Not entirely sure when I learned the word, but surely, for many of us, it was not quite early enough.
I was at the school bus stop yesterday when a fellow parent asked her son to please stop forcing hugs on people. “Never too early to teach them about consent,” she sighed to me. I told her that interestingly, I’d never thought to caution against hugging before; because I had a daughter, perhaps? Was that gender bias? She motioned towards her 5-year old daughter and said, “With her, we emphasize that if she’s uncomfortable, she doesn’t have to receive hugs from anybody. Her body, her boundaries.”
It began to dawn on me that these were never conversations that occurred in my household when I was growing up. As a matter of fact, I recall kids around me being reprimanded by their parents for not giving so-and-so and kiss on the cheek. Do you guys have a version of that picture in your minds, too? A kid, being forced to greet someone and visibly uncomfortable about it? Sure, we ought to teach our children manners, and to say hello and interact, but must that hello come with close physical contact? Are we priming our children to believe that it is their duty to make themselves accessible to others, even when they do not feel okay doing so?
Taking this into consideration, I had a talk with my 12 year old about consent. The first, unfortunately. I gave her permission to trust her instincts and suggested that she use a handshake if that best suited her, or that with family, she might use the Filipino tradition of making mano (lifting an elder’s hand and touching it to your forehead) to continue showing respect when saying hello or goodbye, without having to get lips on her face, or press her body up against anyone else’s.
‘But, family?! Family friends?!’ cries the voice in your head? I hate to say it, but many times it is those we know and have been led to believe we can trust, that take advantage.
As much as I honor and value tradition and our culture of closeness with our kin, I hold my daughter’s safety (and ability to vocalize when she is not comfortable), at a higher priority than some aunt or uncle’s feelings.
Does it suck that we have to even go there? Yes. Am I being paranoid or instilling fear in her? Well, as a female that believes very strongly in the healing power of touch and hugs, but that has also been on the receiving end of inappropriate and uninvited physical contact for as long as I can remember, it is a conflicting point to ponder. Again, I cannot lean back on any hard or fast rule, other than for people to trust, and honor, their instinct.
Had I been taught as a child to trust and honor my instincts, to put value on that small small voice, or the ever-so-slight signals like goosebumps, or a queasy stomach, then perhaps self-assuredness and conviction would have been stronger muscles for me. Alas, they were not. I was a people pleaser, taught to be a good girl, do the right thing, present as happy and intelligent and that everything was fine, even if that meant glossing over feelings of discontent, discomfort, confusion.
In hindsight, had I learned early how to confidently and emphatically verbalize “no” (which might have been branded as defiance, disobedience, bad manners), I might have saved myself from little but heavy things like doing favors for others when I was struggling to take care of myself, or really poisonous things like toxic relationships, self-sabotaging decisions, dangerous situations, and rape.
In the light of the recent #MeToo movement, and a conversation I had with my fellow She Talks Asia founders about some victims of a serial rapist feeling too afraid to come forward, the feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration are very present for me, personally. I have to constantly remind myself that the mission here with our little She Talks movement is one based on healing, yes, but also education and prevention.
Focus on the feeling, then the fixing.
Are we part of/continuing the cycle? Can we do anything to improve the situation for the next generation?
I call on you to reflect a little bit on these three points:
- If uncomfortable, are you able to confidently and emphatically verbalize “no”?
- Have you been taught (or are you teaching) that obedience and silence are synonymous?
- If someone doesn’t verbally say “no” do you consider that a “yes”?
Should any strong memories or feelings come up for you while pondering these questions, as always, I encourage you (at your pace) to purge and process by writing them down. Whether you then choose to keep, burn, or share your story, is entirely up to you.
Some people who choose to share their story, send them to us to safe keep and honor in our Story Bank. If you haven’t already visited the treasures deposited there, please do.