A while back I wrote an article called Collard Greens, Fear, and Sex. I received a number of direct responses from people. Several noted that they appreciated the discussion about sex and expectations because it’s not something Christianity tends to broach from that angle. We are very interested in encouraging chastity – which isn’t bad except that is the extent of our discourse – to the exclusion of all other conversations about sex. This can lead to a lot of conflicting feelings about sexuality between couples and within oneself. Decades ago it was commonplace for a woman to get that first “talk” about sex from her mother, the night before her wedding. Though we’ve pushed that slightly earlier, in Christian communities, it’s not been much further. We still often discuss sexuality exclusively in terms of the need to stay “pure” up until a couple is getting ready for marriage. But talking about these things during a premarital counseling session is far too late. Not only is it common for one or both parties to already be sexually experienced, it’s not uncommon for even our Christian engaged couples to be regularly engaged in sex with each other. Is this ideal? No. Is it happening? Yes. It’s important to understand that as I counsel I do not condemn or judge. Neither do I do so here. But I am concerned. One of the most concerning components is the fact that many couples’ history and approach to intimacy include pressure and guilt. These themes come up frequently from couples who began having a sexual relationship with each other despite the fact that one of them may not have been fully enthusiastic. Because of our general squeamishness about discussing sex with young people, we also sidestep important conversations about other topics like consent. And those are topics that should be broached so much earlier – even during toddlerhood.
I’ve heard and read some advocates saying consent should be taught in infancy. Telling baby, “I’m going to change your diaper now, is that ok?” and leaving space for a response, though none is obviously expected. I wouldn’t go this far. There’s a few reasons why this – albeit well intentioned strategy – can actually be counterproductive. First of all, there’s the silliness factor. I understand the idea of getting into the habit and teaching children the importance of acknowledging their humanity and personhood, but for better or worse, infants don’t have agency yet. They’re fully dependent on you for all decisions. Which leads to the second reason why this is a bad method: you DO know best, and sometimes the child will intentionally buck against that. And you’ll be put into a predicament where you will have to force them to do something they don’t like. Anyone who’s had a toddler knows, at a certain age, their favorite word becomes “no!”. They say it emphatically and often. If you’re in the habit if asking permission for diaper changes, what happens when your bundle of joy refuses? You aren’t going to let them walk around with a soggy, leaky, or poopy diaper. A temper tantrum notwithstanding, you’re gonna have to wrestle that thing off the kid. And now all that time of reinforcing agency gets undercut: the adult is basically now saying that sometimes you won’t give consent but I’m bigger and stronger so I’ll do whatever I want with you anyway. That’s a pretty traumatizing lesson!
Instead of applying lessons about consent to things like diaper changes and disrobing for bath time (because parents gotta do what parents gotta do) it’s important to reinforce these lessons in other less necessary spheres of life. While kids still can’t “consent” in the technical sense of the word, they can learn that their assent is still important. The difference is that minors aren’t able or allowed to consent to anything. But assenting means that you give them the opportunity for their voice to be heard. In professional counseling, children between certain ages are asked to give their assent to participating in counseling because if they don’t feel that their participation is necessary, it’s not going to be a very productive experience. Parents still have the legal power to decide whether or not they are allowed to be a part of such a session, but kids get to have their voice acknowledged. Practicing the acknowledgment of kids’ desires in some (not all) activities is important. It’s not going to apply to school (they’re attending whether they want to or not) but it can and should be applied to things like hugs and kisses. Sometimes children simply don’t want to hug or kiss people. Maybe they’re cranky. Or maybe they’re getting a bad vibe. Or maybe they’re shy. Whatever the case may be, they should be able to give or withdraw their assent in that realm. It can be a difficult thing to balance, especially in some cultures that reinforce tight-knit bonds. Every person of an older age is “auntie” or “uncle” and rebuffing him or her may be perceived as disrespectful. But one potential repercussion is that this dynamic can create reluctance to speak up in cases where “uncle” inappropriately touched a child. Not only does it cause confusion, because it was an action by a trusted adult, but it also can create an environment where a child is hesitant to talk about what happened, because telling may be perceived as disrespecting authority.
