(This article has been translated in Indonesian here.)
“I didn’t want to spend the evening with your dad. I really wanted that time to talk to you.”
“Well, I didn’t know that when I invited him.”
“You should have asked me.”
This argument I once had with a partner is one we’ve all probably had in some relationship or another – because it really boils down to the following dialogue:
“I didn’t consent to that!”
“I assumed you’d be okay with it!”
And this kind of discussion isn’t always referring to anything sexual.
When we hear the word “consent,” we usually think of sexual consent. But there’s actually a whole host of things outside the bedroom that people all too often do without consent – and our culture needs to acknowledge that they’re harmful as well.
Most of us have probably at some point done something without another person’s consent because we simply didn’t think to ask for it. That’s why we all sometimes need a reminder that, when in doubt, only a “yes” is a “yes” – to anything.
We should never assume anyone is okay with anything, whether that’s a sexual act, a group activity, a topic of conversation, or a financial decision that affects them.
Fortunately, in recent years, sexual consent has become a more common topic of discussion in the media, schools, and everyday conversation.
People are beginning to understand that consent isn’t given just because someone hasn’t said “no,” that it can be revoked at any time, and that consenting to something once doesn’t mean you’ve automatically consented to doing it again.
And that’s a good thing.
But one way we can take these discussions a step further is by applying the principles of sexual consent to other situations.
Some people, including Everyday Feminism’s comic artist Alli Kirkham, have pointed out that many principles of consent already seem intuitive to us in a number of non-sexual scenarios. For example, after we borrow an item from someone, we don’t assume we can take it again without asking.
However, a lot of us could still work on practicing consent outside the bedroom.
Because many of the goals we have in mind when we practice sexual consent – like making others feel safe, comfortable, and like their desires matter – are goals we have in other areas of our lives.
Sex without consent is rape and taking money without consent is stealing, but other actions taken without consent don’t have names, and they can also put people in uncomfortable situations or make them feel violated.
Yet there are many situations where our culture considers it okay to push others into activities they’re not enthusiastic about or make decisions that affect others without consulting them.
So here are some ways we can better practice consent in situations that don’t involve sex.
1. Get Everyone’s Input Before Planning Group Activities
Many of us have had friends, roommates, or family members tell us what we’re doing without consulting us first. This can unknowingly pressure people into situations that make them uncomfortable.
While it’s fine to invite someone to a pre-planned event like a party (so long as they have the complete power to decline your invitation!), you should get their input on anything you expect them to participate in.
For example, if you’re planning a family vacation, ask if everyone’s happy with the location before getting the plane tickets. If you’re in charge of making dinner for your roommates, ask if everyone likes your dish before buying the ingredients. Or, if you’re planning to go out that night, make sure your friends are happy with the destination.
Even if the movie you’ve downloaded or the restaurant you’ve chosen is a crowd favorite, someone may have reasons for disliking it that you couldn’t anticipate. Maybe someone finds a scene in the movie too upsetting, or maybe someone has dietary restrictions or preferences you didn’t know about.
One characteristic of consent is that it must be informed. Before someone can consent to something, they need to understand what they’re consenting to.
When someone finds themselves in a situation they didn’t give informed consent to, it can be uncomfortable to get out, especially if they’re afraid of offending the person who invited them.
Even if everyone does approve of what you’ve planned, planning it without their input can make them feel unimportant.
Asking people what they want to do in advance, on the other hand, conveys that their enjoyment is a priority for you.
Whether it’s a date night or a family outing, shoot the person or group a text to see if what you have in mind is okay or if they have anything in mind themselves. They might even offer some good suggestions!
2. Don’t Reveal Personal Information About Anyone Without Their Permission
We all know it’s not okay to tell secrets. But even if someone hasn’t prefaced a statement by whispering “I have a secret,” they still may not want you to repeat it.
Even if someone has nothing to be ashamed of, they may want to keep information about themselves from others for a number of reasons, such as fear that they won’t react kindly. For example, it’s never okay to reveal someone’s sexual orientation if they aren’t out or to reveal that someone has been sexually assaulted without their permission.
It’s also not okay to tell other people about problems someone else is having.
This can be difficult when these problems involve you and you want someone to confide in. It’s fine and often necessary to talk about conflicts you’re having with others, but try to find someone who doesn’t know the other party.
I once made the mistake of venting about an argument with a significant other to a mutual friend. I thought he’d have a greater understanding of the situation than anyone else because he knew both of us.
That may have been true, but it wasn’t worth it. After I revealed that I had confided in his friend, my partner felt we’d both violated his trust. I didn’t have his consent to reveal details of our relationship to someone he knew. I should have vented to a friend who wasn’t close with him.
