Part 2 — Survivors Cross Boundaries Too, and its ok to talk about it
Over the weekend I wrote a reflection that this is a continuation of, responding to a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy in which sexual violence was the focus.
Today, as we kick off Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I feel compelled to return to those themes, using elements of a piece I wrote a year ago. Instead of publishing it, I used it as a conversation starter for a monthly Advocate Supervision. The popularizing of #MeToo presented a backdrop to be explicit about accountability, as well as to be explicit that many advocates are also survivors of sexual violence, and are in need of support outlets for their advocacy as well as their survivorship. With this in mind, I began to reflect in my writing on the challenges and opportunities advocacy brings to someone’s healing, asking myself as a supervisor and facilitator how I could be more mindful in uplifting these crossovers.
One of the great titles I wear is aunt, a role that I delight in. A few years ago when one of my nephews was three, we were at the beach with extended family. He had hit it off with his cousin who was a couple years older, and she graciously played with him continuously. When she finally needed a break, it didn’t go over well.
He came marching onto the deck to find any adult who would listen to his tearful plea to make his cousin play with him again. When he finally made it over to me, I picked him up on my lap and said to him softly, “It sounds like she drew a boundary with you, and you didn’t like it.” He stopped crying, but only long enough to get down from my lap and search for a more sympathetic ear. My reply had both startled and offended him, but it also highlighted a blind spot I had in how I was approaching consent, and indirectly how I was teaching it.
If consent is only something that I’m learning applies to me, what about when I’m the one in the position to disregard someone’s clear no?
How will I cope with hearing no?
This anecdote and others like it have come to my mind a lot recently, as I sift through our attempts to further politicize trauma and violence.
We learn a lot about what happened, and little about someone’s experience.
In my example with my nephew, most people probably don’t assign any malice to his longing for a playmate’s attention.
His emotional experience of distress is to be affirmed and validated, because it is what was real for him in that moment.
And yet, this is a clear example of someone not having the skills to respect someone else’s no, and adults having the power to either amplify or undermine one child’s boundary against another child’s feelings.
This is where consent education is first being internalized, in every childhood moment where our boundaries have been dismissed, minimized, ignored, or blatantly crossed, or as in this example, reinforced and defended as equally valid as how someone else felt.
And the lesson is two parts, — 1) how has someone responded to a boundary I’ve drawn, and 2) how did my community react or fail to react.
What we remember and understand about violence has a lot to do with what we understand about consent and respecting boundaries.
It also has to do with how we are scripting consent and non-consent — or said another way, what are the situations where no is being said and not respected?
What are the situations where no isn’t being said at all? What about when nothing was said?
If I didn’t want something to happen, why wouldn’t I just let the person know?
There is ambiguity in our definitions between sexual violence and consensual sex, and this ambiguity is emblematic of a larger theme.
We cannot imagine consent as something practical, and if we can’t imagine, then we can’t prepare or react in the moment when someone is not consenting.
We may not even know that there are a variety of ways to say and to show that we’re saying yes and no and I’m not sure or not anymore or not right now, and that is a huge problem.
It’s a problem because consent is not a fuzzy concept, but a clear one.
If there is consent, it is known, that’s what we’ve been told.
For me as a trainer, my knowledge of how the brain and body respond to trauma is hugely relevant for how I think about consent.
I cannot get around the fact that the past experiences and references people come to my trainings with will be used as a basis for assessing any new information.
Maybe even more importantly, it will determine what each participant finds personally stressful about being in a workshop where trauma is being discussed, and how much stress is manageable for them.
None of these thresholds will be the same for two people or for the same person on two different days.
It is my responsibility as a trainer to support participants in being able to both manage stressors and to prepare for them, and in this way I am leveraging the brain and body’s needs to introduce consent again.
I am modeling consent in two ways — as a mindset — what we believe and say consent means, but also as a skill set — how consent is applied in different situations.
The skills part is simple; this is about having practice using and organizing information differently.
The mindset part can be more challenging, because internalized beliefs are harder to change than behavior.
It is a reasonable assumption to make that participants come to training with an experience of having not consented to something, as well as having been in a moment like my nephew where they could not respect a boundary they were confronting.
Perhaps they have never been asked what consent looks like.
How do I listen for consent?
How do I give consent?
How do I seek clarification and agreement?
How do I respond when something I am doing is unwanted?
Why might there be silence or ambiguity?
To answer those questions, we have to take a second look at trauma responses, especially a “freeze” response.
It is a mistaken assumption that we can consciously choose how our body will react when it feels threatened, a source of shame and diminished credibility attributed to a lot of survivor disclosures. Our responses to trauma are oriented to the goal of survival, selected for the sole purpose of trying to live through and reduce the impact of a threat being faced.
For the majority of people, consent is related to as a passive action instead of an active one. Because of this, many physical responses to threat, like immobility, are elevated as passive consent, a belief that is woven into our expectations of how a survivor should respond in the moment of an assault.
For this reason, our prevention is focused on re scripting consent to acknowledge the active communication needed to negotiate mutual decisions based on shared expectations.
However, those efforts fall short of posing connections between how the body experiences trauma, and how we need to approach consent education from the perspective of the body as well as the brain.
By looking at the skills we use to support survivors, we can craft prevention as more practically based in its ability to meet us where we are.
That day at the beach, my nephew was able to come back to me and say, “I’m mad that she doesn’t want to play with me.” We spent the next twenty minutes taking a break together, reading in a bunk bed, finding an opportunity to affirm his feelings and work through them without crossing someone else’s boundaries to alleviate them. He instead got to practice building skills he will need to respect no.
We both took away a more practical understanding of consent, and a reference to build from together.
How different would it look if instead of placing an expectation of yes on someone, we could be open and ready to hear no? And how different would that be in an interaction with a service provider?
What would it look like if an inability to hear no was a red flag that we noticed, causing us to walk away and process our internal reaction first?
What would it take for us to normalize those check ins individually and relationally?
What message does it send when we praise someone for ignoring consent just because it seems to have worked out ok?
What message have we internalized that makes consent feel necessary only some of the time?
What metric are we using to determine what “working out ok” means?
Focusing on practical resistance to consent looks at two questions:
1) What definition am I using for consent?
2) What does consent look like practically?
Both answers are limited and broadened by us, regardless of what we’ve experienced, and how our consent has been violated and normalized. There is grief work to pass through, and confessional work, starting by unpacking the messengers we’re promoting as the examples of what to do.
Is it time for some alternative examples?
Is it time to look inward?
Is it time to step away and process our emotional reactions first, so we can have this conversation from a place of readiness?
Do we deserve to be ready?
How, and when, and with whom do we get ready?