Monday, May 30, 2011
Respect and the continuum of consent
The fundamental basis of respect is the recognition that everyone else in our lives is ultimately the master of their own body, thoughts and personal space. That they may choose to share them with us, for periods of time and to varying degrees, but that it is not our right to take those things for ourselves, without them being freely given. When we respect another person, we see them as being fully capable and entitled to dominion over their own self, aware and educated enough to make choices for themselves, even if they are not the choices that we would make in their place. The interesting thing about this is that the more we are able to clearly see and respect the boundaries of another, the more they are able to share and work closely with us.
I have two completely different, but ultimately very similar examples which led me to this pondering: medical care during pregnancy and childbirth...and marital rape. How are they related? In this example, by the concept of the "continuum of consent".
Consent, true consent, as part of a mutually respectful relationship is not a writ given at the beginning of an activity that provides carte blanche cover for the duration. Rather, it's a more subtle and ever changing continuum that needs to be monitored and respected. Saying "yes" to sex now, does not imply that you are unable to say "no" in three minutes time, for any reason. Saying "yes" to an internal exam at 4cm, does not imply that you are happy to have an internal exam three hours later. It does not even imply that you can't say "no" to the internal after it has begun if it starts to make you feel uncomfortable, because yes means "yes" only for the moment in time that it is given. It doesn't imply a contract, guarantee or even necessarily entitle you to an explanation or justification if it's withdrawn. All that it means is "For right now, I'm OK with this. I might feel differently in two minutes time, and if so, I'll let you know."
Strangely however, feeling secure in our ability to say no and have it recognised and respected, actually makes us more likely to say yes - a fact apparently unknown by many pushy medical staff and pushy spouses. Women time and again have shown that they labor better when cared for by respectful professionals who know their boundaries. Husbands get laid more often when their spouses feel loved, secure and confident in their own boundaries. Doctors get listened to more often when their patients feel like an active and respected participant in their own healthcare. Being very aware that the other party is entitled to withdraw consent at any time, for any reason, and respecting this fact, actually make it more likely that you will gain the other party's trust and co-operation.
Knowing that another person consenting to your presence in their personal space is a privilege conferred on you and not a right - whether you are a paid professional, a friend or lover - and treating it accordingly, is one of the most important steps to building a functional relationship. The more confident we feel about our right to withdraw consent, the less hesitant we will feel about giving it.