It’s also important to recognize that someone’s decision to reveal information about themselves in one context doesn’t mean they want it aired in another.
Discussing something with one group of friends doesn’t mean you want all your friends to know it. And revealing someone about yourself once doesn’t mean you’re willing to talk about it at any given moment.
Artists, writers, and other professionals who tackle personal subject matter deal with this misunderstanding frequently.
As a writer, people often assume that if I’ve written about something, it’s fair game to discuss with anyone. However, due to the personal topics I’ve written about and the harassment I’ve faced for writing about them, I’m hesitant to discuss them in spaces that don’t feel safe to me.
A friend once introduced me to a male friend of hers by saying, “Suzannah’s a great writer. Tell him about that viral article about not shaving your legs.”
I wasn’t comfortable reiterating my reasons for not shaving my legs to a stranger, especially a man (the demographic that harassed me the most after that article was published). I had no idea what his views were on the topic and didn’t want to get into an argument.
Social media adds another layer to this issue.
When posting on someone’s Facebook wall or tagging them in a post, keep in mind that many people are Facebook friends with their families and others they may want to keep certain information from – even if they’ve shared this information with you.
Obviously, it’s impractical to go through life without ever talking about anyone you know. But before you share something about someone in person or online, consider whether they would want everyone you’re addressing to know it.
3. Obtain Consent Before Engaging in Non-Sexual Forms of Touch
Consent for touching another person isn’t just necessary in bed. It’s also necessary for kissing, hugging, and any other form of physical contact.
This guideline is difficult to follow because our culture considers certain forms of touch necessary for polite conduct. Unfortunately, it’s still commonplace for parents to make their children hug relatives and friends.
I learned the hard way, however, that hugging someone without consent just to be polite can have unintended consequences.
One night, after a date made it clear he liked me and wanted to see me again, I thought he would like it if I hugged him as I said goodbye. Instead, he froze and was reluctant to talk about why. After I pressed for an answer, he said, “Just don’t do that again without my consent.”
I don’t know what his reason was, but some people are reluctant to hug others because they have been touched inappropriately in the past or because they simply have large personal bubbles.
Another common manifestation of disregard for consent surrounding touch is tickling. Tickling is considered a funny, cute way to tease someone, but it’s actually a typically non-consensual way of making people physically uncomfortable. The fact that someone may laugh when tickled doesn’t mean it’s comfortable for them.
Hugging, tickling, or otherwise touching someone who doesn’t want you to touch them is a violation of personal boundaries.
Only touching people with their consent also means that if you need someone to get out of your way, you should communicate this verbally.
Most people have had someone nudge them, push them, or grab them by the shoulders and move them in order to get by. Being touched out of nowhere like this can be startling as well as violating, and some people have physical or mental conditions that can make unwanted touching painful.
For example, after I sprained my elbow, it hurt when people nudged me on my injured arm to try to create more room for themselves on the train. And if someone has a history of physical or sexual abuse, unexpected touching can be emotionally traumatic.
In crowded cities, it’s hard to avoid occasionally bumping into someone. But what you can do is say “excuse me” if you need to get by so that they will move by themselves, rather than physically moving them yourself.
Controlling the position of someone’s body violates their autonomy over their own movements. And touching someone in any manner without their consent can make them feel like their body is not something under their control, but an object to be used for others’ purposes.
It may sound silly, but it never hurt anyone to be asked “Can I hug you?” And it certainly never hurt anyone to be asked politely to move out of the way.
4. Obtain Consent Before Photographing Others
Not everybody wants to appear in an image, especially one that could be widely circulated.
Some people simply want to protect their privacy, and others don’t want to come across photos of themselves due to body image concerns. For those suffering from body dysmorphia or even less extreme body image issues, seeing themselves in photographs can be extremely distressing.
Everyone’s body belongs to them and them alone, so just as you shouldn’t touch it without their consent, you shouldn’t photograph it without their permission either.
We seem to acknowledge this when the takers of the photographs are strangers. It’s considered violating to take a picture of a stranger on the street without their consent.
Yet we don’t always apply this rule when the photographer and subject know each other.
We should all get to decide if somebody else owns a picture of us, no matter who that person is. We should also have the right to decide how people use images of us.
Like sharing information without consent, this problem can be exacerbated by social media. People may not want certain photographs of themselves public for personal or professional reasons. Some, for example, are Facebook friends with their bosses and may not want their superiors to see their sexy Halloween costumes or raucous Friday evenings.
Our culture also acknowledges our autonomy over how pictures of us are used in certain contexts, but not others. Media companies cannot legally reproduce photographs of someone without their permission because these images are considered the subject’s property, not anyone else’s to benefit from.
