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Consent - tell the truth

Why consent matters in an age of climate crisis
[TW: contains brief description of a sexual assault in first paragraph]

In my early twenties, a friend told me a story. She had been going round museum archives, to which her boyfriend had been granted special access for his studies. During the private tour, a museum guide repeatedly groped her while her boyfriend peered intently into display cabinets taking notes.

Telling me the story she said “after we left the museum, I said to Thomas [her boyfriend] didn’t you see what he was doing”? It took me over a decade to to find the question I didn’t ask at the time – “didn’t you tell Thomas what was the guide was doing while he did it?” – her boyfriend was just yards away when the assault happened repeatedly.

In posing that question I am not making my friend wrong – her response to unwanted touch is very normal and understandable. Our nervous systems have evolved responses such as freeze or tend and befriend, in an effort to keep us safe. Childhood socialisation from “hug your uncle” through to “don’t make a fuss” pile even more layers on top of that.

The question I didn’t ask came to me as I reflected on my own consent history, using an embodied consent practice called the Wheel of Consent. Through the practice I pieced together a history in which I had passed off events that ranged from messy consent accidents through to outright violations – even date rape.

How could these things have happened to me, and yet I had not previously connected them up with language to describe the actual nature of the events that had taken place?

Embodied consent – telling the truth about what is happening

Climate crisis activists Extinction Rebellion‘s first demand, is that we collectively (and institutionally) tell the truth in regards to climate crisis. Until we tell the truth about what is happening – appropriate actions and responses cannot take place. The same is true at a collective level in regards to consent.

Poor consent skills, resulting in everything from accident to violation, are the sea that we swim in – they are the norm. We are conditioned to tolerate and endure things we don’t want to experience happening to our bodies. We are also numbed in ways that prevents us from noticing what is pleasurable in our body.

It begins with being born into bright lights, our small bodies often overwhelmed by drugs. Even with great parenting, nappy changes and feeding are often done by hands made in-sensitive by a desensitising culture. It magnifies when we go to school and are taught to tolerate sitting at a desk all day, or to limit pleasurable experiences such as playing out on the grass.

Now of course conditioning happens with good reason: sweets rot teeth and discipline helps us accomplish great things! However we have a society that is predominantly ordered around cultivating power as the primary task of our growing up. We tend to educate based on models in which the “higher” rational intelligences win out over the kind of intelligence that nurtures our desire to have fun out on the grass.

Power is primarily desirable and nurture secondarily so, in the way we shape many of our collective narratives and social landscapes. Nurture gives us the sweet things, maybe it’s a piece of fruit. Nurture says the pleasure in our body matters enough to act upon it. Nurture arises from the place where we deeply feel things, our limbic systems. In our top down rational and power dominated landscape, nurture has been commodified. Our feelings get manipulated through everything from algorhithms through to politics and advertising.

Without real nurture in our lives, power becomes the predominant route for satisfaction and reward. If our nurturance needs are starved, then we are likley to use power to break down doors and get our needs met. Think about that metaphor in relation to sexuality and our economic consumerist models.

Embodied consent and climate crisis

We face catastrophic events and a climate emergency. Yet we also face such a collective level of denial that we are unable (thus far) to generate the momentum needed for collective meaningful change. Sure the BBC has “enabled false balance” when reporting the crisis in thepast. But the facts are widely available through the Guardian, social media, new media alliances and now through mainstream television figures such as Sir David Attenborough.

Many decisions we make actually emerge from our limbic system. From here we feel first then act, after we might construct the narrative for why we did what we did. “I love her because she is funny and smart, I love her because I just do”. If we felt the catastrophic impact of human actions on the beauty around us deeply in our limbic systems – such as we do when we love someone – we would act differently.

If we are conditioned to not notice in our bodies when consent is violated – to numb and rationalise it away – then of course as a society we will not feel and respond to the catastrophic violation of the earth. And equally if we cannot identify and articulate deep nurturance needs – then we are more likely to endlessly fill the void with poor imitations.

Embodied consent in sexuality matters in the context of climate change:

  • because it touches that place in us where violations are deeply felt
  • because it empowers us to notice and articulate our bodily and relational nurturance needs
  • because through it we learn to unite power and nurture in relational contexts

We become empowered to notice and act from our own deeply felt desires, at the same time as being empowered to do that in ways that are non violent. Embodied consent in sexuality matters – because it matters – and that is why I teach it.

How do I teach embodied consent?

I use the Wheel of Consent developed by Dr Betty Martin; because it rocked me after 10 years of learning and practicing neotantra for healing relationship and sexuality wounds. The Wheel of Consent practice takes us back into our limbic system to notice pleasure in our bodies, to notice what feels good.

We do this first as a simple solo touch practice limited to our hands. Then if we choose to, we can practice finding the pleasure in our bodies through a simple touch practice shared with one other person, limited to the hand and fore-arm. In this exchange we learn to negotiate and create up agreements that highlight the following things:

  • Who is doing the touch – and who is it for?
  • What is I really want – and what are the limits of what I am wiling to do?

These questions create four dynamics of experience that happen all the time in human relating, particularly in touch and sex. We learn to notice whats happening in our bodies in these simple exchanges and practice the bits we find difficult.

The practice helps undo conditioning that numbs us away from the pleasure in our bodies and towards exercising power in the context of craving and lack. It also is a neural rewiring that will tend to surface events and related emotions from the past, where we were not empowered to exercise our own consent needs or act in consensual ways towards others.

The above questions (and the practice that helps us ask them) form a map called the Wheel of consent developed by Dr Betty Martin. The map applies to the touch practice shared between two people. The map also gives us a way of negotiating consent agreements – and interrogating violations – at all scales from local to global.

Article by Rose C Jiggens

Photo by Tony Pletts – Kimwei performs a set on the Extinction Rebellion Pink Boat.

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