How to Practice Consent Like a Pro
By sara dueck
There’s been a lot of buzz around the topic of consent recently. More and more people are talking about the importance of affirmative consent, but many are still having a difficult time understanding this concept. In fact, in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, some men are claiming that they are now afraid to associate with women in public or the workplace, for fear that they might of being accused of sexual harassment or assault. Some complain these movements have become a “witch hunt” bent on taking down powerful men. This rhetoric paints consent as a confusing, subjective, and highly nuanced concept that some women leverage for personal gain. I don’t have to tell you how ridiculous this is.
The reality is, these fears and accusations could not be further from the truth. There’s nothing complicated or confusing about consent. It’s not a trick question. There’s only one concept you need to understand to fully and irrevocably grasp consent: empathy.
So, what is empathy? Simply put, empathy means having the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person or being. Think of it this way, have you ever had one of those moments when you see another person, and you abruptly become aware of the fact that they have an inner life that is just as complicated and expansive as your own? That they are full of personal joys, griefs, goals, and memories? Those are moments of intense empathy, and they can be overwhelming and deeply humbling. They are also crucially important. So, what does empathy have to do with consent? Well, it’s easier to practice kindness towards another person when you recognize that their humanity is just as fully realized and significant as your own.
The good news is that empathy is something you can get better at with practice. Start by thinking about the important people in your own life. Your parents or grandparents, your friends, your siblings—remind yourself that you are merely one element, albeit an important element, in the lives of those people. Listen carefully to their stories. Try to understand what motivates or inhibits them. Realize that they have experiences and thoughts that have nothing to do with you. Like you, their inner lives are infinite.
Once you’ve become skilled at exercising empathy with your loved ones, try extending that same practice to others. Expose yourself to the stories told by members of different communities, consume music, art or written words. Listen without interrupting or defending. And pretty soon, maybe without even realizing it, you’ll begin to become aware of the fact that every single person you come across has an expansive and complicated inner life.
That kid in your math class whose name you can never remember? Expansive, complicated inner life. That sales associate you see every time you go to the convenience store? Expansive, complicated inner life. That person who goes to the same gym as you, who’s in the middle of transitioning? Expansive, complicated inner life. That homeless guy you saw one time when you went shopping downtown? Expansive, complicated inner life. That person you have a crush on, whom you’ve been fantasizing about sleeping with? Expansive. Complicated. Inner. Life.
Now let’s bring this back to consent. You’ve been practicing empathy, your awareness of the significance of other people’s experiences has expanded, and you’re starting to fully understand that the wants and needs of other people are just as important as your own. There’s someone you’re attracted to, and you think you might have an opportunity to sleep with them. Don’t look for loopholes in the legal definitions of consent. Don’t think about the story you’ll bring back to your friends afterward. And don’t you dare think that this person owes you sexual gratification. Instead, consider this person your equal. Think carefully about their wants and needs. Try to understand their perspective. Talk to them, ask them what they want, and listen to both their words and their body language.
Suddenly, understanding and practicing consent just got a whole lot easier.
Want to know more about the details of affirmative consent? Just remember the acronym F.R.I.E.S. Affirmative consent must be:
All parties involved are conscious and give consent without pressure, coercion, lies, or the influence of drugs or alcohol
All parties involved understand that consent can be revoked at any point
All parties involved are aware of the risks of the sexual acts they are engaged in and of the safety measures taken to reduce those risks
All parties involved are excited about the sexual activities they are engaged in
Consent must be given for each action; all parties involved know which sexual activities are on the table and which ones aren’t
If you still need help understanding consent, watch this great resource video by Planned Parenthood.
If you are the victim of sexual assault, please call 9-1-1
You can also contact RAINN, the national sexual assault hotline:
1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or Live Chat with a sexual assault advocate 24/7
SARA DUECK - STAFF WRITER & EDUCATOR
Sara Dueck (she/her) is a queer, feminist, usually nervous, over-educated millennial with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Medieval Studies. Sara grew up in a small town in Southern Alberta, Canada - deep in the heart of right-wing territory.