My Take on Accountability and Consent
Posted by Zuleika
I have read a lot of literature about consent since going to college. Consent is a valueable concept that is not given much thought in widespread culture. This essay is based on the culmination of what I have learned.
When you hear or see the word “assault,” it’s likely that three images or concepts come up: Women, sex, and violence. Culture has a way of caricaturizing ideas and experiences that make people forget the core of what they mean. A friend once told me, based on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle which explains this caricaturizing, that “the image of a gay person is radically different from the varied experiences and lives of homosexual people.” The same goes for assault. It is common for people to jump to standardized images of any concept they come in contact with. I suppose this is to avoid the cognitive dissonance of having to see people and things for whom and what they are on a case-by-case basis. I think it is time to get beyond that, especially with assault.
What is assault?
Assault is any activity or behavior that ends in someone’s personal boundaries being crossed. Assault is the experience of having your active consent and values lessened or dismissed by others. Using a position of authority to coerce people to gratify your sexual, physical, and emotional needs means that you are assaulting someone. Assault can be physical, verbal, or emotional, and often carries psychological after-affects, even if it is something as simple as experiencing a drop in confidence in a certain situation. And as people should know well, assault is rape, molestation, and any sexual activity that goes on without explicit consent, or in spite of denying consent to someone.
Who gets assaulted?
Abuse and assault is not limited to the lives of monogamous, heteronormative adults, which is another image misguidedly stamped onto this “A” word. An instance of this assumption is, a verbal abuse ad-campaign by Aware Hot-line which featured pictures of men screaming at women. Large violent fists were photoshopped to be projecting out of their mouths and grabbing at or punching the women in front of them. This hot-line was trying to use a bold message in order to help women inSingaporereceive help away from abusive situations. This ad was probably meant to serve as a method of education, because the underlying message will stick if attached to such emotional images. However, such campaigns are unknowingly reinforcing the same power dynamics that lead to assault, and it dismisses the experiences of others in similar situations. Homosexual, bisexual, asexual, and polyamourous people can also become survivors of assault. The same rings true for trans people, genderqueer folks, and men. Violating sexual consent is not mainly a concept of men dominating women; the solution isn’t as easy as blaming or antagonizing men and making women appear inherently vulnerable – caricaturing whole groups as either this or that.
Survivors can be perpetrators of assault, and perpetrators can be survivors. Assault is not a one way street. A perpetrator is a person or group of people who cross the boundaries of others. Survivors are those who have had their consent taken away or boundaries ignored in a way that creates stress or mental trauma. Honestly, perpetrators could be former survivors, going on to use the same manipulative techniques used against them. This happens when assault gets internalized and turns into underlying beliefs that drive the survivor to act in similar ways. In friendships non-romantic relationships, internalized beliefs about consent can lead to a constant exchange of perpetration that becomes the accepted “nature” of the relationship (i.e. we always fight/argue/”get back” at each other, that’s just how we are).
Family members assault each other, in both sexual and non-sexual contexts. But yet again, we run into these images that almost provide a script of what to expect when we hear about familial abuse. We may conjure up the image of a dysfunctional family, in which parents argue, kids are beaten, taunted or otherwise punished cruelly. These things do happen and are very real. Divorce rates are always on the rise. Many adults think that corporal punishment (which includes even something as seemingly benign as grabbing on kids) is okay and respectable. But having these headline experiences as the only frame of reference leaves out more subtle but equally destructive encounters.
Being made to hug and kiss others at family gatherings, even people the child doesn’t know, is assault because the child’s feelings are not considered. There are others. Using kids to get errands done in the name of “responsibility” and “discipline.” Depriving kids of privilege without trying to communicate effectively through an issue. Likewise, youth are capable of taking advantage of those who take care of them by not disregarding personal boundaries a caregiver may have. Parent-child relationships are not the only ones that can feature these issues. It happens between siblings, aunts, uncles. From “guardians,” same sex parents, and single parents.
Agencies of government assault anyone who does not give active consent to any number of its activities. This is the problem with large governments that are unreachable through consensus and direct communication with the communities they affect. Any lack of choice or voice created by institutions of power is liable of this problem. Youth are assaulted by compulsory education laws and uniform policies. They are assaulted when they are not allowed to change school policies or negotiate aspects of it that cause them needless stress and mental trauma. Surveillance initiatives, increased security checks for travel, and new privacy laws assault people who, despite their outcries, are still subjected to such things. Large removed governments often confuse silence with permission. They confuse majority rule with consent. For governments like theUnited States, with a current population of over 300 million, majority rule leaves thousands and millions of people whose consent in the state of affairs is dismissed.
What does an assault-conscious, consent-based culture look like?
I say assault-conscious for one reason. I do not advocate consent in the hopes of creating a Utopia in which people are never ever hurt. That would be a nice world to live in, but instead I think that assault-consciousness means learning from your mistakes and making progress over time. It means owning up to the ways you have hurt people and striving for methods of acting and thinking differently. People will not always know how to interact with you in every given situation of every moment you spend together. People you do or do not know will hug you, touch you, or say and do any number of things that make you uncomfortable. That is why an important part of assault-consciousness is calling people out and showing people how their actions affect you or others. This can be done on-the-spot, in an arranged face-to-face meeting, chatting online, using one or several mediators – any number of ways.
It always means giving your self space to grow. Being a watchdog over your every move will hurt you in the long run. Being conscious means that sometimes you can observe non-verbal cues and follow-up by “checking-in” verbally to see if the other(s) are okay with what you do. Additionally, people can pre-establish consent for a given situation (ex: I understand that if we start tugging on one another, we want to playfight. But if either of us says no, stop, or I’m not in the mood, we need to respect that). Understand that interactions blur and meld into one another and need varied communication. If you make a mistake, it is a chance to learn and grow. It’s not a permanent guilt sentence. Guilt or shame might follow a perpetration, but wallowing in it prevents you from knowing better.
Consent, while being helpful in making decisions and interacting with people does not mean that people will always agree or like the rejections and “no’s” they hear. Many times, negotiating with perpetrators is a fruitless or volatile situation. There are only so many call outs a person can make before they have to walk or flee away from the situation. But in a consent-based culture, you don’t let your violation go unseen or heard. You can seek protection. You can inform allies, friends, family, and community members about the issue you’ve faced and how issues like that can affect others. This has been one way to success for civil rights groups, and people everywhere who are active in changing their lives. Of course this is one perspective. Be strong, be accountable, and ask first.