A lot of my work centres on the theme of consent. Here I give a brief overview of my understanding of consent, and my main writings about this and the related topic of trauma. You can read my thoughts on consent between readers and writers here.
The definition of consent is ‘agreement to do something’. Being able to agree to something requires everyone involved feeling free-enough and safe- enough to tune into ourselves, and to communicate openly with others, about who we are, what our capacities are, and what we want and don’t want.
Unfortunately wider culture is extremely non-consensual. Treating ourselves and others non-consensually is normalised at every level of experience: in our upbringings; in our communities; in workplaces and educational systems where we’re required to push beyond our capacities; and in the media we engage with; and in how political and economic systems treat some lives, bodies, and labour as more valuable than others.
Given this it’s inevitable that we’ll all be treated non-consensually at times, and that we’ll all treat ourselves – and others – non-consensually at times too. I’m interested in exploring how we can do our best to cultivate consensual behaviour with ourselves, each other, our communities, and the wider world. This requires recognising how hard this is and how much we’re up against, as well as developing ways to address non-consent honestly and kindly when it happens, ideally at a systemic level, rather than policing and punishing individual behaviour.
Consent goes way beyond sexual consent. It’s about how we treat ourselves and each other in all kinds of relationships, and it’s only possible within communities and cultures of consent.
Consent is a theme through all of my writing. You can read my thoughts in the following places:
I write a lot about trauma. Consent and trauma are interlinked because non-consensual behaviour – at an interpersonal, community or societal level – is one of the main forms of trauma. Non-consensual behaviours become more difficult to identify and protect yourself against when you have experienced trauma, and it’s hard to treat yourself consensually as a trauma survivor.
It’s also harder to behave consensually with others when there is trauma present. Developmental trauma can result in deep fears of abandonment or annihilation by others, which can mean that we try to grasp hold of others – perhaps crossing their boundaries in the process – and/or we try to push them away, potentially in non-consensual ways. We can also be drawn to relationships which are non-consensual in similar ways to those we had growing up. The 4F survival strategies can make it very hard to be consensual in relationships. For example, fawn makes it hard to be honest with others about ourselves, our needs, and our boundaries, because them liking us and approving of us feels so vital. Fight makes it hard to avoid attempting to control others’ behaviour because we often feel we have to do this in order for people to stay or to avoid them hurting us.
High levels of fear and shame when we are triggered make it very difficult to be present to another person; to engage in open communication and conflict intimacy; to be honest about our feelings, needs, and boundaries; and to hear any criticism. Often when relationships are struggling we trigger each other into trauma responses. It takes a long time for our nervous systems to return from one of these mutual triggerings, and when they happen regularly we tend to go to old survival strategies to try to avoid it happening again. We may well also become hypervigilant for signs that it might be about to happen, which keeps our nervous system on high alert and more prone to being triggered.
It’s also easy to look to partners, and to people we’re in close relationship with, to be The One who can prevent us from having to feel the fear/shame and other tough feelings of trauma, and/or who can reach us and pull us out of them when they hit. Both of these can easily tip into treating them non-consensually.
Working on our own trauma responses, and cultivating consensual behaviour, go hand in hand, and they require both inner work and cultivating networks of support to help us.
You can find a list of all my trauma-related work here.