About twenty years ago, I was at a sexuality conference in San Francisco. I met someone I found to be attractive and was interested in physically. She invited me to her home for dinner. Being fairly direct and upfront about most things, I told her I was interested in being physically intimate. Her response was “What I am willing to do is…” This was a long time ago, and I can’t remember exactly what she was willing to do. I believe it was something along the lines of holding or cuddling. My response to her was: Rather than telling me what you are willing to do, what do you want to do?
I use this example a lot in my sexuality education seminars and workshops when talking about consent. Had she and I done any holding or cuddling or whatever she was willing to do, it would have looked on the outside as if she had consented; after all, she did say she was willing. But that is not the kind of consent I wanted. She and I ended up not doing anything physical. I enjoyed the dinner time I had with her and the people she was sharing a house with, and then I left to go back to where I was staying.
The nuance of willing versus wanting is not just about sex and sexuality. I believe that how we treat people in all parts of our lives and in all parts of our society—at work, in the street and at home—is important. Consent is always important and not just in situations that involve touch, sex or sexuality. Respect, consent and consciousness in our words and interactions are all needed if we are going to reduce violence.
These are some of the questions I ask routinely. Do we treat people poorly because we are paying them money and we consider ourselves to be the customer? Do we get treated poorly because we’re paid to do a job? Are we rude to the person sitting next to us on the bus or the driver in the car next to ours? Does it ever feel good to have someone do something that they don’t really want to do?
Some of these interactions may not appear to be about consent and certainly are different from a sexual interaction, but I believe that the core causes of sexual violence in the United States are the more general violence, disrespect and lack of compassion that exist in many contexts in our society, not only sexual ones. We need to address these core causes to fully undo sexual violence.
There are significant violations and more minor violations in relationships. There are large ways to show a lack of compassion and respect and smaller ways that do the same thing. We have to ask ourselves in every moment, “How do I feel about this interaction?” It would be easy to say that we should be doing this out of concern for the other person or people involved, but I think we should do this for our own sake as well. Do we participate in situations in which there is some semblance of willingness but the other person does not really want the situation to happen? I believe that doing so would, on the deepest level, not feel good to us if we were paying attention.
Getting back to my example of the woman in San Francisco: I could have said yes to her willingness to cuddle or hold, but I doubt that it would have been a positive and meaningful interaction unless something changed to help create a stronger desire for the exchange rather than just a willingness to have something happen.
Of course, large violations also occur, whether sexual or physical violence. When I hear of these instances, it makes me sick to know such pain can be caused. Those situations are different from what I am describing, and we need to hold the perpetrators responsible. Nevertheless, to get at the root of this violence, I believe we all need to take a look at how we contribute to a culture of disrespect through humiliation, ridicule, or making fun of people. While some of these behaviors may be part of being human, like gossip or making fun of someone in reaction to something hurtful they did or said, we also need to look at how some of these behaviors contribute to a climate where bullying in schools, disrespect and harassment become all too common in our day-to-day lives.
We cannot control or take responsibility for other people. We cannot read other people’s minds or communicate for them. But we do need to take responsibility for our own participation, and our silence or lack of sensitivity and awareness can have a significant impact. We can honor another person’s truth if something goes wrong in a sexual interaction, and we can look at our part in it. For example, if something had happened with this woman in San Francisco and the end result was that she regretted what happened, I could have (and would like to think that I would have) listened to her experience with empathy and not minimized it or blamed her because she said she was willing. Had we allowed something to happen and it had not gone well, I could have recognized that I didn’t pay attention to what my instincts told me about her level of consent.
It is no compliment to have someone say yes just because they can’t say no. It is no compliment to have someone do something with me because they are willing. It would be a compliment to know that a person feels comfortable enough with me to say no or to say yes and really mean it. And it certainly is not a compliment to have someone do something they would not have done otherwise because they are intoxicated or in some other way vulnerable to making a choice they would not really want to be making. While they may be responsible for becoming intoxicated, we would be responsible for taking advantage of that fact and/or not following our instinct that it was best not to go forward in that situation. And if we had actually not cared what the outcome for the other person would be, we would have to take responsibility for not having that concern.
We need to be intentional in the big and the small ways if we want the best relationships in our lives. Our goal should be to pay attention and make sure all of our interactions are mutually positive as best we can. I say this knowing that we are not perfect and relationships and communication can be messy even when all is going well. If we see the value of not wanting to participate in harm, we should be actively working to reduce the chances of it. I am open minded as to what kinds of interactions people can negotiate and choose consensually, but I would say that a bottom-line necessity is an intention to promote the good of all involved.
It never feels good to have people doing something halfheartedly and certainly not when it comes to how we experience, receive, give or participate in touch, love, intimacy or sexuality. So we need to ask ourselves: Do we want what someone else is willing to do or what someone wants to do?
First Published on Good Vibrations Magazine, May 3rd, 2011
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