It’s not about etiquette, it’s about consent

About once a week, when visiting family, things end a bit awkwardly.

My 18-month old is fed, bathed, packed up and ready to go after a lovely afternoon playing in the garden, rolling with the dog and baking fairy cakes. It is time to say goodbye. Sometimes, she throws herself at her hosts with full body cuddles; other times she is tired or has her mind on other things.

And this is when it happens. A jolly voice looms large, ‘Where’s my kiss then!’

My insides knot so I can barely breathe.

I work hastily to open the options: ‘We’re saying bye now, would you like to just say bye with your words or would you like to give a high five, or a wave, or a cuddle or a kiss?’

Big deal, you might think. A family member wants a kiss from a kid they love. For many this would be nothing. But for me, this is not a moment for a lesson in politeness. It’s an issue of consent.

When I was twenty, I was raped. The response of my hypothalamus was to freeze. In the aftermath, I convinced myself therefore that I was somehow the one at fault. Maybe my pounding heart was too nice, my dry throat didn’t say no forcefully enough, my frozen body somehow allowed it to happen? Guilt and shame led me to lock this away inside and confess to nobody for fifteen years, until a violating birth wrenched open Pandora’s box and released the body’s memory of this awful event. And now, I’m furious. Because although I know that I wasn’t ‘at fault’, on some level my social conditioning meant that I did ‘allow’ it to happen. Let me explain…

I grew up leading the life most young women lead growing up in patriarchal Western society. A society where we are taught to respect, listen to and prioritise the wishes, demands and orders of authority above our own; first in the family, then in schools, and finally in the workplace. A society in which we see men in positions of power; and women as their subordinates – in household chores, in pay, in workforce roles, in their levels of self-esteem and confidence, in the way that their abilities, achievements and significant contributions to society are ignored or downplayed at all levels.

Small wonder that girls thrive more than boys in their academic lives, seeking to please authority figures for acknowledgement and recognition. Small wonder they grow up into young women who on some subconscious level believe that they should hold politeness and good manners above their own needs, wants and desires. Small wonder they grow into mothers who self-sacrifice, overburdened with the weight of the mental and emotional loads of the family in addition to their child caring and paid employment duties. (If the phrase mental load means nothing to you, I BEG you to click on this link – it will change the way you view your life, duties and relationships for good, in all senses of the word).

How many women can honestly say they put their own physical, mental and emotional needs above their ‘duty’ to accommodate those of their close (and wider) circle of family, friends and work colleagues? How many women can say that they genuinely don’t give a shit what people they know (or don’t) think, about what they say or do, or how they act? How clean their house is when unexpected visitors come round? What neighbours are thinking about the screaming toddler coming out of your car? What the mother-in-law is saying about you when your husband (her son!) forgets her birthday card?

This systematic indoctrination of womankind to put our own needs behind others and bow down to the demands of authoritative figures is, at least in part, the reason that rape happens. Social conditioning where politeness overrides instinct, thoughts override feelings. And ultimately if I was not a subject of this social conditioning myself, I might not have allowed it to happen. Perhaps it would have been fight, or flight, rather than freeze, that my body defaulted to when attacked in such a violent way. Because this control and power dynamic is like a see-saw – the systematic empowerment of one sex means the resulting dis-empowerment of another.

Rape happens because entitled males use the power and control that has been bestowed on them – by being born male in a society that favours males – in order to dominate women, who they consider to be less worthy of respect and dignity and rights than themselves. But it also happens because women have always been dominated by men in this way. We expect it. We condone it. We don’t question it when it happens, in all the tiny, little, insignificant, ‘harmless’ ways that it happens.

And this is why, when kisses are demanded of my daughter, I firmly say no.

This will not happen for her. She will not grow up dis-empowered, as I did, at least not without a fight.

You will not force this precious soul to consider her own wishes to be secondary to yours. You are not entitled to a kiss. It is not ‘yours’ to demand. She is not yours to do with what you please.

You can ask, sure. But she has the choice, she makes the decision. And I will not have her feel obliged on any level. I will fight her corner on this, and every other situation where her rights and body and needs and desires are being pitched against someone else’s, especially if they are in a position of authority (as any adult is), or if they are male and have been brought up to think that this status gives them rights that are above hers. I will do so until I feel confident that she is doing the same for herself.

What do you do to protect your babies – male and female – from this fate in this patriarchal world?

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