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Consent - Tell the Truth

Exploring the Relationship Between Consent and the Climate Crisis

Article Summary

Exploring the relationship between consent and the climate crisis – why learning embodied consent skills serves both our individual needs and wider systemic issues. Content warning: contains description of sexual assault at the beginning. Approx 5 mins read.

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 tour a museum guide repeatedly groped her, while her boyfriend peered intently into display cabinets.

Telling me the story she said “after we left the museum I said to my boyfriend ‘didn’t you see what he was doing’?”. It took me two decades to begin to find the question “didn’t you tell him what the guide was doing as it happened?” – her boyfriend was just yards away when the repeated violations took place.

In posing that question its important to say – I am not making my friend wrong. Her reaction is entirely normal and understandable in light of what we know about our nervous systems, freezing or fawning in the presence of danger is an evolutionary survival response; we mostly have no conscious control over it happening. Childhood (and often gendered) socialisations such as “hug your uncle” or “don’t make a fuss” add further layers of complexity.

The question I didn’t ask in my twenties came to me as I reflected more deeply on my own past from the vantage point of my forties, using an embodied consent practice called The Wheel of Consent. Through the Wheel terminology and practice, I slowly pieced back together in feeling and language, events from my teens and twenties – ranging from unclear consent agreements through to outright violations, even rape.

How could other people have sexually assualted and even raped me – yet I had not previously connected these events up with language to tell the truth to myself and others, about what had taken place?

Embodied Consent – Telling the Truth About What Is Happening

Climate Crisis activists Extinction Rebellion’s first demand is for Government to tell the truth by declaring a climate an ecological emergency. 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 are the sea that we swim in, they are the norm. Most of us are conditioned to tolerate and endure things we don’t want to experience in our bodies, or to not notice how we violate other beings. We become numbed in ways that prevent us from being able to follow what feels pleasurable or good.

Not sure if this applies to you? Speaking from a UK or US centric perspective, if you had a standard hospital birth, went through a regular system of schooling or watch regular TV, these systems cause or rely on varying degrees of desensitisation and trauma for their continuance. I can’t evidence this assertion (its simply too big) but hope a broad coalition of movements will gradually inform and coalesce to birth a new era free from the norms of systemic violence.

We face catastrophic events through climate and ecological emergency. Yet we face such a collective level of denial that we are unable to generate the momentum needed for collective meaningful change. If we are conditioned to not notice in our bodies when consent is violated or when we violate other beings – to numb and rationalise it away – then of course we will not feel and respond to the catastrophic violation of the Earth.

Learning embodied consent skills matters because in doing so, we become empowered to notice and act from our own deeply felt desires, at the same time as learning how to do that in ways which are non violent.

How Do We Undo Desensitisation and Practice Embodied Consent Skills?

I teach the Wheel of Consent because it positively rocked through my world, after ten years of practicing Neo-Tantra, as a path of healing and putting the sacred back into joyful sex. I came to Neo-Tantra experiencing vaginal numbness and anorgasmia – through it I learned how to experience pleasure and have an orgasm with another person, for the first time in my life.

However the Wheel of Consent opened new layers of sensation and emotions along with political dimensions too. The wheel of consent practice and map (particularly its shadows) is applicable to ‘everything inside me’ all the way through to ‘everything outside of me’ too. As such it helped to contextualise my bodily experiences much more firmly within an awareness of the systems that shaped them.

The practice invites us to slow down and notice the pleasure in our bodies, to articulate our desires along with our limits and boundaries. We do this first as a simple touch practice limited to our hands. Then there is the option to continue on to a shared touch practice with one other person, limited to the hand and forearm.

In the touch exchange we learn to negotiate and create consent agreements based on the questions “Who is doing the touch?” and “Who is the touch for?”. These questions create four dynamics of experience that happen all the time in human relating called – Take and Allow, Serve and Accept.

The two questions (and the practice that helps us ask them) form a map called the Wheel of Consent developed predominantly by Dr Betty Martin. The map applies to the touch practice, but also gives us a way of negotiating consent agreements – and interrogating violations – at all scales from personal through to global.