Consent & The Autonomy of (My) Body

Many of you have probably seen this Facebook album circulating around called “consent”. I’m the person on the other end– I was the one who received the message.

 I think I’m only now starting to process what happened because I was absolutely, 100% baffled by what he was saying to me in the message. When he started the conversation (at 2am in the morning, as I was settling into bed) I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Even while it was happening, I was just so… confused and sent a variety  of confused snaps and baffled screenshots to friends because I just didn’t know how to process what I was reading. You can see me trying to make sense of it in the beginning few screenshots.

I’d like to invite you to read the entire thing & the ensuing comments.

(A note about the fact that that it’s a Facebook album: the other party has always posted Facebook messenger conversations publicly (with consent) and I wanted for him to do the same with ours (it was, thus, consensual) because I really want for people to talk about how so absolutely not okay it was. In that sense, I’m glad that it’s public and that he was willing to do that, but still wanted to heavily emphasize that this was something that was absolutely not okay to do.)

I want to talk about a few things:

CONSENT

This is not the main takeaway that I want for you to get from the album, but let’s begin here. Let’s talk about the high importance of being absolutely explicit in your own personal relationships but also in recognizing its importance: someone made a comment to me about how we teach consent in our culture, which is that we don’t, not properly, and as a result, many young men learn through trial and error, through problematic role models, and other sources of information that don’t necessarily include the viewpoints of those from whom they are getting consent.

This is not an excuse but a demonstration of just how important it is to have proper sex ed in our school systems, to be talking about shit like this. It’s a big reason why I took on the tone I did with him (even though I fully recognize that it wasn’t my responsibility): I felt that it was a potential opportunity for education in case, for whatever, his own upbringing, schooling, experiences didn’t provide him with actual explicit lessons of why consent is important.

(That being said, I became a lot less sympathetic when I saw, repeatedly through the comments, that he didn’t seem to be absorbing any of the comments being made about the actual grossness of the situation ).

THE AUTONOMY OF THE BODY

Let’s please do away with the idea that the female body is implicitly some work of “art”, some piece to be analyzed and cut into pieces. Let us empower all femmes to let them choose the narrative they want to build around their bodies. If you want for your body to be art, then we should be helping and empowering you to do so– if your body is your instrument, your mouthpiece, your method of warfare, then you should supported in the journey to making it so and to have reinforced, over and over, that you choose to develop and build that narrative. The important part is that you should be the person in charge of the narrative that you build around your own body and what you want for it to be for you.

My body (what I am working on making it become and want for it to be) is my vessel through which I channel myself: I want for it to be unbelievably ferocious and precise & dagger-like in channeling my intentions. I want it to be my weapon with which I empower myself and that when I carry myself on campus and at home, I do it with the straightest of backs and high composure (most of the time).

Let’s continue with the idea of your body being your own.

I’ve noticed (and a few friends have also noted to me) that over the last year, I’ve felt more “attractive”, in the general sense of the word. This is really recent– I’d say that this process started sometime over the past year and I’ve noticed the subtle changes in the way that people have begun to interact with me: a little more nicencess, some unwarranted comments on the street, conversations where people try to invade my personal spaces just a little bit more.

But because I am now more “attractive”, and the nature of the experience you have by looking at me has (theoretically) has gotten better and now offers you more “pleasure” (to speak in economic terms– think of utility), there have been some, like the individual who messaged me, whose actions belie an unconscious assumption that this greater act of experiencing somehow allows you more access to this body to critique, fawn over, analyze, to look. Think about Hollywood and celebrity bodies and how they’ve been commodified as a public good in, literally, the eyes of the public: because they are so present and so much more beautiful, our silent cultural assumption is that these bodies have an additional function beyond a vessel for the people who inhabit them: they also exist for the function of being looked at.

And so, in my “newfound attractiveness”, my body may have taken on an unspoken, unwanted function as being an object of the gaze, and as this new object, now subject to silent visual ownership as objects are wont to be.

This is the culture that led to the OP’s extremely invasive analysis of my own precious body: a belief that my body, beyond being my vessel and my instrument, took an additional function as subject of looking, and thus an unchecked and silent belief that it was also a thing (his visual thing) to be quartered, undressed, stripped down and considered.

I’m telling you now as members of this society: do not believe that your reaction (emotional, physical, mental, whatever) grants you a stake in the functional existence of the thing that evoked your reaction. Own your reaction and fully experience it as you must, but know and hold it inside of yourself because that reaction does not grant you any sort of stake in the existence of that thing.

And beyond that, you have absolutely no right to strip me down, to do anything to my body, to me, unless I consent to it. Full stop. Hold that in yourself and tell yourself that other people will be telling themselves the same thing and they too have every right to their own bodily autonomy, even at (especially at) the cost of a compliment or an opportunity for you to make yourself feel better about being a “good person”.

EMPATHY & CONSIDERATION

Let’s talk about something that helps with recognizing other people’s bodily autonomy: empathy and, simply put, consideration for others.

Here’s a checklist of things to do when you’re not sure how others are going to react (I should make one of those Cosmo quizzes):

  • Stop, take a breath, and really consider, from the perspective of the other person, how they would react to whatever it is you’re doing– will they react badly? Don’t do it. Consider:
    • Is this warranted?
    • Do you know the person well enough to really engage with them in this specific manner?
  • If you’re not sure how they’ll react and continue with it anyway (okay…) be explicit at the beginning of the interaction about what you want to do, and continually check in with the other person to see how they’ll feel.
    • Be explicit about the check-ins and open-ended: “How are you feeling about [this situation] right now?”, “I’d like to hear your thoughts on this so far.”, and most importantly, “Would you like for me to continue?“. If they say this, fucking stop, man.
  • At the end, check in again. Ask them how they felt about the experience and, most importantly, give them the opportunity to speak. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t condescend. Don’t derail the conversation and make it about you. If you’re receiving feedback that makes you feel attacked, say calmly that you’re feeling attacked and ask whether the other party could give you their advice/feedback in a different way. Listen to them. Don’t just acknowledge that their fingers have typed words or that their mouths are moving-truly listen to them and the content that they are saying. 

On a higher level, always be looking for those opportunities and the time to listen to other people, to consider things from their perspectives, so that you can practice empathy by not just understanding other people but also from their perspectives. Empathy is not a goal, but a process. You can always be a better listener, become better at understanding other people and being considerate.

The most important thing to remember about this is that your opinions and you do not matter more than anyone else. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have value and that you’re not valued, but that your opinion is not worth so much that the person on the receiving end will unconditionally a. want to hear what you’re saying, and b. appreciate what you’re saying.

*

This entire experience was bizarre and surreal. I’m really grateful for the people who supported me and made me feel heard, and I’m even more grateful for the discussion that this has prompted. Note that I’ve asked the other person in this message to not message me again because I have no desire to associate with him. It’s my hope that he is talking with his friends, reading the feedback of people in the comment section of his album (not the really nasty ones) and my comments and educating himself and learning.

My overall, big hope is that we can talk about this some (a lot) more, understand why this is such a unfortunately common and consistently discomfiting, awful experience for women, and continue advocating on the importance of consent.

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