Consent and Boundaries – Important Life Lessons

Consent and Boundaries – Important Life Lessons

It seems like an extraordinary thing to admit, considering how much of a Consent geek I now am; however, it’s fair to say that I only really and truly began to fully understand the concepts of consent and boundaries about 5 or 6 years ago. It’s also fair to say that many people now too find themselves with a curiousity regarding this subject that didn’t exist before, which provides great hope that we are moving toward a much better societal understanding of consent and its importance in our everyday lives.
I cannot overstate the positive impact that learning these simple concepts has had on my life and the health of all my relationships. While it is never too late to learn these valuable life skills, I often imagine how useful it would have been to have been aware of my boundaries and understand the nuances of consent at an earlier age. Consent has been in the news sadly far too often in more recent years, referenced frequently in court cases, on 3rd level campuses and when there is discussion about the one in four statistic, or more recently, the #metoo movement. For these reasons, I am passionate about teaching these necessary life skills to people.
So, what is consent? Consent is a mutually acceptable agreement between two or more people. A fully consensual agreement is one that respects people's boundaries and is achieved through positive, open and honest discussion and without pressure, coercion or manipulation. In all relationships, not just those of an intimate or sexual nature, being aware our own and other people's boundaries in addition to obtaining wholehearted consent, is crucial to healthy interactions.

I’ve immersed myself in this topic in recent years, attending many training courses and workshops, delivering training on the subject to hundreds of people, I’m even currently coaching a world respected expert on consent, Dr. Betty Martin as she writes her book on this nuanced and interesting concept.

What I’ve found is that consent, or rather the need for consent, permeates every relationship, not just our relationships with intimate partners but also our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, our bosses, our health care service, our government and every organisation who engages with us or tries to engage with us. Our ability to be aware of and to understand our personal boundaries, what we are happy to accept and what we are unhappy with, in all types of relating, is key to ensuring that we are living a life where we are heard, understood, accepted and respected.

My belief is that consent is a basic life skill, like politeness or kindness, that we have as a society failed thus far to teach our children, leading to a substantial portion of the population having a very limited understanding of the concept and its fundamental importance within a healthy society.
Consent should be required learning from a very early age, the basics of consent can be easily taught to toddlers and expanded upon as they grow. It is now becoming clear to all that consent needs to be a primary element of all approaches to sex education.
The core learning from the consent trainings that Consent Matters Ireland offer is gaining a deep understanding of an individual's fundamental right to feel assured and confident in their 'No' and their 'Yes' and to show each individual how to honour their own and other’s decisions when communicating.
Age appropriate workshops for teenagers and young adults successfully bring to light the key concerns about what consent is, how to be fully aware of one’s own boundaries, how to operate from a place of self-confidence and surety, and how to respect and honour the boundaries of others. This knowledge supports young people in navigating to a place of maturity and ease in communication in intimate relationships but also, which is hugely important, within the wider world of relating with others.

I’m reminded of a story I heard of in a consent related conversation; a woman, let’s call her Susan, was born in the same year as her cousin and when she was small her mother insisted, despite Susan expressing her discomfort physically and vocally, that to be kind and polite she must hug and kiss her cousin as commanded each time they met and parted. Whilst Susan’s mother considered this an innocent request, from her perspective, she was not respecting her daughters boundaries; in actuality she was hearing and seeing Susan’s discomfort and declaring it invalid – thereby obliterating any chance of Susan learning at an early age that it is ok to say no to unwanted and unasked for touch and affection.
Something as seemingly innocuous as this can begin to inform a child, in crucial developmental stages, that their right to have and express personal boundaries is not always present, a dangerous thing when we want our teenagers and young adults to have the strength of character and awareness to be able to confidently and clearly express their boundaries and to hear and respect those of others too.
I’m reminded too daily through my coaching practice, in trainings and in the news of so many examples of situations where consent is not asked for or boundaries not respected:
• A person who stayed in an abusive relationship far longer than they should have, because they had never learned the importance and validity of being able to define their personal boundaries and then refusing to allow others to overstep them.
• A worker who is bullied by their boss or a co-worker and feels unconfident in their ability to stand their ground and get help.
• Young adults who use alcohol as the main conduit to making intimate connections, unable to approach or communicate confidently with others because they have never learned how to confidently and clearly ask for what they want (stating their own boundaries) and cope with rejection (respecting the boundaries of others). If we held less shyness and shame, if we all understood that consent is as much about finding out where our Yes is as it is about finding and expressing our No then could this lead to a societal reduction of the need for alcohol in communicating comfortably and expressing our desires with ease.
Teaching consent to teenagers is a vital step in the right direction, supporting them in becoming more confident and aware of their personal boundaries whilst also respecting those of others.
By teaching about consent too in a broader context we are widening peoples understanding of the concept and how it impacts on everyone, every day of our lives.