Consent and Conditioning

When I was a small child, I was surrounded by extended family, and family friends. My parents pretty much sucked at being parents, but they did keep us involved with all of our relatives.

There were Sunday dinners, and summer cookouts, picnics and gatherings, or just a bunch of the neighborhood kids running wild in the woods around the holler.

And everywhere we went, there were things that took away our agency.

That old lady that wanted to pinch your cheeks? It was rude not to let her, not to smile, while she did it, not to thank her for compliments that felt… greasy.

That other old lady who gave kisses that left a snail-trail of doublemint-scented slime on your cheek when she kissed you? Same thing. Smiles, gratitude, not pulling away. Waiting to wipe the ooze off your face until you could get into another room.

That creepy old great uncle or older fourth cousin who always wanted to pull you up on his lap, and tell you long, involved, boring-yet-slightly-creepy tales about his first love, and how much you remind him of her? Yeah. You get the picture.

That cousin who bullied you relentlessly when out of visual range of the adults, but patted you condescendingly on the head, and gave you rib-crushing hugs when they were around? Even him. And he knew the rules, knew you couldn’t get away without being chastised. He took advantage of it on purpose.

From my earliest memories, I was being taught that my comfort didn’t matter. That people, grown-ups and bullies, could invade my personal space, touch me in uncomfortable ways, give me all kinds of sleazy, slimy, or threatened feelings, and that it was my job to not only stand there and take it, but to smile about it. To say thank you. To pretend that it was not only okay, but that I wanted it.

I’ve talked to loads of other people who were raised the same way. It seems that, though boys weren’t entirely immune, especially from the cheek-pinching aunt, most of the folks I know who experienced this were girls. It was part of teaching us how to be proper ladies. Demure. Acquiescent. Pleasing. Polite.

No one ever made the distinction, for me, between those uncomfortable touches and kisses and hugs, and the ones I was supposed to repel. Except for strangers. Especially strangers asking directions, or for help with a lost dog, or handing out candy. Yet the very same people who would insist that politeness required allowing people to touch me when I didn’t want to, tend to be the types of people who blame victims when they don’t fight back enough, don’t say “no” in just the right ways to count as a clear denial of consent.

So, when my stepfather, who was obviously in the class of people to whom I wasn’t to say no, started touching me in ways that made me uncomfortable, I did precisely what I’d been taught. I was only eleven, and my fondest wish was to be a good girl. To do what I was supposed to do, enough for everyone to love me. That was my sole purpose for existing, as far as I knew.

It took me two years to figure out he shouldn’t be touching me like that. Shouldn’t be exposing himself to me. That he was the bad guy, and not me, for him “sharing” his Penthouse Forums, because he knew how mature I was, and how much I loved to read.

It took me another three years, after that realization, to be able to speak up, to stop what was happening. And in light of my upbringing, I wasn’t really all that surprised by what happened next.

My mother and stepfather, when they weren’t busy denying it altogether, blamed me.

They said, “Well, if he did do anything, it must have been her fault. You know how she walks around the house in nothing but an oversized T-shirt and panties. You know how she flirts with every male in sight.”

My uncle even agreed to say I’d made a pass at him, in court, to try to save my stepfather’s reputation.

All of this just reinforced everything I’d been taught. My boundaries didn’t matter. As long as I kept up the appearance of purity, no one cared if someone else was doing things to me that I didn’t want.

And it took much, much longer for that lesson to be un-learned. Even when I thought I was past all that, somehow above it, there were times that it reared its ugly head.

The time that guy kept bugging me to play, and I kept trying to tell him no, but in a ‘nice’ way, even though he wasn’t taking my polite no for an answer. Even when he was pointedly and purposefully trying to talk me out of my no, like I was wrong for saying it. Like I needed it to be justified.

The time that my now-ex-husband told me he’d leave me if I so much as cringed when he tried to fuck me, less than a month after a brutal rape.

The myriad occasions when someone touched me without consent, and I just let it pass, to avoid making a scene.

That creepy douche who kept scooting closer and closer to me at a munch, pinning me to the wall on the inside of the booth.

It isn’t an easy thing to overcome. Many of us are steeped in that shit from the time we’re born. And if you weren’t? You just can’t possibly understand the pervasiveness of it. The way it seeps into interactions without you even knowing it’s there. The way it keeps trying to come back, no matter how many times you think you’ve killed it off.

And then there’s the fact that we know what a “no” looks likeeven when it isn’t an outright “no.”. Yet even when people indicate very clearly that they don’t want to participate in whatever it is that’s being done, others will inevitably say that it’s their fault it happens, without that explicit “no.”

All of this is a huge part of the reason why the concept of “enthusiastic consent,” or whatever other emphatic word you want to use, is so important. It’s another reason why “no means no” is not enough, and “only yes means yes,” has become such an important distinction.

Is it on me to overcome my conditioning? Sure it is. And I own that. I am responsible for un-learning this busted lesson.

As ethical people, though, it’s on every single one of us to be aware that this happens. It happens to a lot of us. And it might impede our ability to speak out, when we need to say no, sometimes. It’s everyone’s job to understand that, and to work towards better communication, and providing a place where the person saying “no,” knows that their no will be heard and respected.

So, my thought is, maybe we could work at this from both sides. Maybe we could stop making it a win-lose situation, and get on board with trying, instead, to understand and aid one another in becoming better communicators. Maybe we can start making sure that our partners know that we want to hear their “no,” if they need to say it, and that we will respect it. That we won’t try to push past it. That we will be grateful for them defining their boundaries, so that we’re not in danger of pushing past them accidentally. Maybe we can learn to take no for an answer, without demanding explanations, without arguing against it, without trying to nullify and push past it for our own gratification. Maybe we can start asking, if we aren’t absolutely certain, or if body language or verbal cues indicate doubt.

It’s not about blaming either person involved. It is about working together to understand why sometimes, “Just say ‘no,'” isn’t setting the bar high enough.

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