The word “no” is one of the first we learn as children, and follows us throughout our childhood/ teenage years:
“No, don’t tip the dog’s water bowl over.”
“No, don’t cross the road without holding my hand.”
“No, you can’t go to the movies with your friends.”
You would think, then, that by the time we’re adults, we’d all have a pretty good understanding of the word. But somehow when it comes to sex, words that have always had very clear definitions become opaque.
We hear songs with lyrics like “I’m slicker than an oil spill. She says she won’t, but I bet she will”, and “I hate these blurred lines. I know you want it”.
We see films about books which try to make a lack of consent look sexy and then proceed to rake it in at the box office.
We forget the meaning of a word we’ve grown up hearing all our lives.
I think a lot of this has to do with the way we learn about consent. I can only speak from my own experience when I say that the sex education in the schools I went to placed heavy emphasis on protecting yourself from serial predator rapists, and not the guy/girl you’ve been dating for a while. Because the truth is that the vast majority of sexual assault occurs between two people who know each other.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the podcast, This American Life and reporter Chana Joffe said something that has stuck with me.
On teaching people about consent, Joffe says: “What if, instead of starting at 18 years old with rape and moving backwards to teach consent, what if you just started with ‘people vary’? Because if you understand that, consent follows. You have to ask questions and talk about what you like and don’t like. Otherwise, you’ll never know.”
The reason why I think Joffe’s theory would work when it comes to consent, is that it eliminates the “variables” that people often get caught up in.
“But, what if we’re both drunk?”
“But, what if we did it last week?”
“But, what if we’ve been dating for a year?”
If we keep in mind that “people vary”, and that sometimes we change our minds about things, then asking for consent has to be the next logical step, restoring the word “no” to the definition we’ve understood all our lives.
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