Talking about consent
A recent media story regarding the online behaviour of some Wellington students had me thinking: how do we, both as individuals and as communities, learn about and improve our understanding of consent?
To me, consent is a process of gaining clarity of wants and desires through negotiation, agreement and mutual understanding. Consent is something that can only be given, it can’t be taken from someone. However, if consent is given it can still be retracted at any point in time. Also, just because someone has given consent before, it doesn’t mean you can expect it is okay forever. Consent may have been given once, but it doesn’t mean it will be given again. It is negotiated time and time again and is not ever-lasting, nor is it the same for different people.
I think one of the first things that people think about when they hear the word consent is sex. However people don’t often talk about sex, let alone sexual consent and when we do talk about it, it’s often focused on situations where consent wasn’t given, rather than positive examples of consensual relationships.
I used to be a facilitator for the Sex & Ethics program as well as other sexual violence prevention initiatives. I delivered sessions to young people and adults to support them to understand consent, the law and their own personal ethics and values. This normalised consent and made it integral to their day to day lives. When delivering these workshops, it was important for me that the participants knew what the workshop was about, and that they felt comfortable to participate as much or as little as they wanted. It is not ethical to have someone attend a workshop about consent if they haven’t consented to be there.
Consent is an integral part of all relationships. Often there can be a power imbalance in a relationship, such as between a teacher and a student, or a parent and a child, but this does not mean gaining consent should be overlooked. Instead I think it means that consent needs to be intentionally sought in order to build a mutually trusting relationship. One way that I practice consent with my child is asking them if they want a hug or a kiss from me. It is important to remember that even if I want to give them a cuddle, it doesn’t mean they want one and I respect that. I think it is important to acknowledge the power imbalance in relationships and to take steps to close that gap where possible. Having a consensual relationship is a positive way to do so.
The Briggs whanau
It is important to remember that just because someone wants to gain consent from you, there is no obligation to give it and there shouldn’t be any pressure put on you. For example, you may agree to have lunch with someone one day. Just because it is has happened once, it doesn’t mean you will have lunch with them again, nor will you necessarily start spending time with them in other ways. A great example of this is given by Flight of the Conchords in their song “A kiss is not a contract”.
The public response from young people and adults to the behaviour of the Wellington incident demonstrates the desire and need for community conversations around consent. Which brings into question:
At what age do we start having conversations around consent?
How do we keep people safe when discussing consent?
Where should these conversations take place?
I feel it is important that consent is inclusive – people of all ages should be practising consent in all of their relationships. Children should learn about consent through the role modelling of their families and communities. As we get older, we need ongoing opportunities to reflect, discuss and learn how to have consensual relationships. Whether these conversations happen with friends, families or professionals, the most important thing is the conversations are happening, and in a way that allows the people involved to feel safe and supported.
Josh Briggs, Grants Lead, Vodafone NZ Foundation