No man is good enough to govern any woman without her consent. —Susan B. Anthony
I have written nearly a dozen different openings to this article, trying to figure out just the right way to get your attention. What I’m about to say is important. There is a word common in the English language that I don’t think is getting enough attention. So, let’s take a careful look at it. I want to make sure that everyone understands the word and how it is applied by the time we’re done today.
verb (used without object)
- to permit, approve, or agree; comply or yield (often followed by to or an infinitive):
He consented to the proposal. We asked her permission, and she consented.
- permission, approval, or agreement; compliance; acquiescence:
He gave his consent to the marriage.
- agreement in sentiment, opinion, a course of action, etc.:
By common consent he was appointed official delegate.
I’m sure you’ve heard the word before, haven’t you? If you go to the hospital, no matter how badly you’re hurt, someone has to consent to you being treated. If you’re dying, the emergency room staff considers consent implied for the moment, but the instant someone is available, whether you or a family member, consent forms must be signed.
There is much in life for which we must give consent. Your credit card cannot be billed without your consent (read the fine print). When you use online applications such as Facebook and Instagram, you consent to those companies using and selling specific information about you and your browsing habits. Whether consent is inferred or explicit, without it a lot of things cannot happen. Consent is a critical component of business and social interaction. If we fail to understand consent, who has it and what it allows, we lose control over our entire identity as a person. To whom we give our consent is an important decision.
Good Touch, Bad Touch
Consent is a lesson we teach our children at a very early age. We teach them that there are good touches and there are bad touches. Good touches are those that are welcome, such as a hug from a friend or a kiss on the cheek from a parent. A bad touch is when someone touches them in any private area for any reason. Only certain people such as doctors and parents get to touch private areas, and even then only when checking to make sure you are okay or wiped your bottom sufficiently. We impress upon our children the importance of telling a safe person, such as a teacher or community helper, when someone touches them without permission. We are adamant: no one has the right to touch them without permission.
The application of this rule at times seems extreme. When one child offers a hug and the would-be recipient refuses, the first child is often confused. Who wouldn’t want a hug? Children are often sensitive to touch, though, especially when that touch is unexpected or coming from someone they don’t know, even if it’s another child. That same child may change his/her mind in the next five minutes, but one of the responsibilities we have as parents is to make sure that boundary is protected. If a child removes their consent to be touched, then no one else gets to touch.
Guess what: that rule doesn’t change when we grow up. One might live to be 130 and still one does not give up the right to determine who is touching them and under what circumstances. No one has the right to just walk up and hug, grope, kiss, fondle, pat, pinch, or touch someone else without their consent.
Understand, that consent does not always have to come through verbal consent. If I see you on the sidewalk and extend my right hand, I’m giving implied consent for you to shake that hand. You don’t have to accept my offer, though, and if you don’t extend yours in return then you are explicitly not giving me permission to touch you.
Similarly, my mother taught me that one does not shake the hand of a woman unless she offers first. In every social situation, the woman has the first move. One does not shake her hand unless it is offered. One does not kiss her cheek unless she leans to do the same first. That concept might seem antiquated and perhaps even a bit sexist to some, but in the face of increasing aggression perhaps we need to be more diligent in observing those social cues.
Not Everything You Think Is Consent Actually Is
We have mentioned the pervasive rape culture 15 times so far this year. The topic keeps coming up because too many people have a misunderstanding of what consent actually is. Regrettably, one of those people is running for President of the United States. What is even more frightening, though, is that he is not alone. Millions of people across the country, and millions more around the world, still don’t understand the most basic concept of consent and what it means. People who don’t understand consent, then, go on to commit crimes such as sexual assault and rape, failing to comprehend that what they are doing is wrong.
Many college campuses, where date rape and sexual assault tend to be severe problems, now require incoming freshmen to take some kind of course to help them understand the limits of consent. Critical to their success is comprehending that:
- “No” doesn’t mean try again in five minutes
- A kiss isn’t consenting to sex
- Dating isn’t consenting for sex
- Paying for a meal is not consent for sex.
- Consent for sex must always be explicit
- One is incapable of giving consent when drunk or asleep
I’ve heard a lot of adults from my generation and older object to such rules. “We behaved far worse when we were in school,” they’ll claim. Our culture has changed, though. We are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to the aggressive actions of one person upon another. Just because it happened frequently 30 years ago or more still doesn’t make nonconsensual activity appropriate. Rape was still rape in 1957. Unfortunately, people of that generation, primarily women, were coerced into not saying anything, which was also wrong and inappropriate.
The mistakes of the past do not justify the errors of the present.
Consent Determines What Is Appropriate
Over the course of the past week, I have seen Facebook memes and more than a few Twitter posts that compare First Lady Michelle Obama’s disdain for a Presidential candidate’s sexual assault to her friendship with pop singer Beyoncè. What people are attempting to suggest is that the singer’s barely-there stage costumes and sexually suggestive dance moves are somehow the same as the non-consensual groping of a woman’s vagina. At the very least, these strange people seem to be of the opinion that if one is offended by the illegal action of sexual assault then they must also be offended by the sexually explicit behavior of a pop star.
Such an inane argument defies reason and demonstrates the degree to which people do not understand consent. What a person wears does not imply consent. No one has a right to touch a woman, or even a man, because of what they’re wearing or not wearing. Even if someone comes walking down the street stark naked, that is not an invitation to touch them in any way, shape, or form. Ever.
As a photographer, I’ve dealt with my share of naked people. We know that stereotype out there of photographers who get models naked and then take advantage of them sexually. In fact, more than one former roommate expressed surprise when I didn’t have a constant stream of nude models visiting my bedroom. That has never been the way we work and it never will.
Frequently, especially when we are working on a project that involves painting or attaching things to a model’s body. Sometimes, that means we have to touch. The model always knows what’s going to happen before we even start and signs a release form to that effect. However, regardless of the amount of implied consent that might arguably be present, we always ask again, “Do I have permission to touch you?” Then, before we actually touch, we warn, “Don’t jump, I’m about to touch.” Being so cautious often feels humorous to the model when we’ve already gone to such lengths to let them know what to expect. Still, that consent is necessary to prevent any possible confusion as to our intent. We are here to create stunning images, not find sex partners.
One can easily enjoy Beyoncè and still find sexual assault disdainful. One can work with nude models and still find sexual assault horrific. We tend to be very sex-positive around here. We like sex and we encourage people to explore their own sexuality in a variety of creative ways that might make some people uncomfortable. However, in all those situations we require consent. There is absolutely no possible reason for touching a person without some legitimate form of consent.
Stop Making Excuses
I am amazed at some of the excuses being given for inappropriate and often illegal behavior. The latest tactic I saw this morning attempted to blame hip hop. None of the excuses being offered are acceptable because there quite simply is no excuse. Ever. Sexual assault is never okay. Walking up to another person and grabbing them by their genitals is never okay. As a society, we cannot tolerate this type of behavior in anyone and certainly not those who represent us at any level.
At this point, I am convinced that those who make excuses for such inappropriate and illegal behavior only do so because they want to reserve the right to commit similar acts themselves. Psychologically, it is the only reasoning that makes any sense. Every person with even the thinnest of moral standards has taken a stand against sexual assault, including some known to have been involved in such activities themselves. Those who continue to make excuses can only be doing so out of a desire to continue the behavior.
We, as a society, lose all authority to determine what is right and wrong if we do not take a stand right now and reject the idiocy of excusing sexual assault. Groping people without consent has never been okay. Sexual assault has never been okay.
Stop making excuses. Without consent, we keep our hands and all other body parts to ourselves. Always. Anything else is wrong.
Are we clear now?