This past week the Girl Scouts stirred up some folks with their statement that girls should not have to hug people they do not want to hug. It seems that the responses were split 50-50 agreeing or opposing this statement. What struck me was the arguments the opposition used. Most of the opposition said that the important people in the child’s life, like grandparents, deserve to be hugged, that the child’s feelings did not matter.
Raising children is hard and tricky. There are so many pitfalls that parents do not see at the time. Issues like consent are hidden in the fabric of relationships. Most adults think about consent only in terms of sexual intimacy but consent is a part of everyday life.
A few days ago, I was helping a clinician learn about how she communicates using her energy and I needed the help of one of our horses. I approached one of them and asked if he was willing to help me. I did this by holding out the halter. The horse turned and placed his nose into the opening and pushed the halter up. By this action, the horse agreed to help. How did I know he had agreed? I had placed the open halter by his shoulder so he had to turn to insert his nose into the opening. This action required a choice and did not occur by accident.
Why is consent in this context important? He is a horse after all. As a human, I could have forced the horse to help me by putting the halter on him and dragging him into the round pen. As a matter of fact, I grew up doing just that. If I had chosen to force the horse to comply, what impact would that have had on me? The horse? Our relationship?
Let’s think about this for a moment. In order for me to force the horse to go with me, I would have to stop seeing him as a being with feelings, needs or desires. I would also have to disconnect from myself so as not to have any feelings about what I was doing and so I would not see his reactions. Or if I saw his feelings and reactions I would have to see them as being inferior to me and my feelings, needs or desires. In short, I would have to see the horse as an object. Since objects are not alive they do not feel or have needs or desires and we can treat them any way we want to.
The action of forcing the horse causes problems for me because I either have to disconnect from my body so I do not notice the horse’s reactions to my force or I notice the reactions and judge them to be unimportant or inferior. Disconnection from my body separates me from a large input of knowledge about myself, and others. It reduces my ability to respond in ways that are good for me and good for my relationships and it inhibits my ability to be aware of information coming in about my safety. So forcing the horse causes multiple issues for me and my relationships.
When the horse is forced to comply he learns to submit to my will which is a lower brain response. Using force over and over prevents the horse from exploring and learning to problem solve. The horse also learns that relationships are built on might. As new people enter his life he explores the parameters of the relationship. Will he have the most might or will the new person? The horse also learns to disconnect from his body in order to function in the relationship.
A relationship between two disconnected beings is an unsafe and unhealthy relationship. As is a relationship built on might where the demands and needs of one are always met and the needs of the others are unimportant or nonexistent.
This one example shows that interacting with another being in a manner in which we are not asking for consent sets in motion problems within each being, (me and the horse) and creates problems in the relationship. Consent is a vital part of all healthy relationships and a pattern of not requesting consent has a lasting impact.