The following post is written by Ian Downie, BARCC marketing and communications intern.
As the #MeToo movement continues, the general public is talking more about consent. While it’s great that more of these conversations are happening, nuanced education around consent isn’t readily available for everyone. As a result, the #MeToo movement, like every surge of action that seeks to change the culture, is often misconstrued. So how does an idea with such a simple, monumental goal get so twisted in the public eye? The answer is simple: a lack of consent education.
What is consent?
Consent isn’t a hard concept. Consent is when all parties give an explicit, repeated, enthusiastic “yes.” Consent is necessary for healthy and respectful sexual activity. And consent can be withdrawn at any time—people can change their minds. While these may seem like easy ideas, they are constantly challenged and misunderstood by our culture. A central focus of #MeToo is revealing the prevalence of sexual violence in our society. One of the most powerful aspects of #MeToo is the sheer volume of people who post #MeToo to signify that they’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed. In the first few weeks of the hashtag’s explosion of popularity, 1.7 million people tweeted it out.
Cassie Luna, BARCC’s School and Campus Outreach Coordinator, can vouch for the importance of consent education and miseducation. Their work puts them in the thick of Boston’s response to #MeToo. “One common thing that people grapple with,” Cassie said, “is how to actually talk about consent with a partner. And some people struggle with the idea that if someone is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, they can’t give consent.”
Some of #MeToo’s critics have accused the movement of expecting sexual partners (men in particular) to be mind readers. But it doesn’t take a mind reader to ask if someone wants to engage in sex. The most important thing, and the thing that BARCC covers first in consent workshops, is the idea of boundaries.
Boundaries are key in all of our lives, and they’re related to much more than just sexual activity. For example, we all have emotional and physical boundaries that we need our loved ones to respect. They are constantly changing as our lives change, and so our boundaries need to be constantly identified and understood by those around us. After a bad breakup, for example, we might ask our friends not to bring our ex-partner up in casual conversation, maybe even a long time after we broke up.
Any relationship, sexual, romantic, or otherwise, depends on boundaries—and a lack of understanding or respect of physical boundaries is especially dangerous. Which is why, Cassie explains, it’s important to communicate our own boundaries and even more important to learn other people’s boundaries and respect them. Along these lines, BARCC often talks about why it’s important that a parent not force a child to give an adult a hug, for example. This way, the child gets used to asking themselves, “Do I want to hug this person or not?” and then acts based on their own wishes alone.
What we owe each other
Sexual violence is often enabled by the idea that the victim “owes” the offender something. In reality, what we owe to each other is the right to feel safe and the right to only engage in sexual activity—including sexual comments—when all parties are enthusiastically consenting.
What we owe to each other is the right to feel safe and the right to only engage in sexual activity—including sexual comments—when all parties are enthusiastically consenting.
As our society grows more connected and information is more easily accessible, we have the chance to better educate each other about consent. Every volunteer effort, every call to a congressperson, every post on social media advocating for enthusiastic consent shares power and makes a difference. The only way to work against generations of oppression (which fuels sexual violence), widespread disinformation, and sexual violence itself is through action. Speak to your friends, your relatives, and your representatives about consent.
Remember that you are part of a rising tide. Just a few months ago, Sweden passed a law defining all sexual contact without explicit consent as assault, punishable by jail time. The #MeToo movement has dethroned offenders across the world and empowered survivors to come forward.
As people dedicated to creating a world without sexual assault and harassment, we are tasked with teaching consent at every level. And remember: though the sexual aspect of consent is paramount, it’s the power dynamics at the root that are the most important to unravel. Sexual consent is only one thread in a vast intersectional web. The vision is a world where people don’t exploit their power to harm others. #MeToo is just the beginning.
Talk more about consent in Consent: Promoting Healthy Relationships, our public workshop on Monday, August 6.
Ian Downie, a BARCC marketing and communications intern, is a writer and musician pursuing a dual degree in writing and political communications at Emerson College.