Consent Means More to Me Than You’ll Ever Know

As I grew up, the concept of consent was foreign to me. When I was a young girl, I didn’t feel as though my body was my own to control; there were so many factors that flew around me and pulled me in all sorts of directions. I felt as though I was a doll. I was a little brown plaything for others to decide what to be, what to wear, and who to come into contact with. After several uncomfortable interactions, and something unknown but which plagues stress-induced nightmares, I had this notion in my mind that this body was not my own. It was not mine to decide who could touch me. Everyone had the right to hug me, everyone had the right to linger for a little too long, and everyone had the right to tell me what the appropriate way is to respond:

“Don’t be rude. It’s family.”

“C’mon give us a smile honey. You’ll look nicer.”

“Cover up, you don’t want people to stare.”

“Why don’t you feel comfortable sleeping there tonight?”

It’s in these moments that I became afraid of the very thing that housed my spirit and made me solid in the world. I became afraid of this flesh and blood being because it was something which brought violent attention, and kept the memories of things I wanted to forget. Its early maturity led to much too-friendly hands and advancements from young boys I didn’t know, and even now does its presence invite assumptions of who I am before the first hello. In my frustration and heartache, I must remember that I am one of the lucky ones. I was able to make it out alive, and have a family who listens to me and believes me when I say that I’d rather not have physical contact with some people. There are millions of girls who share my story and have thousands of variations of it. Assault is rampant, and knows no race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or age. It flows and permeates every facet of humanity, and only now do we witness a movement to acknowledge this.

In my freshman year of college here at Pitt, they showed us a video about consent. It was a cute animated video from the internet, basically comparing asking for consent to giving someone a cup of tea. You wouldn’t give someone a cup of tea if they didn’t ask for it, would you? If you want to watch the video you can watch it here. It was a simple concept put into even simpler terms, yet I was astonished. I was astonished that a big university was pushing for this concept of consent, and that I was surrounded by people who were equally concerned about me knowing that I could give or deny consent, just as much as they were concerned for others to understand consent. It was a completely new concept for me, how I began to understand that this body was my own, and that I could decide what to do with it. However, I didn’t experience this euphoria of ownership until the first time a man ever asked me for my consent. I made the decision as a young teenager to not have sex until I was married. This was a decision that was made in part to my religious beliefs, but also in an effort to protect myself in any way that I could. When I became involved in a relationship with my current partner, I was worried about explaining to him that we wouldn’t be engaging in a sexual relationship just yet. I have been told by the media and friends that it was normal, if not expected, to have sex with your partner, especially in college. I was nervous to say, “I don’t want to have sex.” I really liked him (and still do) and was scared that he would call it quits once the option of sex was off the table. After our first date, as we were walking to the residence hall, he walked me back to my room, and as I was about to close the door he asked me, “Would it be alright if I kissed you goodnight?”

For some of you who are reading this, it may seem like a normal situation. Why is this chick so astonished by some guy asking to kiss her goodnight? When you are growing up in a world where your body isn’t your own, and when people feel that they have the right to grab you to try and kiss you, you slowly lose hope that people will ask. In my mind, it was normal for men to just grab you by the face and kiss you, whether or not you really wanted it. It was my job as a woman to be available for the emotional and physical completeness of man. And while I had made this promise to myself to not go farther than I wanted, I didn’t think my hopes would be taken seriously. And yet, here is this man who asked me so simply and so purely, “Can I kiss you?”

I had never felt more euphoric. Even though I did let him kiss me, I swooned over the fact that he even asked more than I did at this first kiss. When I gushed to my friends from home, it was the moment that he asked that my friends screamed over the phone about. To those who are reading, would you believe it? The realization that women are shocked and amazed at the feat of a small act of consent, that this sends us over the moon, what does that say about our experiences of the past, and the situation in which our sisters are placed in every day?

A year later into our relationship, he still asks for permission. Every time to hold my hand, every time to kiss me, and every time to show physical affection, he always asks. Even after a year, he asks, and is respectful when I say no. There are days when I feel at complete ease with him, and welcome reassuring love and affection. But there are also days when, in the hours following a nightmare, I recoil from any attention. Any touch makes me feel like puking, and I can hardly look people in the eyes without feeling simply horrible. It’s those days that make him sad. He asks to comfort me, and I have to ask him to stay across the table from me. He simply nods, understanding, yet wishing to take my pain away from me. He wishes that he could take away this burden that I carry. He stays by my side, ready to welcome me back to the world with open arms. And that is the best part. The understanding and acceptance of my burdens with full support of, “You don’t have to live through it alone.”

What this mutual understanding of consent has accomplished is a closer intimacy between us. We have grown a trust in one another, explaining our boundaries and traumas which necessitate such a boundary. He knows my secrets as I know his, and I trust that he would protect this boundary, not wishing anything or anyone to cross it. We are partners, equally invested in the security and growth in each other. Every question of consent is a reassurance that he respects me more than he respects the desire and societal expectations of what we should be doing. What we do is private. What we talk about is private. It is our own paradise where no one else can come in and dictate. It’s an intimacy which I cherish dearly. The knowledge that I can share this innermost me with someone, without feeling the pressure of needing to give something that I want to hold onto for a little bit longer. I’m growing into this full ownership of myself, knowing that I am the sole person who can dictate the activities of my body. No clothes, no words, and no person can dictate who or what I am. Though doubts creep into dreams, each new day brings me a step closer to full embracement of myself. This is my body, and no one else’s.

Photo Credits: Cover Photo, 1, 2, 3