​It's Time to Expand the Conversation About Consent

Consent is sexy-- that’s a phrase I remember a subset of people trying to make go viral in my early twenties. The thing is: consent doesn’t have to be sexy. But it is still necessary.

While consent generally means “to voluntarily agree” and is used in fields like law and medicine, culturally, we’ve pushed the idea of “consent” into this narrow definition of when it’s relevant: only in the bedroom. But, just as in healthy sexual relationships, consent is a practice we should be using in many aspects of our lives. It’s time we expand the conversation around consent, and start to normalize the process of asking for and receiving consent.

Here are some examples of other spaces where I’d like us to start to practice consent. I am not an expert at any of this, and I certainly mess up all the time in my daily life, but I’m trying hard to practice using consent in more situations.


1. Consent in emotional labor

I consider myself to be an empathetic human, so I think about this idea of consent quite a bit. When a friend needs to vent or verbally process, I want to be a good friend and be there for them, ready to listen. But some times are better than others to listen. Sometimes, I am so overwhelmed with what I’m already facing in my own life, that I can’t really handle talking about someone else’s challenges, even if I want to. It takes a lot of energy to support another person through a challenge, and we need to recognize that these can be taxing conversations, filled with emotional labor. We don’t typically value emotional labor (which tends to be labor done primarily by women), and therefore we think nothing of starting up a conversation on a hard topic. These conversations can be triggering and sometimes draining, and we need to be sensitive to our friends about getting their consent. This gives them the option to say no or choose another time. It could be their brain is in work-mode and it’s not the time to switch out of that productivity mindset yet, that they’d be more mentally present later on, that this sort of conversation is too triggering for them to discuss at any time, or that they simply have too much on their own plate to handle the emotional weight of this conversation.

Suggested ways to ask for consent in emotional labor:

  • Is now an okay time to talk about something I’m going through?
  • Would it be alright if we chatted about something I’ve been dealing with?
  • I’m struggling with something, and I’m wondering if you’re alright to have a conversation with me about it.


2. Consent in sharing and holding information

My friend Kelsey did an amazing job of this recently. I was going through some hard things, and she knew it, but she had some new developments in her own life that she wanted me to know about. Before divulging everything, she checked in with me, “I have some news. Could you please let me know when you’re in a place where you’d feel comfortable hearing some sort-of intense information?” Of course, I called her immediately after receiving this request, but it was so nice that she checked in to see if I was mentally in a place where I was ready to receive her news.

This consent is similar to emotional labor, but often without the further conversation; it’s simply sharing information, requiring the other person to be aware of something. While it might be a quick exchange (even a short text), this requirement to hold that information ultimately takes up some of their brain space and emotional capacity, and we should make sure the receiver consents to this.

Social media makes this tricky. A receiver could easily happen upon some piece of information that they weren’t prepared to hold. Trigger warnings can help in this case, giving the receiver the option to skip reading. Put *trigger warning* at the top of your post to flag for anyone who isn't in a head space to hold intense information.

A few ways to ask for consent to hold information:

  • I have some new information that might be a lot to handle. Are you alright if I share it with you?
  • Is now an okay time to take on some big information about ___?
  • I have some news. Could you please let me know when you’re in a place where you’d feel comfortable hearing some sort-of intense information?


3. Consent in storytelling

Running a fair trade organization, I come across this type of consent quite frequently. Our customers regularly want to hear stories about our artisan partners, the talented women who make our products. While I have personal relationships with most of our partners, and often know many details of their lives and histories, this does not mean this is public information. These are not my stories to share as I please. I strongly believe we should each get to control our own stories and choose how/when they’re used and shared. I have been frustrated and belittled with lack of consent in storytelling for myself: people choosing to share one aspect of my identity or history without asking, often portraying me in a way that I find very triggering or even untruthful.

  • First, ask yourself: why are you interested in sharing someone else’s story? Is this something that would be better off if they shared themselves?
  • Ask permission before you share someone’s story
  • If you’re writing something about someone else, let them see and read it before it is published
  • Make sure people are aware of where this story will be published and who will be reading it (see #5 below)
  • Think through how you’re portraying another person: is this something you’d be comfortable with someone sharing about you? Make sure they’re comfortable with you sharing.
  • Ask what requirements go along with you sharing: do they want to be tagged on social media or not? Do they ask that you include something specific for them? What are the parameters of the consent you’ve been given to share this story?


4. Consent in photography and social media

Legally speaking, you’re allowed to take pictures of anyone in public spaces and do with them what you please. But that doesn’t mean you should. Ask for consent before taking someone’s picture. If you feel too uncomfortable asking for consent, it likely means you shouldn’t be taking the picture in the first place.

With social media being so prevalent in our lives, we need to remember that everyone has different levels of what they’re comfortable sharing on the internet, including photos. Simply check with them before posting.

Impact marketing expert Manpreet Kalra uses the example of the infamous “Afghan Girl” photo published on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. Sharbat Gula, the subject of the photo, was seen by photographer, Steve McCurry, in a classroom, where he asked the teacher to allow him to take her to another location to be photographed. While the teacher gave permission, Sharbat never gave consent. In later interviews, she expresses the fear she had in that moment: intensity that shows up in her eyes in the portrait. This photo has become wildly recognized, leading to much fame and wealth for the photographer, but no such benefits for Sharbat. When later interviewed in 2002 about the photo, her word to describe the experience was “angry.” She claims the recognition caused by this photo eventually led to her arrest and continue to put her in danger.

We don’t know where a photo will end up. Ask for consent before snapping that pic.


5. Informed consent

We often think we just need the “yes” from someone to have consent, but frequently, that’s not enough. Often, we’re asked to consent to something of which we don’t understand the full context, and I would argue that this negates any original consent that was given.

For example, with our artisan partners, we don’t just ask “is it okay if we share your story with our customers?” because oftentimes, they don’t necessarily realize what all that entails. Instead, we provide more details, so they’re able to really think through the decision before giving their consent. “Are you interested in sharing a part of your story with our customers? If so, we’d interview you and have you approve the write-up, so you can choose what to include and what not to include. This story would likely be shared on our social media pages, seen by thousands of customers, and could potentially be used by some retail stores who like to print out the stories and put them on their walls. It’s possible people in your family or communities here would see the story as well. Please think through if you’d like to be a part of this or not: no worries either way!” Yes, it’s a lot more time consuming… but it’s necessary.

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There you have it: my first list of new ways I’m practicing consent. As a person who prides myself on efficiency, I can see how this could feel like an unnecessary extra step-- elongating a currently simple process. But I believe the benefits greatly outweigh the small burden of receiving consent. I hope others will join me in this practice, as I believe our mental health and general happiness will improve as a result. Consent creates agency-- and people deserve to have agency of their own lives.

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This post was originally published at joymcbrien.com