This article is about sexual consent, it stems from a collaboration between Centrum Vaktherapie and Consent Matters Maastricht. This article aims to make you think about your intimate boundaries and the way you engage with others.
Sexual consent is an interesting and possibly challenging topic to engage in with others. Exploring it in a group or with a friend or partner provides many opportunities to learn more about yourself and your relationship to others.
I got involved with this topic when Consent Matters Maastricht invited me to do workshops for them. This student initiative is a respons to to the many negative sexual experiences that are occurring in Maastricht student life as well as a respons to researchdata:
41% of all people (women and men) aged 19 and upwards experience some form of sexual encounter against their will in the Netherlands (Rutgers, 2017).
Consent Matters is striving for an implementation of a mandatory workshop on consent for first year students and are currently speaking to many parties such as University Maastricht and Hogeschool Zuyd to make this happen.
When speaking about consent I like to think of it in the frame of personal development. According to my views non-consensual interactions are a symptom of a lack of development in specific areas of the people involved. A good example is communication, this is an area that when well developed can aid you in consensual intimacy. Most of the time much can be gained when you focus on your personal development in areas where you feel you could still grow. I will talk about several topics from this perspective.
Taking up space
In ‘63 there was a cultural anthropologist who thought deeply about the human use of space. Edward Hall studied the effects that population density has on behavior, communication, and social interaction. He referred to this topic of study as ‘proxemics’. Have you ever thought about how the mere proximity of your body can affect people? Within the topic of consent this is a key point. Thinking and exchanging information about the effects you might have on others. What does it mean to give the other person space? This we will dive into first.
I am going to use an appalling date as an example: Carly and John are on a first date in a pub. John isn’t much of a talker, so he is happy to have Carly do most of the questioning and introducing new topics. John relies on Carly to keep the conversation going. Cathy makes John feel listened to and happy. Carly feels a bit exhausted after this one sided conversation. But John is pretty nice and attractive so Carly invites John over to her place. They get naked together. Carly is not feeling very turned on by John and is a bit annoyed at him for not putting in more effort to make her feel good. She becomes a bit unresponsive in the hope he will notice and change tactics. Carly is relying on John to make their sexual encounter satisfactory. John feels it’s not going very smoothly but he is not sure what he did wrong. After having sex John decided it’s best to leave. Cathy takes this as another clue that John does not put a lot of effort in and ignores him when he seeks contact later that week.
- Be self-sufficient
Breathe, relax. Try not to rely on the other person for stimulation or emotions. I.e. relying on the other person to not be bored, feel happy or be turned on.
John could have suggested they do an activity which he would enjoy regardless of a good conversation so he does not have to rely on Cathy to have a nice time.
- Warm up
Foreplay comes in many forms. You can think of warming up to more intimate conversation by increasing the personal questions. Or warming up towards (intimate) touch by occasionally lightly touching the other person and seeing how they respond. Expressing positive feelings about the evening or giving the other person compliments can be a warm up for feeling of connection.
Cathy and John could have talked about past experiences on first dates to warm up towards sharing intimacy. John could have asked Cathy if she would like receive a (non-sexual) massage before instigating sexual intimacy.
- Seek to understand
What does your partner want? Make no assumptions.
We can be pretty sure Cathy and John had no idea what the other person wanted, and it would be wonderful if they had investigated each others desires for the evening.
- Presence and mindfulness
Practise to be present and mindful of what is happening in the moment. In this manner you will be much more aware of the boundaries and social cues of both people involved.
It is also possible to give so much space to the other, that there is hardly any space left for your own feelings, thoughts or desires. Intimacy thrives if both parties are present, engaged and choose wholeheartedly. It can be a wonderful journey to practice to share bits of you and to say no sometimes.
Assertiveness makes it a lot easier to avoid non-consensual situations. It’s often a skill that is either a bit underdeveloped (sub-assertiveness) or over developed (aggression) in people. In my opinion this is one of the most important skills to practice to become a happier and socially adequate person.
Nathaniel Brandon describes the practice of self-assertiveness beautifully: “Being authentic in our dealings with others; treating our values and persons with decent respect in social contexts; refusing to fake the reality of who we are or what we esteem in order to avoid disapproval; the willingness to stand up for ourselves and our ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts.”
- Open communication
Being open and authentic is very closely related to assertiveness. Both are a practice. When you communicate to others your doubts, fears and reasons you will eventually find it easier to be in relation. You don’t have to work so hard to be perceived a certain way or to explain yourself. The other person knows how you go about things, how you think and feel.
Another benefit is that the other person will trust you, and if you are lucky take your lead and practice open communication as well.
Boundaries, how to recognize them and how to assert them. This is a vital practice. Ofcourse all these topics are interconnected.
Here we can go back to the example, how many times is a personal boundary silently trespassed without either of the two people meaning any harm?
Most people avoid rejection, but I invite you try to list a few benefits you would find if you did not. How would your life look if you became good at rejection?
It is not strange we do not like rejection. In the animal kingdom as well as in primitive human societies, ostracism can lead to death due to the lack of protection benefits and access to sufficient food resources from the group (source: Masters).
While we do not die from rejection in our current society, we may still be hardwired to behave as if we will. But imagine if Carly would have called John and had an respectful openhearted talk with him about why she did not want further contact, it would have been hard, but a potential moment of incredible growth for both of them.
Became curious? In the workshops we dive into practical exercises that explore these topics. They aim to create a space to explore, practice and think about consent together. You can stay updated by liking the consent matters facebookpage.
About the Author
I have made a room full of adults nervously excited and slightly uncomfortable many times. A guilty pleasure, I must admit.
Since last year I also give workshops for Consent Matters Maastricht. Which is incredibly fun, as I get to do exercises with people around topics such as boundaries and communication in intimate relationships.