Listening to Louise O’Neill chatting with Seán Moncrieff today had me thinking about consent again. Particularly and specifically consent in the context of sexual relations. Now, when I say ‘sexual relations’ I don’t just mean penetrative sexual intercourse. I mean everything up to, and including, penetrative sexual intercourse; and, yes, that includes snogging.
It really isn’t okay to lunge at someone and ‘lob the gob’ (as the young people say), stick your tongue in their mouth and swish it around a bit. Uninvited, unwelcome, that’s assault.
I remember the first time someone asked me if they could kiss me; it really surprised me, and I thought it was a bit quaint and slightly old-fashioned. Afterwards, though, I realised that it was probably the most respectful thing a man could do before kissing a woman. Now, I expect it. I don’t know if consent is such a huge issue for me because – for most of my life – who touched me, and when, was not something I had any control over; or if it’s simply because it’s a respectful way of going about things.
In discussions about consent, I have heard people dismiss the obtaining of it as ‘not sexy’. Personally, I find it really sexy. I find it very sexy when a man doesn’t assume that I’m there to be touched as, and when, and where, he feels like it. I find it quite sexy that he considers me important enough in the proceedings to find out before touching me that it really is something I want. And, let’s face it, if I’m in a position (no pun intended!) where a man is asking consent, chances are it will be granted. There again, it might not be – I might say ‘no’, or ‘not yet’ or ‘wait’ but at least I have been consulted about what happens to my body. The effect that has on me is intoxicating. Knowing that nothing will happen to me until I have granted permission for it to happen also means that I relax and am much more in the moment – and much more open to enjoying it – than I would be otherwise. I’m not tensely on guard, aware that the moment might well arise where I have to fight someone off.
Also, it’s so much nicer to be asked for permission than to be in the situation where you have to stay ‘stop!’ or ‘don’t’ or push someone away. Particularly for those of us who have been sexually abused, and where having things done to us without warning, and without consent is triggering. It can be very difficult to stop someone who starts to do something unwelcome when your historical experience is that your pleas will either be ignored, or met with more force. In those instances, we’re less likely to feel as though we’re active participants in a pleasurable exercise than we are to feel that we’re objects being subjected to activity. This can result in ‘stop’ being screamed in our heads, but never making it past being more than a lump in our throats. It can also result in dissociation, meaning we’re no longer even in the room – which is a bit sad when you fancy someone and have been looking forward to a good spit-swapping session (or more).
The last time I snogged someone, I tried to discuss how I felt about consent. I explained that, if his hand was to end up anywhere between my neck and knee, I either wanted to be the one who put it there, or to be asked first if it was okay. He was surprised.
‘I’d hate you to be uncomfortable,’ he explained. I knew this already. The reason we were kissing in the first place was that I’d decided he was one of life’s nice guys, and that I was probably as safe with him as I could reasonably expect to be with any man. ‘But I’m kissing you. And when I’m kissing you, it feels natural to want to touch you, and to want to run my hands over your body. If I do something you don’t like – then tell me to stop and I will.’
I have no doubt he would have stopped if I’d asked him to, but – really – that’s too late. You’ve already done something to me that I don’t want you to, you’ve already breached my trust, you’ve already made me anxious. Also, as I explained earlier, for those of us with a history of sexual abuse, saying ‘stop’ can be difficult.
At the other end of the spectrum, I renewed an acquaintance with a very lovely man about six months ago. We hadn’t met since 1999 (we live thousands of kilometres away from each other) – and the last time we’d seen each other, we’d been kissing. I was hoping we’d pick up where we’d left off. We did.
In and of itself, that was lovely; but what was lovelier was the fact that he did nothing without making absolutely sure first that it was something I wanted. It started with him telling me – when we were arranging to meet – that he wanted to kiss me, and asking if that would be okay; to asking permission to hold my hand when we were out walking, to checking with me, when we alone and getting cosy, that his intentions were acceptable before acting on them.
After about a week of this wonderfulness, I asked him about it.
‘Consent is really important to me,’ I told him. ‘But why is it important to you? Why are you so aware of it? Why do you always ask me before you touch me?’
‘Because I was raised to have respect for women – and I respect you,’ came the response. ‘And I can’t just presume that because I want something, that you want the same thing at the same time. I would hate to hurt you or upset you, so I need to be sure before I do something that I am allowed to do it, and that it’s something you want as much as I do.’
Still intrigued, I asked a bit more. It turns out that he was raised to treat women with respect not because we’re weak and need ‘minding’ but because we’re strong and formidable. As such, we need to be treated with due consideration, and as equals.
Of course, consent is a two-way street, and I would never dream of touching a man without his permission. I often find, however, that my requests are met with puzzlement, amusement and / or surprise. On more than one occasion, requests for consent have been answered with
‘Just do what you want with me!’
Once I’ve explained that I’m uncomfortable with that, and why, they have come around to my way of thinking; and enjoyed being asked as much as they have enjoyed the acts they have given consent for.