When you hear the word “consent,” the first thing you think of is probably getting permission to engage in sexual activity with someone. But while this is one meaning of consent, it’s also important to respect people’s consent in many other everyday activities, such as taking pictures of people, making decisions involving their finances, and making any sort of physical contact.
The reason that consent is so important is that it’s a way of acknowledging another person’s autonomy — that is, acknowledging that they’re an individual with their own desires and preferences, rather than somebody who’s just there to meet your own desires.
Respecting another person’s individuality is a prerequisite for any healthy relationship, even if it’s not a sexual one. That’s why we need to be mindful of practicing consent in many more areas than the bedroom.
Here are some ways people often violate others’ consent without thinking about it, and how we can make an effort to behave more considerately.
1. Pressuring Children to Hug
While hugging isn’t always considered an activity that requires consent, it is necessary to get consent for any activity involving physical touch. Children especially often get pressured into hugging relatives or friends when they don’t want to because society deems it impolite to refuse. However, it’s also not polite to violate someone else’s bodily autonomy.
Instilling a sense of obligation in children to hug people when they don’t want to teaches them to engage in emotional caretaking, a habit of bending over backward to take care of others at the expense of oneself. It’s nice to be considerate of other people’s feelings, but that doesn't mean you need to prioritize them over your own needs and safety. If somebody is hurt because you do not hug them, you should not feel guilty over that.
Teaching a child that they must hug or kiss or otherwise show affection for someone also sets the stage for them to learn that their bodies aren’t their own to control and do as they please with. Young girls especially are growing up in an environment that constantly teaches them their bodies aren’t their own, and they need alternative messages to counter that.
2. Tickling People Who Don’t Like It
Most ticklish people have at some point been tickled by a sibling or another relative or friend as a form of teasing. The person’s ticklishness is often considered fodder for fun, because the tickler knows they’ll react. But if someone does not want to be touched in that way, ignoring their protests violates their consent and once again teaches them (often at a young age) that they don’t have the final say over what happens to their bodies.
People may feel encouraged by the laughter of someone who’s getting tickled, but it often belies the discomfort that they’re feeling. This is good practice in learning not to take anything other than a verbal “yes” as consent. “No” plus laughter is still not consent. Parents can teach their children how to respect one another’s bodily autonomy, as well as their own, by prohibiting tickling without a clear agreement from all parties.
3. Kissing Without Consent
In dating situations, there’s enormous pressure on men to “make the first move,” which usually means initiating the first kiss. And not only that, but they’re taught that asking to do so makes the experience less sexy. This pressure often backfires, because it means they must make a guess about whether a date wants to be kissed, and even educated guessing runs the risk of guessing wrong. Being kissed without consent can make someone feel like an object, just like being touched without consent can.
The same thing goes for putting your arm around someone, holding hands, and other displays of affection. It is always better to ask and be sure than to make an assumption about what someone wants. It’s unfair for a date to complain that this kills the mood, because so does non-consensual touching. If someone prefers that physical contact be made spontaneously, they can discuss in advance what kind of contact they’re OK with engaging in on an ongoing basis.
4. Taking and Sharing Photos Without Asking
In the age of the internet, it’s become commonplace to share photos of other people without permission. People will snap photos at events, post them to social media or a website, and tag everyone in them without thinking much of it.
However, there are many reasons why this can become a problem for some people. For those struggling with body image issues, appearing in photos can be an emotional ordeal, especially if you are forced to see them without warning. In addition, some people want to keep their whereabouts private for personal or professional reasons. People should ask permission before taking photos of someone and ask before sharing them as well.
On top of being a jerk move, sharing photos of people without their permission (particularly if they are sexy pics) is actually a felony offense in some jurisdictions. It can fall under sexual exploitation laws for adults, and if you are dealing with minors, it's child pornography.
5. Consuming Celebrity Info Obtained Without Permission
In today’s society, it’s considered normal for paparazzi to take photos of unwilling celebrities and disseminate those photos on gossip websites and magazines, or to share information about celebrities’ private lives. The extreme example of this is in the leaking of celebrities’ NSFW photos. Looking at these photos is also participating in an exchange of information that the subjects did not consent to.
Celebrities are human beings just like the rest of us, and they deserve the opportunity to set boundaries for what they do and don’t want known about them. It may not directly affect them to look at or read things they don’t want revealed, but you wouldn’t want people to look at online photos of yourself that you never wanted shared, so it’s best to treat everyone, famous or not, with the same respect.
Respecting other people’s privacy also means not looking in on conversations or web-browsing activity of theirs. Some couples have policies where they’re allowed to use one another’s devices, but for the most part, there are very few excuses for looking through someone’s phone or computer without their explicit permission.
Snooping on a partner’s texts or emails is sometimes considered a necessary evil if you suspect them of cheating. But if you’re concerned that your partner is being unfaithful, the appropriate measure to take is to talk to them about it. Violating their boundaries because you believe yours were violated will likely make them more defensive.
7. Spending Someone Else’s Money Without Consulting Them
Consent isn’t just about respecting others’ bodily autonomy; it’s also about respecting their autonomy over their possessions and finances. If you have access to someone else’s money, like a partner’s, this means not spending it unless they’ve said you can or you have joined your finances in such a way that you’re allowed to make such decisions.
Taking money from a partner’s bank account without their permission, keeping the money that they earn, or pressuring them to give you money are all forms of financial abuse. This type of abuse often diminishes a partner’s freedom to leave because it keeps them dependent on their partner financially.
8. Volunteering Other People’s Labor
Often, on social media or other sites for online discussions, people will ask if they need something. Then, people may volunteer their time, effort, or expertise — or, in some cases, tag other people and suggest that the person talk to them.
Whether online or offline, this puts someone in an awkward position: They then have to find a way to get themselves out of the situation, which can be tough for people who have been socialized to not offend anyone. It’s more considerate to ask permission before volunteering someone else’s labor, or just let them reach out directly if they want to help.
9. Commenting on Strangers’ Looks
Many people, especially women, receive comments from strangers on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn about their looks. This kind of attention is usually not welcome on these sites and can send the message that, even as she’s promoting herself professionally, a woman’s appearance is the thing about them that merits the most attention.
Even on a dating site, mentioning someone’s looks right away can make them uncomfortable or give off the impression that you are not as interested in other things about them. There is a time and place to compliment other people’s appearances, but it’s best to feel out the person’s boundaries before jumping to this kind of conversation.
There’s no exhaustive list of consent violations to avoid; these situations crop up in many ways in our everyday lives and will continue cropping up in new ways as technology changes our interpersonal dynamics.
But it’s possible to determine the appropriate behavior in all these scenarios if you keep in mind one guiding principle: everyone’s body is their own, their mind is their own, their possessions on their own, and their life is their own.
It’s each individual’s choice what they do with those things, and that’s a choice that should be honored.
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