From the very beginning, we were taught that we do not have rights or control over our own bodies.
We are held by many, passed through hands, consoled while we cry, unable to communicate clearly what we need. Many of us may be born with health issues or disabilities that require immediate interventions we have no understanding or control over. In the most egregious cases, parts of our genitals are cut and surgically removed, without anesthesia, while we scream and cry and can do nothing about it.
The pain is so immense, we might just want to turn around and exit this world. What is this horrible place where I have just arrived? And we are also shamed and made wrong if our genitals just don’t match what the adults around us think they should be, as is the case for hundreds of thousands of intersex babies every year.
The idea that we can consent over our bodies is rarely present from birth, and then as we get a little older, we are taught in many ways that others control our bodies and make decisions about them. We are forced to hug adults to be polite, rather than check in to see if that’s what we actually want, and to sit on an old strange man’s lap at Christmastime. Is it any wonder so many of those photos of small children on Santa’s lap depict a very unhappy or distraught child that doesn’t want to be there, longing to be back in the safe arms of their primary caretakers?
We don’t get education about consent and our rights over our own bodies. In fact, this is an idea most of us do not grow up being familiar with at all. As we experience sexual initiation, this presents a real danger for us, since we haven’t been taught that our bodies are indeed our own jurisdiction to make decisions over, nor how to communicate our wants and needs about what happens to them.
This leaves us vulnerable to unwanted sexual touching or activity, sexual assault, blatant violations of our own sovereignty and bodily autonomy, unwanted pregnancies or pregnancy scares, sexually transmitted infections, public shaming and humiliation for unwanted sexual activity, and being otherwise taken advantage of in so many ways. It also means we are disenfranchised from our own pleasure and orgasms, and all the joy that can come from positive, consensual sexual experiences unless we are somehow able to connect to that pleasure and express it on our own.
As we become full adults, we then lack the communication skills to negotiate a healthy, consensual, affirming, pleasurable sexual life. We go to healthcare providers unable to speak up for our needs.
We are taught our whole lives that doctors and nurses and other medical people in uniforms are the authorities over the body and that we must acquiesce to whatever they tell us to do, or to whatever they do to our bodies without asking us. That might include examinations we don’t want, enduring unnecessary pain during exams, or bracing for the moment they march a bunch of people into our exam room for what should be private events for medical theater. That might mean they use their professional influence and clout to make choices for our health without really involving us, and we are supposed to accept it. In fact, we are often told to “just relax” or made to feel guilty if we don’t do what these authorities think we should do.
Our lack of bodily autonomy and sovereignty is built around us our whole lives, unless we had the good fortune to have very conscientious, thoughtful, educated parents or caretakers who understand the importance of our learning about consent, and speaking our wishes to everyone from family members to boyfriends, girlfriends or dates, to friends, to medical providers, teachers or clergy.
If we learned to see ourselves and expectations of our gender performances through traditionally misogynistic, paternalistic, homophobic gender roles, we will have many more layers to sort through to get to a place of honoring our own inner knowing of what is right for us and our bodies and sexuality, and being able to communicate the needs we have.
If we learned to people-please those around us, it is even harder to allow ourselves to say “no” or to set healthy limits and boundaries.
If we have experienced sexual assault, as this cultural orientation sets us up for, we will feel even less agency over our own bodies and decisions about what is right for us.
If we have spent our lives having the sex we think we are supposed to have or are pressured to have, rather than the sex we really want, there is a complex maze of internal dissonance to work our way through to get to what we really enjoy and want. This is painful, hurtful, and damaging to our ability to negotiate healthy relationships with others and with our own bodies, sexuality, and pleasure.
Many people have the realizations they need in order to wake up late in life, and can have much regret and sadness for all they may have missed out on while they were living the life they were told to live, rather than the life they wanted to live. It’s a harsh thing to acknowledge and a bitter pill to swallow.
Yet this was the set-up from the beginning. We were not taught that we get to have a real say over our own bodies and what happens to them. We are not taught the skills to negotiate our needs and how to get and give consent.
And in a culture that would literally strip away our ability to decide if, when, how, and with whom we bear children, this ideal of bodily autonomy can never be realized. It is always women, non-binary and trans folks with wombs who bear the brunt of this. It is all people of the femme persuasion as well as people with differently-abled bodies who are demeaned and controlled most through laws, cultural conditioning, gender norms, religion, and body shaming.
We will never have a world based on real equality until we reckon with this.
Consent education goes hand-in-hand with bodily autonomy and agency. Learning effective communication is essential for us to navigate both intimate relationships and sex, as well as the medical system. Being taught that we always have a say over our own bodies and reproductive destiny is something we all need.
How to undo this cultural set-up
If you didn’t learn it, you can begin to right these many wrongs by doing your own work to learn these skills and unlearn the conditioning that got us here, and then teach the children and youth in your life how to do it for themselves.
- You can advocate for real comprehensive sexuality education that is trauma-informed and includes all of us.
- You can speak up for bodily autonomy and medical and reproductive justice, regardless of your gender or sexuality.
- You can know that this impacts all of us deeply and there is no more time to lose living in an antiquated world that would have us be the handmaids of patriarchy.
A consent-forward, sex-positive, equitable world is the antidote to so many of the harms that traumatize us and keep us from living our true destinies. It is the way to heal the divide within us that desires one thing and is told to do or want another.
It is the world we all need to fight for.
**photo by Isaac Quesada