a device or implement…used to carry out a particular function
A thing used in an occupation or pursuit
We talk a lot about tools for navigating different situations: tools for navigating mental health, tools for addressing social inequality, tools for setting good boundaries, and so forth. Tools are useful. They’re important. They help us move from where we are to where we want to be.
Consent is not one of those tools. Consent is so often framed in conversations about sexuality (“No Means No” and “Yes Means Yes” campaigns come to mind), but it actually goes much further than that. Consent is not something we keep in our toolbox that we only bring out in sexual situations and then put away when we roll out of bed.
Consent is a muscle.
Like all muscles, it gets stronger the more it gets used. And like muscle memory, the more it is practiced, the more natural it becomes until it stops being something we have to consciously think about doing and is just a part of how we interact with the world.
Also like muscles, sometimes it’s exhausting and tiring in the beginning. It’s hard and feels awkward and we haven’t quite figured out how to do it right. But it gets easier the more you do it. You shift, make adjustments, change the amount of weight you can lift. As your muscles strengthen, so does the amount of weight you can carry.
The more we come from a consent-minded perspective, the more we are able to safely navigate complicated situations, both sexually and non-sexually. We are able to respond to a friend or a partner’s trauma without contributing to it. We are able to discuss (and perhaps, bring to life) our fantasies in a way that feels safe and fulfilling.
Sometimes you turn wrong or make a wrong move, and have to sit down for awhile so that there can be healing. You can’t lift much of anything until there is healing, but you can focus on what actions you took that caused the injury, and learn how to not do that again.
Take time to heal.
Because we mess up. We violate consent. Even in the cases of best intention, we can cross boundaries because we might not know they are there. Sometimes something happens in a moment, and the action feels natural, but it wasn’t explicitly discussed, and it causes problems. Taking time for healing and learning is important. Being defensive, justifying why it happened, and jumping back in runs the risk of causing more damage further down the line. Take some time to admit and understand what went wrong, and work to not do that again. It is ok to take time to let your muscles heal- this is one way muscles get stronger.
Because if you never get your form right, you can do lasting damage. Some injuries never heal.
If you’re not willing to admit that you don’t always know what you’re doing, if instead you insist that you already know how navigate the world with perfect consent (spoiler alert: no one does), and people are telling you that your practices are problematic and you refuse to listen… you’re going to end up seriously hurting someone. The fact that you haven’t yet doesn’t change the inevitability that you will someday. And when that happens, sometimes, there is no way to heal from that.
Consent is the muscle we use to lift the tools we have. With unpracticed consent models, our tools become less effective. When we don’t have the capacity to use them with well-practiced strength, our tools cannot be used to the fullest of their abilities, and they may miss their mark.
Shifting our understanding of consent to be a muscle, rather than a tool can shift how we navigate our entire lives- both in and out of sexual situations.
We do not live in a consent-minded world. We casually touch people all the time without thinking about it. We casually pick up other people’s things without thinking about it. We enter other people’s personal space. Our muscle memory is not conditioned to consider other people’s boundaries.
When we pull out consent models exclusively for sexual situations, we treat consent like a tool. It becomes a mechanism by which we get from where we are to where we want to be. It’s still a self-serving, me-focused approach.
When we treat consent like a muscle, then every interaction we have- whether it is with a partner, a friend, or a stranger- is focused on ensuring both people are comfortable.
Muscle memory is a powerful thing. It’s what overrides conscious thought and becomes reflex. We’ve all heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect,” and then the addendum: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”
If we navigate the world without a consent-based filter, then our muscle memory isn’t consent-focused, and our reflexes are based in self-preservation, defensiveness, and justification. But if we shift the way that we interact with people on a daily basis- friends, family, coworkers, patrons in the coffee shop or bar, wherever we interact with other people- if we shift those interactions to be mutually comfortable and safe, then consent becomes a lot easier. Our muscle memory is conditioned to approach situations for mutual benefit, rather than self-gratification, so when someone says, “Hey, this thing happened between us and I need to talk about it,” the response isn’t justification or excusing the behavior, but helping create space so that everyone can feel safer.
It’s not that you ever stop thinking about consent. It’s that it becomes a part of who you are.