This business of educating a child in the meaning of consent takes longer and is more complex than I realized. Mookie is now eight and I almost felt as if I didn’t need to raise the issue the other day, but I’m glad I did.
We’d had a “jinx!” moment, saying exactly the same words at the same time, and for once I won: I said “Jinx!” first and so she, playing the game according to her rules, said, “What do I owe you?”
I said, “A kiss!” and she kissed me, as she does a dozen times a day, cheerily. Still, I thought, “Hm . . . ” and we had this conversation.
Mama: It’s just a game, of course. You never owe anyone a kiss.
Mookie: But I want to kiss you.
Mama: I know . . .
(I was tempted to leave it here but a certain nagging feeling said “Carry on . . .”)
Mama: . . . but if you ever don’t want to kiss me, you can say no.
(This is when I was really glad I’d heeded the nagging feeling, because the next thing she said was:)
Mookie: But that might hurt your feelings.
(AHA! Oh no! And oh yes! This is a Teachable Moment[TM]!)
Mama: That’s true. But my feelings aren’t as important as your choice about what you do with your body.
Mookie looked a bit disturbed and very thoughtful about that idea. Clearly, this crucial point had not totally sunk in in the first eight years of affirming that “no means no” whether she’s the would-be touch-er or touch-ee. Clearly we are going to have to keep teaching it, not just in actions but in words, as time goes on.
This aspect of consent was so hard for me to believe long into my adulthood–it still is, sometimes. “But that might hurt someone’s feelings”: an important consideration as we make many of our choices, yes, but not a reason to kiss someone, let someone hug us, say yes to a date we don’t want, stay in a marriage that is making us miserable . . .
Girls and women are particularly vulnerable to this pressure, and particularly around romance and sex. Every year at prom time, there’s a story of a boy becoming angry and humiliated because he got a “no”; women repeatedly experience men’s lashing out at them for turning down an invitation to go on a date; and every so often, it ends in murder. Girls are accused of “humiliating” someone who seems to have asked a private question in public partly in order to make it harder for them to say no. There are girls saying yes to dates they don’t want so that they don’t “hurt his feelings.” There is an entire movement of men convinced that they deserve romantic relationships simply because it makes them feel bad not to have them.
We frequently teach women that they are responsible for soothing men’s feelings, at considerable cost, and we frequently teach men that they are not responsible for their own feelings, but should blame “the person who made me feel this way” when they are unhappy or disappointed. The worst results are abuse, rape and murder. The less extreme results are poisoned relationships.