When I was younger, my mother made sure I had a good grounding in sex education. She told me the hows, the whys, the what could happens, all of it. But she skipped out on the most important thing: consent.
Not once did my mother address agency or consent. Not once was I told that my body was my own. If anything, the message was murky.
Now, when I was younger, my mother was quick to point out that if you had sex, there was a chance of pregnancy. If that happened, she wanted me to tell her what the hell had happened. But she never once said that if I were a married woman, I could absolutely say no to having sex. That I could absolutely say no to having kids. (I actually did; when my mother tried to pass “the curse” of having kids just like me, I replied, “Well, I’m not having any.” There went that.) But I wasn’t told that I had the final say over my body. That was not a discussion we ever had.
Now, of course there was the whole, “no one except the doctor can touch you in certain areas” talk. This was back in the 1980s and it seems that the whole of American society had suddenly realized that child sexual abuse was A Thing That Existed, so every parent in the United States had to mention this, lest their kids get molested by Creepy Steve who lived next door. But the concept that I could tell my husband, the man with whom I share my life, “No” and have it stick? That was not a conversation that my mother and I ever had. It simply never came up.
Suddenly, the boundary issues with my ex make a helluva lot more sense now.
I was told to say no but only under certain circumstances. Otherwise, it was never mentioned, not once was it brought up. Granted, my mother was raised in the 1960s and the idea of consent wasn’t exactly widely accepted. But when I look back on this, it still raises questions.
Why didn’t my mother say, “If you don’t want to, you can say no?” Why wasn’t agency or consent even on her radar? Why was she so quick to condemn the child molester but indifferent to the idea of a husband forcing himself on an unwilling partner?
Part of it came from her upbringing, I am sure; she wasn’t told anything about her own body until she started bleeding one day and had a complete meltdown, screaming that she had cancer. Her mother calmly replied, “Oh, you started your period. I was expecting that.” Mom was not happy but this was how “those things” were dealt with in that time. There wasn’t a lot of sex education. “Your changing body” was mentioned in passing. There was talk of sex and pregnancy but the mechanics weren’t actually discussed. So in her own way, my mother did do a lot better than her mother before her.
But in certain respects, my mother dropped the ball. Consent was one of them.
This isn’t expressly her fault. Society as a whole has a problem with the idea of agency and consent. How many times do we see posts saying that complaining about street harassment is actually a “humble brag”? How often do you hear the words, “Oh, he’s just playing with you” or “It’s because he likes you” when a young girl complains of harassment by a fellow male classmate? We still tell young children that only doctors should touch certain areas, but we don’t tell high schoolers that they can say “NO” to a significant other’s sexual request and that is the end of the discussion.
There’s a problem here. It’s one we have to as a society work on and fix.
We need to teach children that “No” is a sentence. We need to stop pressuring small children to “go give Aunt Millie a kiss” when they have no desire to do so. We need to tell teenagers that constant asking and begging for sex until the other party relents is not consent. We need to teach kids that their bodies are their own and their own entirely; they have the ultimate say in whether or not they to do anything physically intimate when they reach that age.
Teaching children the mechanics of sex is important. But so is teaching the mechanics of agency and the mechanics of consent.