will look the other way or say, “Boys will be boys,” and ignore the real impact bullying, abuse, and assault can have on a person’s life.
I guess I’m angry. I’m angry on behalf of the victims and the uneducated perpetrators of abuse. Empathy is a skill and a practice, not a gift, and we need to teach people how to use it with themselves and others. Learning to practice mindful awareness of our own reactions and to take the perspective of another person can be a powerful tool for avoiding the harm caused in many of these situations.
To that end, I enlisted my talented friend Christine (curator of The Tummy Project and all around rad person) to create a comic about consent—a super fast guide to both how to give it and how to recognize if it is being given. I am grateful that she agreed to design a piece that provides a quick reference for reading body language and thinking about what might be happening with one’s self or their partner.
When someone is intoxicated, they cannot give consent. They are not able to make safe decisions, which is why we don’t let them drive. If they can’t drive, they can’t consent to sex. Sexual interactions can be negotiated before drinking occurs, and sex certainly happens all the time when people are drunk. However, keep in mind that intoxication impairs decision making.
In school I learned that body language is about 60 percent of human communication. That isn’t necessarily true all the time, but the point is (as mentioned in this article) that if there is a discrepancy between what someone says and how they are acting, we should pay attention.
Sometimes when people are uncertain or uncomfortable, they react by freezing up, turning away, or otherwise seeming reluctant to continue. It’s simple enough to just ask in those moments. Ask, “Is what I’m doing OK right now?” “Would you like to stop?” “I’m getting mixed signals from you; can you let me know what’s going on?” They may have no words to explain what’s going on, especially if they are feeling high levels of discomfort.
The thing is, sex is fraught with uncertainty. It’s normal to be nervous or unsure, and it is OK to take things at whatever pace feels right to the parties involved. When we can communicate during sex and ask our partners when things are unclear, sex gets better and more enjoyable for everyone. If you are feeling nervous, finding yourself pulling away from your partner or freezing up, say something. Do not be afraid to put things on hold and talk about what’s feeling weird. When you say yes, look for your whole body to enthusiastically agree with that (no matter what you’re saying yes to).
We hope you’ll share this with whomever might find it useful. All of us deserve happy, safe and healthy interactions with others in ways that feel good to us.