“You didn’t get anything?” she asked while we walked along the grass back to the room.
“Nah,” I said.
“Here, want some of mine?” and she held out her drink to my face.
I stared at it in astonishment. “…From–from the same straw? You don’t mind?” We’d just met a couple of hours ago and hadn’t quite reached whole here-drink-from-my-cup-I-don’t-care-we-share-everything-including-germs comfort level of friendship.
Her eyes twinkled. “If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered.”
“Just making sure,” I said happily, accepting a sip of the drink and feeling flattered. And as we walked back to class, I thought about personal boundaries and feminism. I thought about our brief little exchange, insignificant perhaps, but how it was essentially an exercise in consent.
I love hugs. I hug everyone. I will tackle my best friends when I see them and hug each one as tightly as possible. But I also had a friend who, until recently, was not very comfortable with hugs. And so I didn’t hug her, because I love her and respect her, and even though that’s how I display my affection, nothing is worth sacrificing her comfort. For a while after high school I hadn’t seen her, because she attends a different university, but I was pleasantly surprised to run into her a couple of weeks ago, and even more surprised when she opened her arms as we approached each other.
“Do you do hugs?” I asked, before I hugged her.
“Yes!” she said.
Consent is not only important in sexual situations. It is also important in everyday situations. When I wrote this post a few months ago, someone commented (unpublished) that feminists are attempting to make the world a cold, hard place devoid of any intimacy. But the exact opposite is true when we check whether the people with whom we are spending our time are comfortable, and that respect and communication is extended to strangers. We learn to put aside our desires and instead consider the desires of those who are potentially at the receiving ends of our actions.
And in certain, even nonsexual circumstances, consent can keep us from actually physically harming others. Check that your friend who’s dropped by for a visit isn’t allergic to anything you’re cooking before you drive a spoonful of it into her mouth, “Here taste this.” Because if it just so happens that she is, it can literally mean the difference between life and death. Ask her if she’d mind testing a fragrance for you before you spray it all over her only to find in horror that suddenly she is wheezing and coughing uncontrollably.
We like to smother each other with affection and communicate our own comfort levels through physical contact, whether it’s pulling people in for a hug or forcing them to eat what we’ve cooked. And that is a great thing! But your comfort level may not be the same as another person’s, and while even the most subtle displays of passion can mean a significant deal of love on your part, it can make the other person uncomfortable and even hurt him/her. Understanding that you are not entitled to someone else’s space no matter how well-intended you may be, that you are not entitled to someone else’s yes, and that this someone else is a whole and complete person with different needs, creates not only a deeper level of intimacy, understanding, and love amongst friends but forges a genuine respect of the bodily autonomy and rights of strangers.