Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
But what do we consent to? And how?
Recent interactions with a family member have me ruminating on this tonight. I feel continually triggered (not a term I would usually ever use, but the only apt one in this circumstance), angry, sad, and shamed by interactions with this person. My response for the last 2 decades or so has been avoidance. Their response has been pursuit. I have asked for a change in the pattern, they think that there is nothing wrong. I attempted to cut ties, they refused.
So, I’m asking myself, what am I actually communicating about my feelings in this situation? Am I sending mixed signals? Is my desire to keep the peace masking my distress? Am I consenting to my own unhappiness?
Because, let’s face it, I just don’t want to cause a scene; either literally or metaphorically. I will endure a lot to avoid a fight. What feels to me like a clear No probably looks to others like tacit acceptance. I seem to have a convoluted understanding of what it means to consent.
Sexual consent seems so clear to me. No means No. Cut and dry. But clearly consent must be far more reaching than just sexual relationships.
Imagine, for instance, that your teenager has clearly had a bad day. They say they don’t want to talk about it; but you, concerned, badger them into a conversation. Have you violated their consent?
Or, your partner asks if you mind staying at the party for 5 more minutes, even though you’re having a crap time. He asks to stay for 5 more minutes 8 times. Is he pushing the bounds of consent?
When your friends just put your name in the karaoke queue without telling you, because they know you’ll go up there rather than cause a scene. Violation of consent?
I would say “Yes” to all three. Anytime we coerce, manipulate, or cajole someone into doing something that they feel uncomfortable or unhappy with we have violated consent.
And largely, most of us consent to the violation. It’s part of the social contract, isn’t it? I will do things that make me mildly uneasy in order to keep the peace and so will you; and gradually we will build our tolerance up so that the things we do begin to make us feel less uneasy, and then we ask even more of each other.
I question when we, as a culture, lost the ability to say “I don’t want to do that” and mean it. When did our own safety and well-being become less important than preserving the status quo? Why are we afraid to rock the boat?
Enough is enough, really. We, as autonomous human beings, have to right to our preferences, our fears, our triggers. We have the right to say yes, no, or maybe to any situation without shame. We owe it to ourselves and each other to stand up and rock the boat more often.
Think of the possibilities. What would an honest “no” mean for our relationships? Better communication perhaps? A reduction in anger at others for the things you didn’t tell them hurt you. More authenticity. More intimacy. Less toxicity. Less tolerance for people who refuse to respect boundaries. Picture a world in which you had no fear about how you would be received because you knew your audience would tell you the truth, and you could honor that. A world in which no social contract required that you treat your violators with any kind of civility.
Think of the children. We could raise them in an environment where their choices about their bodies and minds are respected without question. And where they would never question each other after that initial “No”.
Understanding that consent pervades every part of our lives will revolutionize our relationships. We can divorce ourselves from painful interactions without guilt. We can love honestly and with conviction.