Consent has become a more extensive conversation within the last few years, marking a beautiful evolution in acknowledgment. But has it become just another buzzword? Has it become merely a word — and not meaningful action?
Conversations surrounding consent are a new concept for some of us, as we were not raised in a society that prioritized discussing and understanding consent. For those who are new here, and for a reminder: Consent is active. Consent is ongoing. Consent can be adjusted. There are also versions of consent: express consent, implied consent, informed consent, unanimous consent, and even substituted consent. So to put things into motion in your life, I believe in having all the information and options to find what works for you.
Express consent is given directly. It can be expressed verbally, nonverbally, and written. For example, it is using a head nod. It is clear and direct in the sense that someone is telling you what works for them and what does not. Someone is directly setting their boundaries.
Implied consent encompasses a person’s actions and the circumstances of the situation. For example, one’s silence or inaction. Another example is physical contact during team sports. Implied consent can be looked at also as something you opt into; as with the example of sports, there is an understanding that there will be contact due to the nature of the work. In contrast, it does not give consent to what may be considered or seen as excessive force.
Informed consent is often used in the medical system between the patient and the healthcare provider. For example, when you visit a doctor and they offer you information verbally. In turn, you then have the right to ask them questions about the appointment and recommended procedures. You are always allowed to ask questions and set boundaries when it pertains to your body.
A group of individuals gives unanimous consent. For example, consent is provided by a workers union. It is more a space provided as a blanketed statement from a group, while other forms folks on one person.
Lastly, substitute consent allows someone to make decisions for an individual who cannot give consent themselves, often due to being incapacitated. For example, if someone is passed out at a party and unable to give consent, substitute consent would look like taking them home instead of leaving them where they are.
Regardless of the type of consent you’ve opted into, consent is ongoing. Now that you have learned that there are multiple styles and ways that you can use consent, it may allow for more clarity, as some folks believe that consent is only in the bedroom. At the same time, it is used throughout our lives, every day.
Those who have endured sexual trauma never got a chance to use any of these variants of consent. After such trauma, individuals often try to navigate many different spaces at once, which may be new spaces or old spaces that seem new to them. Trauma is something that happens to us but is not all of us. After somebody experiences sexual trauma, they may struggle with verbal consent. It may be a recent event, or it may be residual. They may go through waves of being able to utilize verbal consent, as well as days when they simply cannot.
Giving and receiving consent in a trauma-informed way
When we are thinking about giving and receiving consent in a trauma-informed way, what does that mean?
We should prioritize doing everything in a trauma-informed way because we all have varying degrees of trauma. It allows folks to opt-in and opt out as needed, empowering them to make choices to provide or withhold information in ways that will make them feel safe. It’s important to remember the 4 R’s that assist and make up trauma-informed care. The 4 R’s are:
- Realization: where they are in their trauma recovery and how it affects them.
- Recognizing: looking out for signs of trauma and ways that the person is navigating their life.
- Respond: respond in a way that corresponds with what you have realized and recognized. Do not attempt to answer in a way that does not align with that person’s current recovery status.
- Resisting re-traumatization: do not push them further than where they are. Do not push your ideas or views onto them.
Here are a few tips on different ways that you can build your tool kit for those days when you want to give consent, but cannot do so verbally.
- Use flashcards. This is a great resource, especially for doctor’s appointments. You can create a notecard card with your information, such as what type of assault you’ve endured, your boundaries, and things that can cause triggers. Then, photocopy it so you can provide that to new doctors upon check-ins, so they have that information before you go into the medical examination room.
- Have verbal conversations when and where you feel most comfortable. Remember, you are setting a boundary for yourself, so you are in control. I always advise having these conversations in a neutral space — never in the bedroom. However, it may be somewhere outside that is public, as it may allow you to feel safer if the response is not what you hoped for. Why is this an option? Because you are setting yourself up for when you think you can verbalize, for those times when you cannot.
- Utilize your body to express consent or non-consent. That may look like a head movement, nodding yes or shaking no. It may look like making eye contact with someone while also engaging (or not engaging) in head nods. But, eye-gazing is intimate for some folks, and if someone is causing harm, it may cause them to stop the activity when they notice your discomfort. Giving consistent nonverbal consent looks like open body language: relaxed, loose, open arms, turning towards the person and people. Laughter and physical enjoyment can be visualized.
- Pulling someone in or pushing someone away. Actively engaging in physical movement is a sign of yes and no.
- Texting, as we are in the digital age. Suppose you want to share something with someone and cannot physically verbalize it. Send them a message instead.
- There may be times when you feel like you are not being heard; there is another option. You can seek out a mediator or someone else that can speak for you. The person you may be attempting to give or get a consent form may have a different communication style and not understand.
While these tips may be helpful for some and not for others, they are meant to help you put things in your toolbox of options. One can fluctuate through all of the variances of consent.