“Consent is everything,” I recently read in a comment to a Facebook post. In the wake of #metoo, it has been revealed that men in high power positions, in virtually every field—from the Catholic church, to Hollywood, to fine dining, have abused their power and sexually victimized others— I’ve written about my own #metoo experiences. Virtually every woman has been harassed in some manner, and we are the lucky ones. We haven’t been outright assaulted or worse. So, I am glad to see people finally standing up to say this behavior is not acceptable from anyone. Not even the president.
But still, “consent is everything” is a stance that gives me pause. You remember the Pixar film, The Incredibles, right? Of course, you do. It’s one of the best superhero films ever made. There’s a defining scene, towards the beginning of the film, where our superhero, Mr. Incredible, saves a suicidal man who jumps off a building. In a darkly ironic twist, the man later sues, claiming he did not want to be saved. As absurd as this scenario may seem, it’s actually got some basis in reality. There have been many cases where victims have sued EMTs and good Samaritans for taking life-saving measures, such as CPR that resulted in broken ribs (many states now have “Good Samaritan” laws to prevent this from happening). Sure, their life was saved, but they didn’t ASK to be saved, now did they?
Sure, but the “consent is everything” stance is referring to sex, right? No, actually. I saw this comment on a post about not making children hug family members. Children deserve, the argument goes, say over their own bodies. This makes perfect sense, of course. I don’t like hugging people I don’t know well either and would hate to be forced to do so. And children ARE more likely to be molested by relatives than strangers, so this seems like commonsense advice.
But what happens when this logic starts to stretch to things not remotely related to sex? What about bodily autonomy when it comes to your child’s first haircut? Or dressing themselves? Does a toddler really get say in that, when they just barely grasp that they even have their own unique body? Some say yes. It’s their body and they should get final say. And it’s pretty inconsequential, isn’t it? Hair grows back. And going to the shop dressed as princess Batman in a bathing suit certainly isn’t going to harm them.
But what about medical decisions? Shots? Invasive exams? Surgery? Does your child get final say in that too? This is the problem with the “consent is everything” stance. Obviously, there are times when, as parents, we have to sacrifice our child’s bodily autonomy to something more important: their own well-being. Sure, for most people, this probably isn’t a revelation, but I’ve recently seen posts on social media referring to the lack of consent people (mostly children) get for certain medical procedures (anti-vaxxers, in particular, have latched onto this rhetoric). Clearly, the very sound advice that people should be in control of their bodies starts from a good place. But the all or nothing “consent is EVERYTHING” approach can veer into territory it isn’t meant to be in.
And even in the confines of sex, consent isn’t always a black and white issue. For most couples in established, healthy relationships, consent is nonverbal, and often assumed. But, even in longstanding relationships, sometimes there needs to be clarification. That’s why certain sexual subcultures use safewords. Even after several years of marriage, my husband and I still have to verbalize a “no” sometimes. And we know each other pretty well. I can’t imagine assuming that a complete stranger should just know what I mean without actually saying it. I don’t say that to victim-blame. Obviously, a stranger should know what rape is and that it’s not okay. But I do believe there’s a nuance in scenarios where consent is or isn’t given that isn’t often discussed. I’m not talking about a creepy, Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” scenario, where “your eyes say yes but your mouth says no.” I’m talking about a more “your eyes and body say yes, and you aren’t saying no, so I guess it’s yes” scenario. Because, so often, those end in, “you should have known that meant no.” Consent IS important in these scenarios, to be sure, but how do you establish it in these scenes without some kind of legally binding agreement beforehand (hot foreplay, I’m sure)? I don’t have the answers to that, but merely want to state that, maybe, this all or nothing, “consent is everything” approach has its heart in the right place, but isn’t actually practical.
Recently, I saw a comic from an artist I follow, about “Sleeping Beauty” being a problematic story because the prince doesn’t ask for consent before kissing the princess. In this artist’s updated version, the prince just lets her sleep. In the comments section, many were applauding this new approach to the story, but, as a fairy tale enthusiast, it bothered me. “I don’t know,” I wrote in the comments, “I’d rather be kissed without consent than be cursed to sleep forever.”
Consent is important. But context is everything.