Anyone who makes an appointment for bodywork, arrives, and lies down on the table has given consent to be touched, right? Wrong!
- Clients are in a vulnerable position relative to the practitioner, lying down, possibly with some of their clothes off. Even with active encouragement to express preferences, it can be hard to speak up.
- Some people bring themselves in for bodywork the way a parent drags a child to the doctor. They want their emotional and physical pain to stop, so they surrender their body to treatment while part of them is terrified.
- Some people wanted bodywork when they made the appointment, but encountered something triggering since then, and no longer want to be touched.
- Some people have never had their boundaries respected, and do not realize they have the right to choose what happens to their bodies in each moment. Returning that power to them is an important step in healing.
Start with a boundary check
For all those reasons, I start each session with a boundary check. Does this person on my table actually want to be touched? For some sessions, the boundary check is non-verbal and results in a clear affirmative. The client’s body is relaxed into the table, and there is a sense of eagerness and welcome.
For some sessions, the boundary check is verbal: “I’m thinking of starting with your feet. How does that sound?” or “Do you have a sense of where you would like to start?”
Some sessions start with more formal work with boundaries, sensing the body’s physical “no” and “yes” responses to proximity and touch, practicing saying no, and working with energy and words without touch. For many people, it is a healing challenge both to say no to unwanted touch, and to ask for what they do want.
Consent is an unforced moment-to-moment agreement to participate in a specific activity.
- Unforced: Any use of force nullifies consent. Force can be overt threats or violence, or covert manipulation, trickery, pressure, or intimidation.
- Moment-to-moment: Consent can be withdrawn at any time. Prior consent does not commit a person to continue consenting.
- Agreement: Consent is an active “yes”, not just the absence of “no”. Consent can be communicated non-verbally.
- Specific: Consent to one activity does not commit a person to consent to other activities.
Some practitioners put the onus on their clients to say no to what they do not want, rather than checking in advance about what they do want. With an established routine, or an agenda to fix the client, interruptions and changes are resented as “resistance” rather than invited as part of healing.
Many clients have learned that compliance leads to receiving care, while expressing boundaries leads to subtle punishment and withdrawal of care. Consent-based care returns the onus to the practitioner to ensure that the client consents to each part of treatment. This is crucial for helping people heal from trauma, since trauma, which is unwanted and overwhelming, includes violation of consent.
Consent applies to all sorts of touch, including the non-sexual touch of bodywork. Enthusiastic consent applies more specifically to sexual activity. While there are edge cases where someone might less-than-enthusiastically consent to sex, we generally expect agreement to sexual contact to be clearly, enthusiastically affirmative for everyone involved.
Note: children cannot legally consent to sexual activity. Even if an adult gently sweet-talks a child into a sexual act, it is still assault. Children lack the understanding, physical maturity, and power to make unforced choices about sex.
Dissociation is not consent
For sexual activity, unconsciousness is not consent. Drunkenness is not consent. Dissociation is not consent. Sexual assault survivors may dissociate when sexual activity reminds them of an assault, or simply from the intense sensations of arousal. Holding to the standard of enthusiastic consent allows partners to notice when someone has dissociated, and stop.
Someone who is present and actively consenting will use words, sounds, and movements to indicate that. In stillness, they will be relaxed and responsive. Someone who is dissociated will be still, unresponsive, glazed, numb, or distracted. Movements are likely to be more stiff, jerky, or uncoordinated than usual. There is a sense of absence, and people around them might become distracted themselves.
Listen for a clear “yes”
Some people argue that seeking enthusiastic consent interrupts and limits sexual activity. That argument supports rape culture, which normalizes sex with unclear consent. Enthusiastic consent counteracts the idea that some people (usually women) are supposed to avoid sex, and some people (usually men) are supposed to pressure others into sex. It gives everyone permission to discover and speak what they want and do not want.
Enthusiastic consent makes everyone responsible for listening for a clear “yes”, rather than making a reluctant person responsible for expressing a clear “no”. Too many rapes have been justified because the victim didn’t say “no” clearly enough or loudly enough, according to the rapist.
In the bodywork realm of non-sexual touch, people might argue that seeking consent interrupts a massage. It is considered acceptable to continue massaging someone who falls asleep. At the same time, sleepiness can be a way to dissociate from discomfort. I periodically check in with clients even when they fall asleep.
Seek clear consent
We can hold to the standard of clear consent across our lives. For all our interactions, we can look inward for our preferences. As we state our boundaries and listen for other people’s boundaries, it clears out relationships that depend on manipulation and hidden assumptions. It pits us against technology corporations that are greedy for our data. It gives us the clarity to leave when someone violates our consent, even in an unequal situation like a medical appointment. Over time, it sinks in that all of us deserve the respectful care of clear consent.
Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent at Scarleteen contains detailed information about verbal and non-verbal enthusiastic consent.
How to Support Each Other When Rape Looks Different From What We’re Taught by Minerva Arias tells her story of recovery after being raped without “yes” rather than against “no”.
Why Do People Hate the Concept of Enthusiastic Consent? by Elfity describes her experience presenting enthusiastic consent to college-age feminist women.
Age of Non-Consent by Deb Chachra addresses the lack of consent woven into modern technology companies.