Consent. This topic has been coming up a lot in my life over the last several months. As my daughter grows into womanhood and my son continues on his journey in toddlerhood, I’ve been re-evaluating and considering all the ways I hold and wield power as their parent, as their mentor, as their protector and as their teacher.
A few months ago, social media was on fire with our reactions to the Brock Turner case and his incredibly lenient sentencing. Rage flowed through data and power lines in a way I haven’t witnessed before. Women stepping forward and sharing their own stories. Men and women coming together to help educate the world about rape culture, white supremacy, patriarchy, and oppression.
It’s been pretty amazing to witness and to be part of.
I was somewhat quiet in voicing my own opinion with my own words. Because there is more to this story than one man’s “20 minutes of action” or his father’s obvious cluelessness about the impact of these actions on another human being. I haven’t written much directly because I don’t want to stifle or negate the very real validity of our rage about this case.
I want each of us to express our rage.
Our rage is valid.
Each of us are responsible, in subtle and not so subtle ways, for this case.
I’m not talking about victim blaming or slut shaming.
I’m talking about the ways each of us, every single day, buys into the rules of our patriarchal culture. The very real small and big ways we each trample over another’s consent. How we each silence others and tell them how they are broken and need fixing.
I wrote to you about how I trampled all over my son’s consent, his autonomy and the very unintentional and yet powerful way I taught him that those in power don’t need to ask permission. Today I want to share a story about my daughter and how I disregarded her consent. I don’t share these stories as a badge of honor or as a confession to my sins. I share these stories because it is important that we each look at the ways we unintentionally disregard the needs and voice of others. I share because many of you are parents, or aunts or uncles, and each of us can have an impact when interacting with children and raising a generation who could have a very different internalized understanding of autonomy and consent than the one we were each raised with. I share because our interactions with adults are often not so different from how we interact with children and teens, and we each (myself included), need to slow down and evaluate our own ways of being in this world and how we each can do and be different; how each of us can do our own part in tearing this shit down.
Anyhow, my story. As some background, my daughter is now nine and she is growing into a young woman before my eyes. She’s always had long legs and little hips, but now those legs are longer and more womanly (for a lack of a better term) and her hips are subtly rounder. She’s growing into womanhood before my eyes and it is both breath-taking and heart-breaking. I want to capture these in-between days of hers, these days where she is no longer a child and yet not a full fledged woman. I want her to have images of herself when she grows up, of this time, for her to look back and reflect on. And frankly, I want to reflect on these images of her too, of my own lost childhood and my struggles as a mother.
So, in short, I take a lot of pictures of her.
About a year ago, she started protesting these pictures.
Actually, that is not true, she has always from time to time protested. And in the last year the protests have become more frequent and consistent.
These protests frustrate me. Because I want pictures, damn it. We play the game of me begging and eventually her very grudgingly giving in to the picture taking. The same game adults played with me as a child. The same game many adults play with children as they try to coax them into having their images taken.
This morning she was sitting on our sofa, playing Minecraft on her tablet and the light was just so and she was sitting in just such a way that it was just an image I wanted to remember forever. So I grabbed my phone and started clicking away. She looked up and noticed what I was doing and told me to stop. I didn’t. She told me, louder and more firmly to stop. And then we started the little game of me begging and her saying no.
Then some things clicked into place in my wee brain. And I stopped cold.
First, I didn’t ask if I could take her picture. I just took it. (Once again teaching that those in power do not need to ask.)
Second, she said to stop and I ignored her and proceeded to “ask” if I could take her picture. (Teaching her that her voice, her stop, her no, is not important and can be questioned.)
Third, after repeated noes and stops, I continued to “ask” and pester her into saying yes. (Again teaching her that her noes and stops are irrelevant and that my wants are more important; teaching her that her boundaries don’t matter and reminding her that I am in control and will trample on them any time I want.)
I was frozen and chilled to the bone for a moment. What I was doing was akin to a drunk frat boy harassing her at a party in ten years. I realized I was no different than Brock Turner in many ways. It finally, fully clicked in my thick, thick, skull that it is not just Them who perpetrates and perpetuates rape culture, it is all of us.
I saw that this wasn’t just a little “game” we were playing, but my own compliance in training her what it is to live in this world and how her voice and her boundaries don’t matter. I was grooming her. As surely as any predator grooms their own prey. But I wasn’t grooming her for me, I was grooming her for Them.
I stopped. Today, I stopped.
Today something clicked. Today I saw another thread of this intricate, grotesque and rage producing web we are all tangled up in. Today I recognized a piece of my own part in the web and so, now I am starting to undo this thread.
I can now start to do different. To unravel this piece even more. To unearth another piece of my own training and all the rage and grief that goes with it. To get to the next piece, so I can see it, allow my rage and grief, unravel some more and so on.
I want to be clear :: Yes, I am frustrated at my own part in rape culture. And I am grateful that I saw this piece. And I am not shaming myself with a long list how I should have known better and how I should be doing better and what a horrible parent I am and what a horrible human being I am or how everything that is wrong with the world is all my fault.
Because falling into that downward spiral of shame does no one any good. And it makes us less likely to notice and admit our faults and failings in the future.
I noticed, became aware. I allowed myself to be in the wrong, without shame and beating myself into a bloody pulp. I apologized. I move forward and continue to work to do different in the future.
That’s all any of us can do. We each contribute to this culture we live in. We were each trained in these ways of complicity. And we can each, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, become aware of how we contribute, make amends where necessary and possible, allow our own grief and rage at the depths of our training, and do different in future.
I invite you join me in looking at the different ways you may contribute to our oppressive culture, the different ways you may unintentionally silence another or disregard their boundaries or consent. I invite you to grieve and rage at all the ways your own consent and boundaries have been disregarded, in the past and in the present. This is deep and messy work. And the more of us to do it, the more we will be able to change the world we all live in.
P.S. It truly is important to not shame yourself, or allow others to shame you, for falling into the traps of the training we all grew up with it. It is equally important that once you see a place you have fumbled, to recognize it, repair relationships where you can, and work to do different in the future. We are responsible for our actions, and we are responsible for making repairs when we learn our actions were harmful. Sending you big love as we all do our part in deconstructing a culture that ties us all down. xoxo
(This is a revision of a love letter I sent out in June 2016. If you enjoyed it and would like to read more, you can subscribe to my weekly love letters right over here. )