'What Does Consent Make You Think?'

Consent and Trauma

By Jack Hart

Consent is at the heart of human life. We are constantly negotiating with the people around us, setting boundaries and communicating them. In this piece I want to help you to understand what consent is and how it affects us every day, to empower you to set your own boundaries, as well as respect other people’s.

I will speak about things such as sexual assault and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so feel free to read at your own pace, take breaks, or come back to the article another day if you feel overwhelmed at all. This, by the way, is called a Trigger Warning, and it’s a subtle way to help flag up potentially distressing content, for people who might need it and find it useful.

What is Consent?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines consent as “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” You might wonder why me; a white guy, is writing about consent. I have a lot of privilege, which allows me assert my boundaries more than many other people, particularly women and people of colour. My voice is often immediately heard and respected because of my race and gender, so I want to give context. My journey with understanding my autonomy (the right to make our own decisions and have agency) has been complex. I was sexually assaulted by another student in a class at drama school, and as a result, have since developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

“PTSD is essentially a memory filing error caused by a traumatic event.” In this filing error the traumatic memory does not get processed by the brain and can cause symptoms such as re-experiencing the event (flashbacks), dissociation (feeling ‘out of body’ or spaced out), nightmares and avoiding things which remind you of the distressing event.

1 in 2 people experience a traumatic event during their lifetime. Of those, around 20% can develop PTSD. For me the main symptom of my PTSD is constantly feeling unsafe. It impacts me every day in how I see myself, experience, and interact with the world.

What do you think of when you read the word consent? For many people the answer might be sex, or it could represent a lifesaving surgery, the terms and conditions on a new subscription, dancing with somebody in a club, a handshake or grab. We give or withhold consent all the time using our words, body language, voice and facial expressions. And we are constantly reading other people’s boundaries through their choice of words and posture too.

Has anybody got that bit too close to you in the shops during the pandemic? You feel them reaching past you to get something off the shelf, rather than waiting for you to finish browsing the section, or asking you politely to move to the side. Some of us might have responded by quickly moving away and averting our eyes, others by flipping into a rage and shouting “Have you not seen the news? It’s two metres!” and some of us might have frozen completely, staying still until the person has passed. We all respond differently when our brains perceive a threat.  The differences are commonly referred to as fight, flight, freeze or flop.

In this example, the person has ignored us, broken the rules of social-distancing and prioritised their desires above our needs (personal space). They did not seek consent and therefore it might have made us angry, anxious, passive, unsafe or any range of feelings. Consent is about recognising that there is another human involved in what we want and giving them an opportunity to agree or decline.

Consent cannot be given unless you have been provided with the genuine option of saying no. This is why language can often be the clearest way to gain consent: “yes” is often clearer than a nod of the head. Equally, just because you don’t hear a person say no, that does not mean they have consented. You should always clarify with the person if you are unsure whether they have consented to an act. What you are about to do could have huge implications for that person’s life moving forward, whether it feels significant to you or not, and ultimately, depending on the act, you could end up with a criminal record and time in prison. 

It’s important to consider how much power we have in a room when we seek consent. By power I mean status, which could be to do with your job, but also other influences you have over people. Is this person agreeing to this because they want to, or because they are scared of how you will respond to them saying no? This can apply to sex, but also touching a person’s hair, standing close to somebody in your office, smelling them, fixing their collar, buying them coffee, or any number of acts. For example, in a student/ teacher relationship the teacher has more power than the student and the teacher must consider their intentions when asking something of the student. The student can of course behave abusively towards the teacher, but the teacher will always have the status of their job and role within the community behind them, which gives them power in the relationship.

I’ve heard some people say it’s “a minefield,” or that “you can’t do anything these days,” when the topic of consent is raised. To those people I encourage you to look inwards at your own life and ask “What is it about me that means I haven’t had to worry about this?” The answer is usually something to do with: race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, or a combination of the above. And that’s what privilege is. I personally don’t experience discrimination because of my race, my gender or ability, but I have because of my class and sexuality.

Consent affects us all, every day.

Where are your boundaries? What are the things that make you feel uncomfortable or invalidated? Do the people around you know that? Would they be accepting if you shared these things with them?

What makes us comfortable and safe can be different from place to place and depending on who we’re with, you don’t need solid rules for life to set boundaries. But by starting to listen to your own body and figuring out what you need in order to feel comfortable and supported, then communicating that with the people around you, you can understand why it’s important for other people, and in turn create a cycle of respect, which can increase productivity, improve wellbeing and reduce crime rates.

If this article has brought up any personal experiences for you, know that there are a range of services available for you to engage with. I’ve personally utilised the services of SurvivorsUK (a charity for male and non-binary survivors of sexual assault or abuse). They offer a free webchat and phone line as well as group therapy and one to one counselling services; and GALOP (a charity for LGBTQ+ victims of hate crime, sexual violence or domestic abuse). Other services include: Rape Crisis England and Wales and Safeline.

I want to end by recommending the incredible TV show I May Destroy You, which is available on BBC iPlayer. Written by and starring Michaela Coel, the show looks at sexual assault from lots of different angles including one male perspective and really interrogates what consent is and how deeply its impacts are engrained into our society. A heads up that some of the scenes can be really difficult to watch, so have a read of the trigger warnings in the episode descriptions if you are concerned.

I think we are in a new time when it comes to understanding the importance of consent — more people seem ready to start some of those difficult conversations, certainly more people have opened up about their experiences of abuse in recent years within the #MeToo movement. I hope we can continue those discussions and act to create a safer, more connected and more equal society.

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