June 6, 2014

My body, my house: why consent is fundamentally important

Guest blogger: Colleen

• Consent requires that the person initiating the sexual activity get permission to do so, and that permission does not exist in the absence of resistance. – gotconsent.ca

• It’s not your partner’s job to resist, but yours to respect his/her boundaries, and to find out what they are if they are unclear. – gotconsent.ca

• Consent is not valid when forced, threatened, intimidated, or coerced; when given by a mentally or physically incapacitated person, or when given by a minor (under 16 in Canada). –gotconsent.ca

We keep explaining this concept, over and over again, because people aren’t getting it. We need to have a discussion about bodies, property, and consent. Everywhere – under the surface but still pervasively – a woman’s body is treated as “property” that for some reason is not considered her own, but rather belonging to others.  The alarmingly false notion that one person “owes” another person sex persists; and the infuriating idea that victims are responsible for others’ behaviour is repeated over and over.

It is not okay for another person to touch me without my consent. It is not okay for another person to initiate sexual contact with me without my consent. These behaviours are acts of violence, and describing them as anything less is itself dangerous.

Let me make a metaphor for you, because I don’t seem to be able to get the self-evident point across that my body belongs to me, and I get to decide what happens to it. People seem to understand the notion of consent as it pertains to their own possessions, so let’s start there.

Your body is a house. Your parents built a foundation, and helped you build the wood frame.  You built the structure together. You finished it, you decorated it, you maintain it and you have made it a home.  Your home has walls and doors. Your home has a yard:  your personal space. There has been pain in your home, and great joy. You made necessary repairs yourself. It is strong. It is your house.

Imagine someone you don’t know opens your back gate and enters your yard. Think about how that feels.  You might feel a knot in the pit of your stomach; that person isn’t supposed to be there, and didn’t ask if they could come in. Think about how it would feel if you came home, and someone was in your house. Do you feel a little bit sick, scared, shocked, angry?

It’s your home. There’s an unwritten boundary, an implicit idea that people you don’t know don’t get to cross the threshold of your front door without your inviting them in, or without their asking if it’s okay for them to come in.

Think about how you would feel if someone smashed a car into your house. The boundaries of the house that you have built, where you make your home, where you feel safe, were breached.

Now consider that bodies are like that house. Girls, women, *trans folks, boys and men all have bodies which are like that house. Beautiful, individual, complex, and varied. Everyone has a different concept of personal space – that invisible outer boundary, where if someone crosses it without your consent, you might feel uncomfortable, anxious or frightened.

Girls are particularly socialized to “be okay with it” if someone else wants physical contact with them. At least I was. From a young age, if I asked people, including family members, to stay out of my “bubble,” they continued to invade my personal space. They hugged me when I didn’t want to be hugged, and touched me when I didn’t want to be touched. If I became upset, they said I was overreacting. They said I was too sensitive, too emotional. They said I was making too big a deal about it, and that it didn’t matter. They didn’t know they were telling me that I didn’t have the right to decide who enters my yard. They didn’t know they were telling me I’m not in charge of who gets to cross the threshold into my home.

If I had been taught from a young age that my physical space is my own, and others must respect it, I wouldn’t have felt this squelched, swallowed anger most of my life. I wouldn’t have felt this confusion and fury wondering why others just refuse to understand that my personal space and how I feel are fundamentally important.

If everyone is taught from the outset that they must obtain consent BEFORE touching another person, or initiating sexual contact, the world would be different. If everyone is taught from childhood that it is absolutely not okay to invade another’s personal space, and it’s their responsibility to ensure the other person is comfortable, the world would be a safer place. I would feel safer. I would believe that my feelings and rights are being honoured.

The way the world is now, even female reporters insist that I must always “keep myself in a position to say no”, and if I’m don’t, I must be held responsible for what happens next.  I ask the following question: what happens if I don’t say yes, if I do say no, or I’m too drunk to consent?  No matter what I have done, are we really okay with it if the other party touches, hurts, or penetrates me? I’m not okay with that. If they assault me, I don’t have any control over it. It is frightening and infuriating to me that there are conditions placed on my safety: the implication seems to be that only if I behave a certain way am I afforded the right to be free from harm. And that is wrong.

If it is the initiating party’s responsibility to obtain my clear, unequivocal “yes” – anything less than that means “no” and any uncertainty means “no,” there is a clear and obvious respect of my right to consent to what someone else does to my body. If we refuse to acknowledge that responsibility, we are saying we are okay with whatever happens next. It is not okay.

My right to consent is fundamental. We need to respect the rights of all people to consent; to self-determination; to be free from harm.

No one gets to enter my yard, or come into my house, unless I say it is okay. We can respect a person’s home, so I ask: why can we not respect a person’s right to consent?

My body is so much more important than a house.

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