Commentary  In the Moment

An Unambiguous Understanding of Consent’s Necessity

A few weeks ago I was asked for consent. I can’t begin to describe what passed through my mind at that moment. I flashed through my past traumas, all the times I’ve been denied that question. I finally squeaked out an answer, and he asked me one more time, “do you want to do this?” Confused, my only thought was, who is this person asking me for consent? Little did he know the impact that those few words might have on me.

I never explained my past to him. Undeniably, it’s a hard conversation to start, especially with someone new. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to explain that I might suddenly get a panic attack or completely break down. How do you convey years of past history to someone in the heat of the moment? Thankfully, I didn’t have to, because being asked for consent allowed me to question for myself if I was ready to try again.

Three years ago I was in an abusive relationship. The words “undesirable,” “hard to love,” and “you’re too much” became indelibly rooted in my brain. So entrenched were those words that I began to believe them. I was isolated from my friends and it became hard to remember who I was. I was simply an extension of my “partner.” Manipulated into believing that there was no one for me in this world except him, it was all too easy for him to push me into situations that my inner self abhorrently hated. With this subservient mindset, I couldn’t fathom pushing back, thinking that if I lost him I would be truly alone, throwing away the only person who cared for me. That worked to his advantage all too well, and my body became something that was no longer mine.

Can one question really solve years of abuse and trauma? No, but the moment I was asked for consent gave me faith that I could heal.

When I showed up to school with a scar forming on my head, my friend cautiously pointed out that this was possibly an unhealthy situation. She recognized the signs of abuse and thankfully acted upon it. Over the course of several secretive conversations with her, I eventually came to the same conclusion: I could no longer be passive, my relationship was one-sided, and not the mutual partnership it should have been. My master, as he no longer could be considered a partner, resented this new opinion, and told me how I was “too much.” I was too smart, I was too friendly, too optimistic, I cared too greatly, I loved too strongly, and I was too independent. At the culmination of that argument, he threw a fit so violent that someone had to come downstairs to diffuse the tension. I left so afraid and so in shock that I couldn’t drive home. I finally ended that relationship, hating myself, and wracked with guilt, wondering if I would ever be desired again.

A year later, and 10,000 miles away from the locale of my pain, I decided to wander back into the dating pool. Someone reciprocated, and I was thrilled! To me, this was good, this was growth, and I saw it as a step towards being okay again. I was upfront about my abuse, about how I was still healing and how I needed to trust someone before I could be in a situation so vulnerable again. I described, to the best of my ability, my leftover anxieties and extreme disinterest in engaging in anything other than a platonic first meeting. It felt like a good place to begin. Although, in my eagerness to restore my faith in humanity, I ignored my own struggles and led myself to someone who wasn’t worth trusting. My new suitor called me, claiming his friends had abandoned him near my neighborhood. He asked if he could stay with me until he charged his phone and figured out a way home. Unwittingly, I allowed him into my apartment, my safe space. I thought I was doing a good deed, being a caring person, helping him out. His story ended up being a lie. Before there was time to process, I was suddenly squeezed, grabbed, pushed, and told to stay quiet. With the little emotional strength I had left, I ran out of my room as fast as I could. I found shelter in the bathroom, locked the door, had a panic attack, and cried until 4 am. This stranger took over my whole bed and fell asleep the second I left. I didn’t sleep until I washed the sheets and the bed was mine again.

On that night a few weeks ago, I was briefly paralyzed with this history when the question of consent arrived. While I’m still struggling to be comfortable in my own skin, it’s even harder to imagine being comfortable with another person. The dialogue around consent with my momentary partner allowed me to bathe in the warmth of his earnestness. The consent was constant. When I said no, my concerns were addressed, and immediately we stopped. I never realized how much more comfortable I could be with him and myself after experiencing the sincerity behind his words. Our night exponentially grew in trust, in warmth, in pleasure, as check-in after check-in, he was happy because he knew I was okay. I can call him a partner because in that moment we prioritized each other, relishing in the togetherness of that brief “us.”

I am grateful. While it seems silly to thank someone for being a good person, I am incredibly grateful. He had no idea what his question did to me, the context of that situation was completely foreign to him. Could asking for consent have ruined the “mood?” Society frequently seems to think so, but it made me even more attracted to him. I was heard, I was understood, I was listened to, and I was respected. People are not mind readers, but his willingness to have an open dialogue about his own fears and insecurities was exactly what I needed. The concerns he expressed during that conversation are as valid as my traumas are; consent was necessary for both of us. Our conversation was enough for me to feel that, in this most simple way, he cared about me.

Can one question really solve years of abuse and trauma? No, but the moment I was asked for consent gave me faith that I could heal. For once I was an equal partner: I was able to see my body as mine, if only for that night. The choice I was given should be commonplace, I should expect it and not be shocked by its sudden appearance. I should not be going on 22 years of my life without being asked for consent. Although this may never happen between us again, I am thankful for him, not for being a decent human being, but for showing me that decent human beings do exist. For that moment, for that night, it finally was okay. It was okay because for the first time in my life, we both agreed it was.