Have you hesitated to tell a friend, family member, romantic partner, or even a waiter what you want? Maybe you’ve even hesitated to tell yourself. Many of us have suppressed our gut instincts or felt that our boundaries weren’t respected. Finding our voice and autonomy means identifying and learning to honor our own needs and desires as well as others’. This is key to setting boundaries in platonic and intimate relationships, and in all other areas of our lives.
This process can be transformative. “I had been a meek person and had trouble setting my own boundaries,” says Diana Adams, an attorney based in New York City. After being sexually assaulted in college, she embarked on her own journey of empowerment. “I went from being one of the last kids picked in gym class to a national champion at a martial art. That was a personal revelation to me about my own strengths and finding my own voice and agency.”
Finding your own self-empowerment and voice will help you in all sorts of ways. It can help you get the sandwich the way you ordered it, help your friends and partners have your back, help you speak up when something’s not working for you, and feel confident walking away from things when you have to. That might sound blasé, but it’s not. A key to satisfying relationships and interactions is being aware of and honoring your own feelings—which also helps us appreciate and honor others’ feelings.
What we’re talking about here is consent—which may not be quite what you think it is.
So what is consent?
Consent is a legal-sounding word for a really basic idea: When people do things together, they’re each making an active decision to participate. This can be as simple as asking someone to go to the movies or to grab a bite—both parties have to decide they want it.
How can we tell whether someone wants to do something with us?
Aside from a specific “yes” or “no,” we also need to be aware of the subtle cues in things like body language, tone of voice, and specific words and sounds. For example, there’s a crucial difference between a hesitant “Hmmmmm…” and an enthusiastic “Mmmhmmm!” We can usually tell which means which—we’ve been working on these communication skills since we were toddlers.
Don’t let culture twist your ideas about consent
We’re surrounded by images and stories that make it seem like people only hook up after convincing and coercion (e.g., the classic TV guy who goes around persuading women to sleep with him). This makes it seem like consent and enthusiasm are one-sided. A lot of this comes from old stereotypes about gender, like the idea that guys always have to make the first move, or when music videos make it seem as though women only exist to be sexy. Of course, these are stereotypes with no basis in the real world.
These types of assumptions can create a culture where harassing or abusing others is seen as OK. “I haven’t really experienced sexual assault (not to say that men do not experience sexual assault), but I am friends with a lot of girls who have told me stories about catcalling, groping, and one [friend] who is going to therapy for being raped by her boyfriend,” says a junior from Boston, Massachusetts.
When we focus on how we express and pursue our own desires, and on how consent is a critical—but not complicated—part of everyday life, we can start to push back against these stereotypes and biases, and create a better environment in which each of us can explore what we actually want.
Four ways to practice consent and self-empowerment in your everyday life
The opportunities to communicate what you want and push back against pressure are around us every day, not just when it comes to hooking up or relationships.
1. Stand up for yourself and set boundaries…
In everyday life
Standing up for yourself doesn’t mean being impolite or aggressive, but it does mean being assertive and honoring your own feelings and desires. For example, if you’re in a conversation with someone and you need to get away, saying you need to go to the bathroom or get a snack can be just as clear of a “I’m leaving this conversation” as telling the person to back off. That said, if they still aren’t getting it, by all means, tell them to back off and find someone nearby to help you get out of there.
Practice setting boundaries and respectfully saying “no”
- With service people: “Actually, this isn’t the latte that I ordered.”
- With your sibling: “It’s not OK to borrow my things without asking.”
- With the junior who’s pushing a drink on you: “I said I don’t want that.”
In romantic encounters
“Sometimes when someone leans in to kiss me for the first time, I stop them just to see if they’re cool with me setting a boundary,” says Jaclyn Friedman, a sexual assault survivor, speaker, author, and consent activist. This kind of boundary setting—and making sure that your partner is listening—can happen explicitly or implicitly. An implicit way to do this would be taking a step back if you feel someone is getting too close.
Practicing boundary setting can help with stopping things when you start to feel uncomfortable, whether in a hook up situation or not. Be wary of any situation where you feel like you’re being pressured, and take that red flag seriously. However, this doesn’t mean a victim of sexual assault can always stop the assault, or that stopping the assault is the victim’s responsibility. When someone is sexually assaulted, it is never their fault.
2. Stand up for your friends…
In everyday life
We all want to know our friends are looking out for us. So be that kind of friend to others: Pay attention to what’s going on. If you’re out with a friend, and they’re stuck in an uncomfortable conversation, help them out. For example, if someone’s pressuring them to have a drink or do something they don’t want to do, give them an exit strategy.
Try subtle: “Hey, I need to talk to you.”
Or explicit: “Not feeling this. Let’s get out of here.”
In romantic encounters
The stakes can feel high—especially at the beginning of the year when everyone is getting to know each other and they’re excited to try new things. But it’s vital to check in with your friends who are in relationships or who are hanging out with a new guy/girl. For example, ask things like:
- How are things going?
- Do you feel like being with your partner makes you happy?
- Do they listen to you?
Pay attention if your friend seems uncomfortable or isn’t sure how their romantic encounters are making them feel. If something seems off, suggest they talk to a counselor or a trusted adult about how they’re feeling.
3. Think and talk about what you want…
In everyday life
One thing I’ve always loved about some of my best friends is that they know what they like to do—whether that’s going to a party on a Friday night or camping and hiking alone. They don’t get there by just going with the flow—these friends have thought about what they want and what types of people they like to hang out with.
To figure out what types of people you want to be around, check in with how you feel when you’re around them. Do you feel happy, content, and relaxed? Or down, drained, and insecure? Stick with the people who make you feel good—avoid the others.
This is important when figuring out what you want to do together too. “When someone says, ‘No, I’d rather not,’ respond in ways that support them,” says Adams. “When your friend says she can’t come to dinner because she needs to study, try saying, ‘Thank you for taking care of yourself; I’m glad you said that.’”
In romantic encounters
Ask yourself these questions about the person you like, are in a relationship with, or are hooking up with:
- Am I feeling happy, comfortable, and rewarded when I’m with them?
- Does this person listen to me and respect my signals?
- Are my boundaries being violated?
- Do I feel safe?
- Do I feel conflicted? Why?
- Am I pushing myself to do something I don’t really want to do?
4. Take your feelings seriously and make sure others do too…
In everyday life
Think about what matters to you; talk to your friends about what matters to them. High school is full of major life changes—sometimes it will feel like one major issue after another. What should I text the person I like? Will failing that test hurt my college prospects? Should I dress more like a hipster?
Surround yourself with people who support your decisions
Good friends and partners:
- Ask you questions that don’t make you feel pressured.
- Make it safe for you to change your mind.
- Encourage you to assert yourself and communicate.
“Students should respect each other without forcing or [making] their peers [feel afraid],” says Ariana, a senior in Concord, Massachusetts.
In romantic encounters
It’s especially important to make sure that hookups or romantic partners care about what you want and desire out of your interaction or relationship. Are they paying attention to the cues you give them? Do they ask you what you want to do and care how you answer? And when you set boundaries, do they respect and observe them? That’s how you’ll find a good partner—whether for the long term or just a few hours.
“Imagine you’re at a party dancing with someone, and they’re getting right up to you and you’re feeling uncomfortable. Now switch places with that person and imagine you’re making them uncomfortable and they never told you. You’d feel terrible because you’re a decent person. Telling someone you’re uncomfortable is showing them respect, assuming they would want to know.”
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