Sex & Sex Education  Singlehood 

Consent can be understood only if you first understand empathy

Professor Sex Dec 16 2019

Consent can be understood only if you first understand empathy

Consent isn’t just about hoping for a yes or avoiding a no. Focusing on how you can get people to say yes to you, turns negotiation into coercion.

Consent culture

Recently, I saw a thread from a woman on Facebook who chose to openly name some men in her local community who had not taken consent and sexually assaulted her and other women. This sparked a community-wide uprising of folks of all genders who were speaking out about their experiences in their local community and naming their attackers. They’ve created a system of support for each other and are determining which steps need to be taken to protect themselves and others (legally and physically). They’re working hard to remove, or at the very least substantially decrease, the threat of sexual violence in their city.  

In the wake of movements like #MeToo and #TimeIsUp, folks all over the world are speaking up and organizing, just like this woman and her community did. Collectively, we’re learning to understand consent in better, more nuanced ways. Conversations about consent are shifting. “No means No” has been widely replaced by “Yes means Yes”. Colleges and universities are adopting Affirmative Consent policies for their staff and student bodies. During the holiday season, folks are arguing about songs like “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. It seems like every week we see a different celebrity in the news as victims come forth to share their stories. Acronyms like Planned Parenthood’s FRIES (Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, Specific) and Coalition for Consent’s IF SOE (Informed, Freely Given, Specific, Ongoing, Enthusiastic) are part of large social justice movements which aim to help make a robust understanding of consent palatable and relatable to as wide a group of people as possible. 

At the community level, individuals are feeling increasingly empowered to speak up about their experiences. I love this shift in the consent-conversation landscape. Any conversation that encourages people to think long and hard about what consent really means is worthwhile, in my opinion. I’ve noticed, however, that a side-effect of these larger, more in-depth consent talks is that people are identifying with the content in surprising ways. People are describing their experiences out loud for the first time, and others are hearing them, realizing that they’re not alone. Still others, however, hear these stories and realize harsh truths about their own sexual histories. Some are looking back and realizing they’ve been victims of sexual violence in ways that hadn’t occurred to them, and some are realizing they’ve been perpetrators. It’s also become abundantly clear that nobody was given this information in their sex education classes as kids/teens. Consent and assault education – if it was offered at all - tended to focus on extreme examples of rape and abuse, and more often than not they centred the behaviour of the victims (don’t drink too much, don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t go running at night), not the behaviors of the offenders (don’t rape, don’t violate someone’s consent). 

Even now, my framing of the conversation as being about sexual violence or assault doesn’t quite hit the mark. Many violations of consent aren’t “violent” in the way people often imagine violence. It’s not as simple or overt as someone clearly stating “no” and then being aggressively forced into compliance (though that does happen far, far too often). For many, a violation of consent is subtle coercion, emotional manipulation, or a disregard for the wants and needs of everyone involved. As we continue to have these discussions, people are realizing they’ve never been properly equipped to recognize many consent violations – and are surprised to learn that they’ve been on both sides of them. 

These movements have also experienced backlash. Some people in the backlash camp complain that recognizing this nuance makes consent seem more complicated now than it’s ever been. Some say it takes the “chase” out of flirting. Some people say it’s an over-reaction to things that are a natural part of sex, romance, and gender roles. Some express “fear” that they can’t date or talk to women anymore because anything they do could be misconstrued as sexual violence. When I hear folks lash out against this more robust consent culture, I’ve noticed most of their “fears” and complaints have something in common – to many of these people, sex and dating are all about *them*. They’re about what they get from the experience, what they feel they’re owed, what they want, and the power dynamics that these interactions represent. 

#MeToo and other, similar, social-justice oriented consent movements aren’t just about ending rape culture. They’re meant to present people with consent basics in myriad contexts to help usher in consent culture. When you have these conversations every day, like I do, this seems easy and helpful. For folks following along, however, it can be quite a lot to digest. It can also leave folks feeling helpless and vulnerable. 


Exercising Empathy

Strip away the hashtags and the acronyms and what you’re left with is really a conversation about empathy. In its most basic and simple form, consent is about empathy. Empathy, as defined by Oxford, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If you’re focused on making sure the person you’re with wants to be there, that they’re doing something they want to do, and that they feel free to walk away at any time without negative consequences, you understand consent. Consent and empathy are both social skills that, at their core, are about your ability to honor other people’s boundaries and bodily autonomy – even when it hurts your feelings or conflicts with your desires. 

For example, if you call your best friend, invite them to go hang out with you, and they decline because they’re tired… do you a) tell them they’re being a baby and beg them to come have fun with you or b) thank them for taking care of themselves and offer to invite them out another time? To take the example even further, imagine you’re out with your friend and you suggest going from the place you’re currently at to a different venue. You notice they’re yawning and checking their watch. Do you a) ignore their body language and drive to the new venue or b) check in with them to see how they’re feeling and perhaps offer them a ride back to their car? An empathetic response might sound like, “My friend doesn’t want to feel tired in the morning, a good night’s sleep is important to them. We can hang out another time. I’m glad they feel comfortable telling me the truth.” 

Consent isn’t just about hoping for a yes or avoiding a no. If you’re only focused on how you can get people to say yes to you, it’s easy to turn negotiation into coercion. If, instead, you’re sincerely focused on the mutual pleasure of all involved, you give people permission to say no – without explanation or repercussion. That’s empathy. It’s an attitude that understands that sometimes people don’t always know why they don’t want something, don’t always have a “reason,” or don’t always want to explain it, and that’s ok. When you know that the people you care about feel comfortable telling you no, you’ll understand how much more their yes’s mean. 

When people set boundaries with us, it can be hurtful or embarrassing. It feels like rejection, and sometimes it is. When we emotionally or physically punish others for setting boundaries with us, we’re not operating with empathy or consent. Empathy understands that a person who is setting a boundary with you is doing so for their own health and wellbeing. Consent honors that boundary and respects the other person for setting it. It’s not about you. It’s about THEM.


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