I want to add a quick Trigger Warning because this article will discuss topics of consent and sexual assault.
This article is personal and also a bit of a bummer. No matter how uncomfortable, it is important to speak about. Our society’s understanding of consent is evolutionary, and has changed so much, even in just the last ten years. To accurately define the word I asked several of my peers for their input, and this is what we came up with: Consent is the voluntary, continuous, and enthusiastic agreement to engage in specific previously agreed upon sexual activities. Consent can be taken away at any time over the duration of a sexual interaction. I also want to specify that someone can not be coerced into giving consent, because that is no longer consent. That is a boundary that has been forcefully crossed, without respect to your autonomy.
My cousin gave me a metaphor that helped me visualize this, and I think it would benefit others.
Say somebody comes to your door. They knock on the door and ask to come in, but you say “no thank you, I don’t really feel like having guests at the moment”. They don’t like this answer, “it’s raining outside please can you let me in”, and begin pushing on the door. After continuous pushing and pressure, the door eventually breaks because your arms are too tired from holding it closed. It is not your fault that your arms are tired and you let them in the door, it is that person’s fault for pushing past your door/metaphorical boundary.
Once again, coercion is not consent. Additionally, an individual cannot consent to an act they do not know is being committed, including but not limited to, the removal of protection, or the use of video/ photography. This seems self explanatory but it is always good to have specifics in writing just in case.
I began by explaining that our understanding of consent is evolutionary, both as a society, and individually. As we grow older and learn things, we gain knowledge and see things with new perspectives. Our frontal lobes eventually develop and our understanding of lived experiences evolves. It can be jarring to look at a past event as an adult only to realize that you deserved better. There are many instances in my life that I am able to look back on and say, my boundary was not respected. As an adult woman I feel much more comfortable saying no and setting boundaries, but as a young girl and teenager I struggled. After speaking to friends, family, and even strangers I began to understand that these realizations are fairly common, especially as you get older. Your perception of your self worth changes, and you feel protective of the younger version of yourself.
People who have those kinds of consensually ambiguous experiences sometimes still bare the scars of those moments to this day. There can paranoia during sex, no matter how much you trust someone, there is can be a lingering fear that there is a hidden camera or a nefarious intention. It is hard to lean into a romantic moment when you have had your trust broken, so show yourself and others compassion while attempting to heal.
My point is that consent is complicated, and learning to set and respect your own boundaries is also incredibly difficult. However, setting the boundary is your responsibility, respecting it is everyone else’s. Processing emotions and experiences take time, so be kind to yourself as you heal. If you have felt violated retroactively, or struggled with a situation similar, you are not alone and your experience is valid.
There are many resources for individuals with similar experiences: If you have experienced sexual misconduct or have questions about sex or gender discrimination, contact the Title IX Office. If you wish to speak confidentially about an incident of sexual misconduct, you can contact the Counseling Center.