OpenCon 2013 – Consent

At this year’s unconference, my focus this year was on touch and consent. This is mostly because although I am a very tactile person, I have a mild fear of touching women, especially those whom I do not know so well. I spent much of my younger years around anglican girls and women who often self-identified as feminists and they often reacted quite aggressively toward touch (for instance putting my hand on their shoulder). This has left it’s mark on my psyche – given me a rule that “thou shalt not touch” a female.

I also often find asking verbally for consent to be very off-putting – lot just sexually, but socially as well. So, I was very intrigued by the non-verbal consent workshop. We practiced through hand signals and body language to give and revoke consent as well as to show uncertainty and modify consent.
Consent is not always a yes/no dichotomy. There is also the “I don’t know, but carry on slowly” or the “yes, but do it this way instead” or the “that’s enough now” and I’m sure many more in the gray area between.

At the beginning, we practiced “no” – both being confident enough to give it and the grace to take it without offense or personal rejection. I personally find this an extremely important part of being honest and being able to express yourself – an environment where you won’t be personally attacked for expressing yourself. I found it strange to show no to something that I actually liked, but on the other hand when being shown no, I didn’t know whether it was genuine or not. It was a very liberating experience because there was no second-guessing and no uncertainty. I knew it was a rejection – a rejection of that one action and not of me as a person.

Next was the “yes” – clearly and positively communicating that word without a sound. Both while receiving and giving, it was also very nice to have consent shown clearly and unambiguously.

The “yes, but differently” crosses over from consent to preference. In this case clearly accepting the contact but at the same time modifying the contact to something more preferable.
Also here was the “maybe”, communicating hesitancy but not rejection.

I found some interesting things out about myself during that workshop. Physical distance and comfort is not a linear function. I found that interacting with someone more than about two arm’s length away from me to be very uncomfortable – as though there was a forced distance like the stiff back of upper management when speaking down to us mere mortals. Likewise, being too close was literally very uncomfortable – though that may be because all my partners were very tall and I got a crick in my neck looking up at them when they were only a hand’s breadth away. The sweet spot was at about arm’s reach – touching distance where the nuance of body language really came in to play and was immediate – a gesture or sign of yes could yield immediate physical contact.

Nevertheless, I have one reservation about it. I still wonder if learning and practicing this will help with people who have not. I guess time will only tell.


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