Back to Basics: Consent Culture and Final Thoughts

This is the eighth and final part of my series on the basics of understanding feminism. [part 1] [part 2[part 3] [part 4] [part 5]  [part 6] [part 7]

I have the world’s cutest and smartest three year old niece, hands down. She knows how to use words like “forgo” and “commiserate” correctly, and is an imaginative, creative, wonderful human being. I may be biased, but I think she’s literally the best.

The other day, she was in town with her parents, and it was my job to put her down for her “rest” – that’s the word we use instead of “nap” – and she refused to get on the bed. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust me – she just didn’t want to leave the exciting world of adults, where STUFF was happening.

I got her mom, and her mom brought in a storybook, and my niece hopped up into bed, and snuggled. She was waiting for a moment when she knew she’d be safe and comfortable and that her boundaries were going to be respected – though, at three, this was all instinctual. She had her boundaries, and she had to know they’d be respected.

In response to purity culture and rape culture and the various critiques feminism has oriented itself around, a feminist culture is one that prizes the respect of boundaries and consent. Feminism seeks to supplant rape culture with a culture based around consent and respect of physical bodies. And this kind of consent culture extends beyond sexual relationships, out into physical and psychological contact in the culture at large.

I’m in the habit of visiting friends at work, and one day I walked into the shop where my friend is a clerk. She was having a bad day and she came over and went “I’m so happy to see you. Can I give you a hug?”

That’s consent culture – explicitly asking permission and doing so in a way that is not coercive or emotionally manipulative. It’s asking an answer while being prepared to respect a no.

Feminism desires that consent be respected in all interactions in the understanding that respecting consent in the little things will lead to a greater understanding  of consent in the larger things. It is a secular version of the Christian idea that “he who is faithful in the small things will be faithful in the big.”

When I was in high school, I remember being on one those long debate trips that starts at 5AM and where everyone is in a stupor for most of the ride. I was in the midst of my deeply evangelical phase, and ended up sitting next to this girl I barely knew. In my Christian fervor, I felt that God (or something) was telling me I needed to talk to her about heaven. So I turned to her, started a conversation, and ignored her obvious desire to go to sleep.

Years later, I was sitting in the window seat on a flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan – a mercifully short 35 minute ride. The older man next to me, shortly after take off, turned to me and asked, “So, what do you think of the war in Iraq?” This was a conversation I did not want to have, and had no desire to continue, but for the next twenty minutes, I gave monosyllabic answers while he told me about the book he was reading. I showed zero interest, but he kept going.

These two stories are examples of where consent culture would do a world of good. Consent culture not only rids us of deep violations of the body – it helps us to develop better empathy and awareness of others. If we ask ourselves “Do this other person want to be participating in this with me?” and pay attention to cues and signals, we will start to develop a culture of consent.

And once that culture of consent is established in smaller interactions, it becomes part of our habit and part of our consciousness. This is a part of the cultural change that can begin with you. Teach your children both that their boundaries will be respected and that other people’s boundaries deserve the same respect. Start asking before you hug someone. Ask “Is this okay?” before a sexual encounter. Make consent a priority in your life and it will become a secondhand action soon enough.

This is the culture feminism wants to create – this is the world we envision, in part. A culture that respects individuals enough to respect their boundaries and their limits is one that will be safe for all peoples. It is one in which individuals can feel freer to worship God as they see fit, and to live out the identities God the Creator made for them. A feminist culture of consent is part of the Kingdom of God, as respect and love for your neighbor are central to both.

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Thanks so much for joining me on this exploration through the basics of the Christian feminist project. Later this week, we will start on the next theme for the summer - the church and liberation. In anticipation of this, tomorrow, for Ask Away Wednesday, I'll be taking questions around the theme of Church - church membership, doctrine, philosophy, ecumenical councils, etc etc. Anything that fits under that fairly large umbrella is open for discussion.

You'll also notice some big changes to the design of this site. I've flipped around the theme and added a sidebar to make content easier to find. Also in the side bar, you'll notice an Amazon widget of books related to topics on the blog that I recommend. These will change throughout the months, so keep an eye over there if you are in need of some new reading material! Thanks so much for reading.