Children should be taught that it’s ok to say “not now” or “no” and it’s not disrespectful to do so. Even with my own biological nieces and nephews, I’m careful to respect their boundaries. Even though respect is big in our culture and I am her actual auntie, I never forced my very shy niece to hug me. For a long time I lived across the country and wouldn’t see my siblings very often. And three months can seem like three years in the mind of a very small child. Initially my brother and sister-in-law would scold her and tell her to come hug me. But I would gently say, “no, don’t make her. If she doesn’t want to come over now, she doesn’t have to”. I would get on the floor at her level and play with something. Inevitably she’d come over to see what I was doing. I’d ask her, “What would you like to play with?” and she would bring out something fun for her that we could both enjoy. By the end of the visit she would be playing and laughing and voluntarily giving me hugs and kisses – no coercion needed. She is older now and I live closer and see her more often, so we don’t quite have to go through the same routine. Nevertheless, I ask her what she wants to play with and things she’d like to do so I can make sure she’s enjoying our time together. At present, her younger brother is also a shy kid. And I have done similar things with him so he knows I won’t be unhappy or angry with him simply because he takes some time to warm up.
It may seem odd to drop anecdotes about playdates with children into the middle of an article about sexual intimacy. There’s nothing at all sexual about those interactions. And yet that’s precisely why they are important. Letting kids practice assent in benign situations can help protect them from predatory behaviors in the present and help them practice for giving (or not giving) consent in future situations of bodily autonomy.
And consent has two components: not only is it important to teach people that they have a right to independently give (or withdraw) consent, but it’s also vital to teach the need to ask for consent. We dedicate a lot of bandwidth to emphasizing that Christian young people should “just say no”. But do we put proportionate energy into teaching those same young people why and how they should inquire about the other person’s desires? If our young people are coupling up with significant others drawn from our church population (which may or may not be the case) they’re going to run into problems if we’re only teaching one half of the equation. Often (though not exclusively) the onus is put on women to “put on the brakes” in an intimate encounter. Girls are taught that guys will only go as far as you “let them”. This puts an inordinate amount of pressure – and later guilt – onto women with regards to maintaining physical boundaries in relationships. But if we’re cultivating a culture where it’s healthy and normal to verbalize consent, we also need to hammer home that it’s healthy and normal to ask for it in the first place.
And although I continue to reference “young people” these concepts are not exclusive to unmarried youth. These principles are applicable at any age. And, although this may come as a surprise to some, they still apply after marriage. Asking for consent does not stop at “I do”. Although you may become “one flesh” spiritually, you are still independent people. There should not be an expectation that spouses have to be amenable to every request of intimacy one makes of the other. This isn’t just important when initiating intimacy, but also how that intimacy is carried out. One spouse may enjoy doing things that the other is uncomfortable with. While the marriage bed is holy and undefiled and couples shouldn’t rely on people outside of the relationship to dictate their experiences, the individuals within the relationship should both agree what they will and won’t do. Consent needs to be enthusiastic and it needs to be continuous. Just because you were given the green light to do this doesn’t mean you have the ok to do that. Even if you were given permission to do that some time in the past doesn’t mean it’s fine to do it now.
At the end of Creation Week, God declared all things good. That includes sex. Adam and Eve had been given the commission to be fruitful and multiply long before sin was introduced. But the way we’ve handled talking about sex has demonstrated quite the opposite. It’s handled as a dirty, sinful and shameful thing. We’ve abdicated our responsibilities to teach about a wonderful God-designed activity, and allowed those teachings to be handled by secular sources instead. And then we get upset when we hear that schools are teaching middle-schoolers about safe sexual practices (which they should). If we’re waiting until the altar to broach these topics, we’re years too late! Even waiting until high school to talk about these subjects is waiting far longer than we should. Perhaps people vary in how they approach talking about these topics, but they shouldn’t be avoided. From childhood, the need for consensual, enthusiastic and respectful physical interactions with others should be held up as the standard. And it should be continually practiced throughout adulthood – even and especially within marriage.
It might sound odd, particularly to those who haven’t had this perspective. But if it’s treated as natural and expected, there’s no reason for asking for and giving consent to be an awkward exchange. In fact it can be very amorous. “Do you like that?”; “Does that feel good?”; “Show me what you want” are all queries that can both allow space for consent AND heighten intimacy. Don’t take for granted that because you’re “into each other”, you’re in a long term relationship, or even because you’re married, that the other person is happy with what you’re doing. Ask. And give them a chance to respond. Consent helps ensure that everyone has a more enjoyable experience.
We can’t expect people to navigate sexual intimacy in positive and emotionally healthy ways if we keep treating intimacy as something bad. That misrepresents God’s design. “And God looked over all of Creation, and behold, it was very good.”
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9719