A Ridiculously Basic Primer on Consent Culture

What is Consent Culture?

At its simplest, consent culture is a culture in which asking for consent is normalized and encouraged in popular culture. This includes many parts of life, not just sexual consent. We should treat asking for consent as normal in lots of activities. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Non-sexual touching and tickling
  • Giving advice
  • Taking pictures and videos of people
  • Sharing information about people with others 
  • Socializing with people
  • Giving and receiving gifts
  • Group outings (especially where who spends what money, and on what is concerned)
  • Sharing an intimate picture or video with people who weren’t in the room. 

Feel free to share other important forms of consent in the comments. 

What Consent Culture Isn’t:

Not all issues in consent culture need legal solutions. We don’t necessarily need to design contracts for who pays what on a group outing. We almost certainly don’t want to decide who can give what advice, when, as a legal issue.  However, sexual consent has legal implications. Sharing information in some medical and legal situations have legal implication.

And taking and sharing pictures and videos have some legal implications. Even non-sexual touch is a legal issue in some situations, particularly where vulnerable people or work situations are concerned. Being aware of both legal issue and social issues in consent culture is an important piece of the culture.

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What is Enthusiastic Consent?

First, it’s a great personal standard to live by, for all forms of consent. Enthusiastic consent refers to consent that might be partially or wholly the other person’s idea. The other person is excited about what you have asked for and wants to participate fully in the activity you’ve discussed.

Electronic Arts’ series of Sims games does an excellent job of showing what enthusiastic consent looks like. When two Sims want to have sex (or “woohoo” in Simish), one will approach the other and whisper in the Sim’s ear. If the other sim is interested, he or she will jump up and down, and the two Sims will race each other to wherever they have agreed to have sex. 

Folks can apply this to going out to movies with friends, taking pictures and videos and sharing them. We can apply it to tickling and non-sexual touch such as massage and giving and receiving advice and gifts.

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Consent Culture and Raising Children

First, this section is not about sexual consent. Children can’t legally or ethically consent to sex.

One of the best ways to normalize consent in society is to raise our children to expect to have their consent respected where possible. Places where adults often ignore or override a child’s consent include:

  • Entering the child’s personal space (ie bedroom or bathroom)
  • Forcing or strongly persuading the child to allow people to kiss or hug them
  • Or forcing or strongly persuading the child to kiss or hug others
  • Requiring children to engage in play activities they don’t want to (clubs, sports teams, etc.)
  • Choosing who a child can and can’t socialize with.

Of course, a parent must always put a child’s safety and well-being first. Sometimes that includes limiting a child’s choices or denying them a choice. But it’s an important rule of thumb to give children age-appropriate ability to decide as many things for themselves as possible.

This includes who their friends are and what activities they will or won’t participate in. Children should always have the right to refuse to hug or kiss, and refuse to be hugged and kissed. 

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On Consent Culture and Social Media

We often talk about our families and friends on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. It’s important to check in every now and then with those involved. What can I and can’t I share? What’s public knowledge, and what isn’t? Under what circumstances can I “tag in” my friend or family member to join a conversation? What pictures are and aren’t okay?

This can get complicated, so communication is important. Some general rules of thumb: Don’t share pictures or statements that might cause problems at a job, with the law, or with the person’s relationships without their consent. If the person is a “private person” always ask. If they are not, check in every now and then to be sure you’re not overstepping. 

In the video, I mention that my two sons are very different with regard to the amount of information they allow me to share. My oldest is very private so I rarely share anything about him, and never without his consent other than the fact that he exists and is private. On the other hand, my youngest is very open and is proud of his journey so far in his life, and often encourages me to use him on social media and in therapy as a real-life example of ideas. Make sure you communicate with the folks in your life so you know their preferences. 

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Final Thoughts on Consent Culture

A similar concept to consent culture is called “ask” vs. “guess” culture. “Ask” culture means we don’t assume what others want or prefer. Instead, we ask. “Guess” culture is built on the idea that often asking for things is presumptuous or rude, so we are expected to use unspoken cues to “guess” what people want. For some groups of people, generally, ask culture is much easier. For others, guess culture.

Regardless of which is easier, “guess” culture is much more likely to lead to misunderstandings and harmful situations in most circumstances. The one major exception to this rule is within abusive situations. Asking an abuser is frequently more dangerous than attempting to guess their needs, as asking can trigger abuse if the abuser has an expectation that their needs will be anticipated. 

In general, autistic people prefer the “ask” culture. The autistic brain processes social signals in such a way that often body language and facial expressions and other cues used in “guess” culture are hard for them. By contrast, people with anxiety disorders often prefer a “guess” culture. It is often scary for them to ask directly and risk rejection or conflict. Those who are more flexible and can move back and forth comfortably between the two cultures can be a big help in helping those folks with communications issues that arise. 

Microfiction: Enthusiastic Consent


A special thanks to Dr. Adam Sanford, PhD., sociologist and educator, for the lengthy discussion on “ask” vs. “guess” culture that contributed to this article. All misunderstandings are my own.

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