Updated: Nov 7, 2019
I have come to realize that most, if not all, conversation around ‘consent’ has been centered around debunking consent as an idea in itself rather than focusing on informing and educating people on giving and seeking consent. We need more conversation on how every sexual interaction and or encounter should be founded on a clear process of consent seeking. Sexual harassment and/or sexual assault are a phenomenon that has in the recent past become more publicized and condemned. There are diverse opinions about the nature of both, hence the need to educate on consent seeking for any deed that may fall under or imply sexual action. Beyond all of this, the conversation highly lacks in defining the concept of consent. So, what is to consent? Is it just saying YES? Do you know how to give consent?
I did not give consent to my first sexual partner - the person who took my virginity. Get this, I was not raped but I also did not give my consent and unfortunately, this is true for many other young women and girls all around the world; and particularly for young women in Zimbabwe with whom I have had the privilege to interact with as I volunteer as an advocate in Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights programming in my community. Growing up in patriarchal societies has conditioned us to succumb to certain pressures. Even as ‘woke’ as we have become, many of us still have sex with our partners and other people without giving our consent. Up until a certain time, my biggest question was, do we always have to give consent? And this has been the exact same question asked by many other young people, to which the answer is YES. We have to come to a point where we refuse to make the same mistake over and again, where we embrace our sexuality as women but most of all claim our sexual liberty.
1. So, what is to consent?
I believe that this question can be answered in three ways;
Firstly, it is to agree. To say YES. To give a clear audible YES. In as much as we have had conversation around the importance of consent seeking and how it should be clear to indicate intentions of sexual indulgence and activity, young women and girls are yet to understand the importance of clearly saying YES. As a sexually active woman, you must practice assertiveness because this gives you firm ground to stand on and eliminates the risk of succumbing to any pressures. I mean, the pressure of being a woman and in love, the pressure of being a woman with a cultural background, the pressure of being a woman who grew up watching her mother submit to her father by all means, the pressure of being a woman whose partner claims superiority over her. The best feeling for any woman is the feeling of having a control over what happens to her body and when it happens. It could be just a pat on the back or just a hand on your thigh but it is in your power to say YES, it is okay or NO, it is not okay.
2. But, what if it’s your partner and you are in a committed relationship?
Sex and love are two different things. Yes, they have an intersection and maybe one informs the other but being in a relationship with someone is not an automatic consent card. I once had a conversation with a young woman who said the biggest lie is in the lives of married women and until these women come out and tell all, young women and girls in consecutive generations will fall prey to the same syndrome, which is the idea that consent is automatically given to your partner once you’re in a relationship. The dynamics of having a life partner do not supersede individual boundaries and autonomies. There is quite a blurry line in relationships due to a society of patriarchal economy and yes, it also affects same sex relationships. As I mentioned, we have been conditioned by our society, socialized to succumb to pressures of conformity towards constructs, norms, and gender roles. Maybe our society is not going to change anytime soon; maybe married women won’t expose their realities ever; and maybe we will never know a world where human beings understand fully the concepts of individualism and autonomy. However, if we as young women step back and start interrogating the processes around us so that we understand our positions and power, we will be able to gain control of our bodies and recover our autonomy in sexual relationships. Then, we can clearly say that to consent is to agree to partake in any sexual interaction regardless of the relationship with the person in question. The power to give consent will lead to a happier relationship.
3. To what, exactly, am I consenting?
To consent is to agree to partake in each and every stage of any interaction. At first glance, this idea is particularly idealistic and difficult to put into practice. The fact that you initially agree to kissing does not automatically mean you agree to sex. Maybe that’s simple and understandable but just because you initially agree to sex, it does not mean you cannot opt out at a later stage at which you feel uncomfortable in the conditions and or environment presented or simply because your expectations have not been met. Understand this: you have the right, even after giving consent, to withdraw that consent (no pun intended). As young women and girls we have subjected ourselves, and have been strongly influenced by society, to believe that once you opt in you cannot opt out and this has led to an era where we suffer from anxiety and depression because we have succumbed to things that break us. Maybe we do not have a control over some things that lead us into anxiety and depression but we do have a control over our minds and bodies, let us keep that power and use it to protect ourselves because that’s all we need to overcome social adversities - Our power!
Finally, my hope and vision for Black female youth, is that we get fully emancipated from the things that limit us and hold us back. Looking, particularly, at our Black and African cultural backgrounds, we deserve to be happy and liberated and I believe that one of the steps to achieving that is understanding the concept of consenting so as to balance the power dynamics in our relationships and interactions. Indeed, we are the future and the future is Black female!