Though this rule is a bit different from everyday consent because companies can profit off images, the underlying principle that we shouldn’t use anyone else’s image for our own purposes without their permission still applies in everyday life.
5. Don’t Force a Discussion Someone Doesn’t Want to Have
This one can be so hard – especially when you’re in a dispute with a significant other and really want to resolve it so you can relax and go to bed. But if someone doesn’t feel like talking about something, it violates their boundaries to make them discuss it.
As with sexual consent, it doesn’t matter if you’ve spoken about it before or you’ve already started the discussion.
Anyone can refrain from a conversation or leave at any time if it starts to make them uncomfortable. Even though feeling uncomfortable in a conversation can be positive because it means you’re learning something new, it’s entirely up to each individual how much they want to stretch their comfort zone.
This issue comes up not just in romantic relationships but also in friendships (your friend may be too upset to talk about their recent breakup) and family relationships (not everyone wants to tell their parents about their love lives).
When you ask someone a personal question, you can help them feel more comfortable if you preface it by saying, “You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to.”
It is never anyone’s responsibility to satiate someone else’s curiosity.
6. Don’t Pressure Anyone to Accept Anything from You
Cooking for someone or buying someone a gift can put you in a vulnerable position. Your feelings may be hurt if they don’t like it, and you may feel unappreciated if they don’t use it.
That still doesn’t make it okay to pressure someone to accept anything you’ve made or gotten them.
When I first learned this, it eliminated a lot of stress. I was visiting my aunt, and she made chili, a food I found disgusting at the time (though I’ve since come around). I assumed I had to grin and bear it so that she felt appreciated.
As I braced myself to overcome my nausea and show appreciation for my aunt’s hard work, she said something that surprised me: “You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want.”
I admitted how I really felt, she heated up some leftover pasta, and I didn’t have to struggle through a dinner that made me feel queasy.
Another aunt of mine likes to buy me clothes. Though I end up liking everything she gets, she still always says, “I can exchange this if you want.” This takes off the pressure to keep anything I don’t want or fake enjoyment just to make her feel good – pressure that often leads people to keep things they never consented to having.
By making it clear that nobody has to feign interest in what you give them, you could save your loved ones a lot of time eating, wearing, or doing something they don’t want.
If it’s hard for you when the products of your labor are rejected, it helps to remember that someone’s lack of enthusiasm for what you’ve offered doesn’t indicate a lack of appreciation of your effort.
7. Decide in Advance How Expenses Will Be Split
I’ve had this uncomfortable experience with several groups at bars and restaurants: I order less than most of the group to save money, then someone decides we are splitting the bill evenly, and I have to pay far more than my share.
I’ve also experienced this predicament: I’m at lunch with a significant other who realizes they’re out of money after the bill comes, leaving me to pay for both of our food.
Another common problem arises when women expect men to pay for their dates because of gender roles. Some men (and others) will be happy to foot the bill, but rather than put any pressure on them, it’s more courteous to at least offer to pay for your own meal or movie ticket.
Asking someone on a date is not consenting to buying them anything (and, as an aside, letting someone buy you something is not consenting to anything that might happen after the date).
Imposing unanticipated expenses on someone can put them under financial stress.
People often make financial decisions based on how much they expect to spend, so not knowing about an expense in advance can mess up their plans.
Beyond that, people work hard for their money and should have control over when they spend it.
Someone who consents to an activity without knowing the cost, like someone who consents without knowing what the plan is, is not giving informed consent.
To avoid a situation where people are pressured to spend more than they’ve budgeted, tell your friends, family, or dates in advance how much something you’ve planned will cost and ask if that’s okay, or at least try to keep the cost to a minimum.
And let them know, if it’s not obvious, how you plan to split expenses. That way, they can decide if they consent to that activity with all the information necessary.
And if you and someone else have joint finances, agree in advance which purchases are okay to make and which you’d want to talk about first.
Making sure everyone’s okay with how their money’s being spent shows that you respect them and the work they do to make that money, which can help your loved ones feel more appreciated and less stressed.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever exist in a utopia where everyone consents to everything that happens to them. We’ll still mess up occasionally and bring up topics of conversation we didn’t know would offend someone, make decisions we didn’t know others would disapprove of, or make physical contact with people unintentionally.
But one way to minimize unwanted experiences is to ask for consent whenever we can, both in the bedroom and outside it.
When people don’t feel pressured or forced into situations they didn’t consent to, they feel empowered to make decisions about their own bodies and their lives.
And when they don’t feel constrained by what others want them to do, they have the freedom to explore what they truly desire.
Whether or not we ever reach a utopic future that everyone consents to, striving toward one will create a more accommodating world for everyone.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.