Consent

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.

Why ‘No’ Now?

If you’re living outside of Ireland at the moment, you might be unaware that our little country is going to the polls next month to vote in two referendums. The first (which I’m not going to discuss at any great length just yet) is to change the constitution to allow those over the age of 21 to be elected president. The other offers Irish people the chance to change the constitution in order to make marriage equally available to people regardless of their sex. If passed, the amendment would read:

              ‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex’.

Personally, I think that’s a glorious idea. I think it is a wonderful idea to make marriage available to people who want to get married. Let’s think, for a moment, about what marriage actually is. It started as a way to bind two people together in order to protect assets; it was commonly used to join the estates of two families of equal standing. Sometimes, one party would be wealthier, in the financial sense, than the other. In those cases, the less financially well-off person would bring something else – social cachet, considerable beauty or the willingness to marry the gimpy son of the wealthy merchant – to the partnership. Marriage also served as a way to try to ensure – in the days before DNA tests – that the children men were raising were their own. Within the confines of a marriage, people were contractually obliged to have sex with no one but their individual spouses.

That brings me to another point; long before it was about love and fluffy stuff, marriage was about the legalities of safeguarding wealth and property within the confines of the marriage and with regard to inheritance. Marriage was and still is a legally binding contract. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the same sex all the time. People enter into legally binding contracts with people of the opposite sex all the time. No one bats an eyelid. Why shouldn’t men and women enter into legally binding contracts with whomever they want whenever they want?

These days, our understanding and expectations of marriage have changed to incorporate an assumption that the two parties are deeply in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together based on that love. The legally binding contract bit hasn’t gone away, however. (Though it has changed a bit to reflect that women are not regarded as property; rape within marriage is illegal, violence within marriage is illegal and a husband can no longer sue another man for ‘lack of consort’ if his wife has an affair).

Many people still choose to get married in accordance with their religious beliefs, and this referendum – if passed – will not change that. Religious marriages, however, are not civil marriages. Anyone who gets married in a religious ceremony also needs to have a civil marriage in order for their marriage to be legally recognised. That is why the argument some religious people have against equal marriage perplexes me: equal marriage is about civil marriage, not religious marriage of any denomination. The terms and conditions (for want of a better way of putting it) of religious marriages will not change if the constitution does.

The ‘argument’ that children will be adversely affected if they are brought up by two loving parents is just an exercise in casuistry, not an argument at all. Not to mention that it’s rather irrelevant if you refer back to the wording of the proposed change in the constitution.

In November 2012, we had the opportunity to vote in another referendum. At that time, I was open about my intention to vote ‘No’. It was an unpopular stance; many people I know and respect were voting ‘Yes’ and campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote.  While I disagreed with them, I could understand their point, I could see where they were coming from. This time around, however, I can’t say that. There are many people who are campaigning for a ‘No’ vote and I would really like to understand why. So far, I haven’t heard a single real argument against equal marriage. Maybe this is because there isn’t one, or maybe it’s because I just haven’t been pointed in the right direction.

If you feel that a ‘No’ vote is required on May 22nd, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to understand your objection and engage with it.