Navigating the nuances of consent is vital to the mission of my organization, SBU The Next Generation (TNG), which is to educate the public on responsible and ethical sex, kink, relationships and alternative lifestyles. At the heart of every discussion, demonstration and event we lead is an effort to establish a culture of consent.
The definition of consent has evolved past the commonly heard “no means no” and “yes means yes.” The form of consent in modern discussions is a set of criteria. Consent is issued freely and enthusiastically without impairment or coercion. It is given with informed knowledge of what is being consented to. It is reversible and can be withdrawn at any time during an act that was previously consented to. The rules of consent provide a boundary – to cross it is to clearly assault, violate or abuse someone. The laws we follow do not tell us how to act morally, and neither do the rules of consent; it is possible to act immorally within the boundaries of the law, and it is possible to violate or abuse others within the rules of consent. We don’t focus on avoiding breaking the law, but we strive to be good people with a culture of respect for others. We shouldn’t focus on avoiding violating others, but on striving to make others feel safe with a culture of consent.
A culture of consent acknowledges that the necessity of respecting others’ consent extends beyond pre-negotiated sexual contact. The need for good consent practices exists in every interaction we have with each other, and fulfilling that need pays off in the connection and trust that can be built from it. When we ask our sexual partners what they enjoy and what their boundaries are, we show that we are interested in satisfying their needs and making them comfortable. If we do the same for our friends, peers and colleagues, we demonstrate to them that we have a vested interest in being trustworthy and having positive interactions. In consent culture, we strive to show that all of our interactions are in good faith.
Building consent culture is a constant and evolving effort to encourage ourselves and others to be mindful of others’ boundaries and needs. While it is helpful to minimize our assumptions of others and their social norms, we have been taught by society to act on various assumptions and unspoken rules. The differences in how we are socialized to act is why consent culture is important. These assumptions may not only contradict one another, but affect our ability to give consent. When we perceive someone has power over us – often along lines of gender, class, disability or race – saying yes or no can come with fears of retaliation, shaming, even violence. Consent culture asks that we expose and engage these perceptions in ourselves and others, so that we can feel safe to navigate our own boundaries and make others feel safe to navigate theirs.
There is a common anxiety that due to these inevitable conflicts, our efforts to act in good faith are fraught with the potential to offend, or even violate another’s unseen boundary. Making mistakes is human, and good faith is demonstrated in how we accept accountability for our actions and work to right any wrongs we have placed upon others. Consent culture requires that we acknowledge everyone’s equal capability for violation and abuse, our own included; we can’t show that we are safe by being perfect. We can demonstrate by showing how we will correct ourselves, learn from mistakes and work toward building each other’s trust.
When we emphasize communication in good faith, we make our intentions to treat each other with respect obvious. When we understand how to make ourselves and others feel safe, we can challenge the factors that make ourselves and others feel unsafe. When we strive to make each other safe in our interactions, there is more room for us to trust, love and exist comfortably with ourselves and others. Building a consent culture challenges us to radically rethink the ways we interact and connect with others.