“Understanding Consent” is a multi-part series exploring consent, sexual assault, and the conversation our nation is having around bodily autonomy and women.

Understanding Consent Series

Yes Is the Only Word That Validates Consent: The Role of Silence in Rape Culture
Non-Sexual Touch Should Still Require Consent, Regardless of Age

My middle school daughter recently shared an incident where she was at a neighborhood pool with some friends. They were celebrating the end of the school year. She observed her female friend constantly being thrown out of the pool and into the air by two of her male friends.

Later on, this female friend shared with my daughter that she was uncomfortable with the boys touching her and grabbing her while throwing her in and out of the pool. She and my daughter had a conversation about how her protests could be construed as flirty based on her tone and body language.

Later in the evening, this female friend confronted the boys and in a clear and assertive manner told them she didn’t like it and wanted to stop.

This anecdote highlighted how young kids are when they have to start thinking about topics that adults erroneously associate with older teens or adulthood.

The Foundations of Consent Are Rooted in Early Childhood – Long Before the Typical Period of Sexual Activity

This story may seem miles removed from sexual violence and consent, but I think the genesis of consent and misunderstanding starts at an early age.

I contend that the confusion between appropriate and inappropriate and consensual and non-consensual touch starts before the hormonal teen years.

The seemingly innocuous event my daughter reported was ripe with implications around touch, body autonomy, consent, and whose responsibility it was to clarify boundaries. And the incident wasn’t even related to sexual activity.

The conversation around non-sexual touch has recently become a national topic. Social media has been spreading photos of movie star Keanu Reeves with female fans and friends where he appears to show respect for women by not touching them in photos.

This comes on the heels of a conversation around former Vice-President and current Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, being called out for his cavalier attitude and tendency to get cozy with women during photo ops.

Consent is an issue that concerns and affects everyone, not just women — and the culture surrounding consent is only going to evolve if men are actively re-considering how consent plays a role in their own sexual encounters, not solely from a woman’s point of view.

Doing so provides more opportunity for men and women to engage in thoughtful conversations about what consent looks like for them.

Children Are the Most Unclear About Consent and Vulnerable to Sexual Abuse

Our culture is failing our children if we delay educating them about their bodies, about sexual activity, and consent until well into the teenage years.

Consider the following statistics from The National Sexual Violence Resource Center:

  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.
  • 34% of people who sexually abuse a child are family members.
  • 12.3% of women were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization, and 30% of women were between the ages of 11 and 17.
  • 27.8% of men were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape/victimization
  • More than one-third of women who report being raped before age 18 also experience rape as an adult.
  • 96% of people who sexually abuse children are male, and 76.8% of people who sexually abuse children are adults.
  • Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities.

“Consent is an issue that concerns and affects everyone, not just women.”

Consent Is Asking For and Securing Permission

Consent is a concept that is simultaneously straightforward and complex. It is simple in that it comes down to an individual asking and securing permission to participate in some form of physical or intimate activity.

It is straightforward in that consent can be defined as one individual granting permission and not changing their mind throughout the activities and behaviors.

Consent is complex in that it cannot be reduced to “yes” or that it is exclusively aimed at sex. Consent is a complex issue because of the potential role of coercion, power imbalance, or someone changing their mind about what they consent to during a sexual activity.

Because sexual activity is often delayed until the later teenage or young adult years, the principles of consent should be considered and practiced in other parts of life and activities beyond just sexual activity.

Touch, Bodily Autonomy, and Bodily Integrity – Rethinking the Message We Send to Children

Consent culture is often limited to the topic of consensual sex or intimacy among adults. It needs to be extended toward all behaviors and to children.

Similarly, the term bodily autonomy tends to be more widely recognized under a specific topic: reproductive justice advocacy and the pro-choice movement among abortion rights. But bodily autonomy is at the root of consent culture for children.

What is bodily autonomy? The term means a person has say and control over aspects of their body, who or what uses their body, for what, and for how long. Bodily integrity refers to the personal autonomy and the self-determination of human beings over their own bodies.

Helping children practice bodily autonomy is a critical starting point in the foundation of consent culture, because the reality is that children are regularly coerced into situations where their bodies are treated as the property of their parents or adults.

Adults, often without malice, also blur the lines between safe and unsafe touch, or consent versus coercion, and make it difficult for many children to identify when they’re being inappropriately or uncomfortably touched by an adult or another child.

“Consent is a concept that is simultaneously straightforward and complex.”

It’s important to realize that our bodies and our boundaries exist outside of sex, and consent is required for anything having to do with our bodies. We must look at the narratives around body ownership and consent.

Some people think I make too much out of it, but as a father of two daughters, I have had to confront my own discomfort and reservations around male coaches, extended family members, or others in positions of authority constantly touching young girls without their direct consent.

I regularly observe men placing their hands on girls’ shoulders, hugging them, caressing their backs, and other forms of embrace and touch.

I do not pretend to know what is comfortable or uncomfortable for others. But, I do not support requiring children, boys or girls, having to hug, kiss, or sit on family members simply because they are family.

These individual gestures of affection may be benign, but imagine thousands of these incidents over the course of your childhood – what kind of message does it send to people about touch and their body and consent?

It’s not about reinforcing a fear of others. Bodily autonomy is about an individual having the ability to have more say in what they are comfortable and uncomfortable with when it comes to matters of physical touch.

When does a child, when does a young girl, have autonomy and integrity over their own bodies?

Men, Stop Assuming Your Touch is Innocuous, Benign, or Appreciated

Full disclosure: I am not a touchy person. It is not second nature for me to cuddle with my wife (much to her chagrin). It could be my temperament. It might be due to my adoption and attachment style.

Nevertheless, whenever I am out and about, I cringe at the frequency I watch men casually touch and caress women who are hostesses, bartenders, waitresses, or professional colleagues.

I used to wonder what was wrong with me and why I didn’t instinctively hug female colleagues or acquaintances. Now I think I’m better off not having that automatic response and wonder why so many men think they are entitled to casually grope women without permission.

Are these the same men we are entrusting our young girls and boys to? Can we depend on them to instill and model healthy attitudes toward females, toward touch, and champion a deeper understanding and appreciation for consent?

What Role Will You Play?

Do not react to this national conversation around consent with the perfunctory, ‘I don’t see what the big deal is,’ or ‘this generation of snowflakes complains about everything.’

No, do not champion the status quo, because the status quo always favors those in power, those with privilege, and those who make the laws and policies.

Who traditionally has the least amount of power and privilege? Folks in the minority status, which includes women and children. Change is happening. What role will you play?

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you or someone you know is a victim of child abuse, you can seek help by calling The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at (1-800) 4-A-Child or (1-800) 422-4453. The hotline is available 24/7.

For more resources on child abuse, visit National Children’s Advocacy Center, National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, and Prevent Child Abuse America,
For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINNEnd Rape on CampusKnow Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Click here for more content by Jonathan Hetterly, LPC!

Jonathan Hetterly, LPC
Jonathan Hetterly is a licensed professional counselor. He specializes in helping teen and young adult men navigate the challenges they face in life. Jonathan is also a writer and his articles are regularly featured on PsychBytes.com and ShrinkTank.com. He has contributed material to several books that explore the intersection of pop culture and psychology, including The Walking Dead Psychology, Star Wars Psychology, and Game of Thrones Psychology.


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