Sunday, September 26, 2010

Another post on enthusiastic consent

Last week I wrote about the concept of enthusiastic consent as it relates to sexual acts between adults. This same basic idea can be used not only for sexual acts, but for many different aspects of everyday life, including children playing with each other and standards relating to everyday touch and physical contact.

When I was a child, one thing that I remember vividly is distant relatives and friends of my mothers hugging me without my consent, and being powerless to stop them because saying so would be rude. I remember the prickly stubble on the face of a man who kissed me on the cheek when I was 5 or 6 years old and really not liking it. These people were almost strangers to me, and you don't go up to a stranger in the mall and give them a hug because that would be inappropriate, but when you are a child and the adult knows your parents then it is considered fine because children are property of their parents. It is well accepted under normal circumstances that a boss should not be able to touch an employee (such as to give them a hug) because of the power relations involved, but when the recipient of that touch is a child it is fine as long as it is not sexual.

I think we need to move beyond this 'good touch, bad touch' dichotomy (with bad meaning sexual and everything else being acceptable) to teach our children to be empowered about their rights to their body. How can we tell a little girl that she is not supposed to make a fuss when grandma gives an unwanted hug and kiss, but she must yell, scream, and fight a decade later when her date tries to touch her or it is her fault if he doesn't stop when she wants him to? I have long been confused by these mixed messages. Although I do not see these two situations as identical, they are very similar in certain ways when you think about it in that they both involve a non-consensual touch. This does not only apply to children, every person should have the right to decide who touches them at any time and who does not, I just find it most obvious with children.

When people infringe on our space and touch us without our consent, it hurts... it makes us feel bad, regardless of whether it is a person that we like and might want to be touched by at other times and in other circumstances. The problem is, and I have faced this myself recently, informing them that you do not want to be touched hurts their feelings (even though it shouldn't). So, we are left with the choice of dealing with it or risking hurting another persons feelings. Being a parent or even a spouse does not give you entitlement to touch another person's body. Sometimes they might want to be touched, tickled, hugged, or kissed and sometimes they might not. And they have to be able to express that without worrying about hurting someone's feelings. The right to not be touched seems so simple to me that I am often surprised that it needs to be articulated, but it really does because it is so commonly infringed on and it is not considered to be a big deal.

It also translates into many different areas of people's lives... For example, children and play. Instead of waiting for a child to tell the other kids to stop wrestling or stop playing in a specific way, I try to teach my children to stop when it appears as though one person is no longer having fun (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is worth working on). This is hard for them to do because they can get really caught up in a game, and as children, I believe they have less capacity to be aware of others' feelings than adults do (although I am not sure of this). I am hoping that this teaches them to learn how to be in tune with the people that they interact with. This skill is likely impossible to fully master, but think of the possibilities that will come later if it is learned in childhood as a principle guiding play.

There are times when children do not have a say over who touches them. For example, if a child is hurting themselves or another person, it might be necessary to move them whether they want to be touched or not. But it is important to start from the premise of enthusiastic consent and then come up with a few specific exceptions from there.

Some people like being touched casually... they sit and stand close to others, they make physical contact in ordinary conversation and they are quick to hug friends when they see them. I, however, am not like that, and neither are a lot of people that I know. Today, for example, the person serving me at Tim Hortons touched my hand when he took my money and it made me extremely uncomfortable. I don't like when family members insist on hugs... never have been comfortable with that. That's not to say that I never like to be touched... I just like to feel that I have a sense of control over the circumstances upon which it happens and I beleive that I am fully entitled to that control, as are my children and every person that I come in contact with.


  1. I like this :) I have felt it myself for a while now but I wish I could come up with a way of adequately explaining it to others. I'm always upset when my little brother's father TELLS him he has to give me a hug and a kiss goodbye. I always say, "he doesn't have to" and leave before more can happen about it. Apart from everything you said, it kind of ruins what should be a spontaneous and enjoyable thing for both of us, you know?

  2. I really admire this.

    It's true, children have a harder time with empathy than adults. They don't quite understand that other people have diffent feelings to them.
    One thing I try to do with my children (I work in child care) is teach them no me means no, and stop means stop.

    I think it's important for them to know, not only that they never need to be touched in any way they don't like, but also that I will stand up for them when they are.

  3. Pharaoh, teaching them that no means no and stop means stop is important, but what I am trying to do is to move beyond that so that play stops even if the person who is not enjoying it doesn't actually say no. Maybe they don't want to hurt someone's feelings, or maybe they are shy or not assertive enough to say no, but you can often tell just by watching if someone isn't having fun.

    But keep it up, it is an important message to tell all the kids you work with.