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Consent in isolation grooms us for degradation

Dads of the internet are seeing how many Cheerios they can stack on their sleeping babies’ faces. Fun! Cute! Silly! I like it.

[Warning: this post describes graphic and disturbing sexual behavior.]

Enraged that something might happen in the news that is not worth becoming enraged over, one Facebook commenter raged:

[img attachment=”108570″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 8.47.34 AM” /]

This is not the first time I’ve seen the idea that we must ask consent of babies. Here’s a good, by no means unique, example: How to start teaching your kids about consent even when they’re a baby. The author makes seven recommendations, some more absurd than others:

Ask their permission before changing their diaper.
Provide anatomically correct language for their body parts.
Consider waiting to cut their hair or pierce their ears.
Ask them “do you want to” instead of “can you.”
Never make them hug anyone if they don’t want to — including you.
Stop if they say no or look unhappy.
Demonstrate consensual touch with your partner(s).

Some of these guidelines sound reasonable (assuming they are carried out with common sense, which I’m trying hard to assume); but if you read the full descriptions, she’s describing parenting that ranges from silly but harmless, to incoherent, to insane. She makes two disastrous mistakes.
The first mistake that the author makes consistently is that she uses all the right concepts, but ranks them backwards. She ranks consent as the highest, and thinks that consent should be based on feelings of enjoyment or discomfort, and she thinks these feelings should be based on  . . . well, she never says what. And this is the second mistake.
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Make no mistake: she’s right that our ideas about ourselves are formed from a very early age. Kids are not good abstract thinkers, and they gather clues about life from the overall way they are treated. So yes, we should teach kids some concept of bodily autonomy and self-worth from a very early age. It makes sense to make it obvious to kids that their desires are important, that their bodies are not meant to be violated, and that they should be listened to.
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But if we are going to put this much emphasis on consent, from an age where a pre-verbal baby can indicate lack of consent by “sticking out a foot,” then we must also give children a basis for deciding whether or not it’s appropriate to give consent. Because kids don’t automatically know this! Why would they? Kids don’t know anything. Remember, they don’t want their poop cleaned away. They don’t want to be in their car seats on the highway. They are not reliable judges of how they should be treated. They must be taught, by people who love them, what is and is not good for them.
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When we speak only of consent, and never teach kids how to judge whether or not to give consent, we are not teaching them bodily autonomy. We may actually be grooming them to be degraded and abused.

Modern parents shy away from the idea of teaching kids whether or not to give consent because they shy away from the idea that some behaviors are intrinsically immoral (and some are intrinsically moral, and some are morally neutral, and some are dependent on context). We hate the idea that some things are always wrong, because that means that sometimes we can’t do bad things that we want to do, and sometimes we must do things we don’t want to do.

So instead, we focus solely on whether or not we enjoy them.

This puts us in the absurd position of saying, as the author above does, that it’s wrong for a married man to embrace his wife without asking permission (yes, I’ve heard Catholic woman arguing that an unexpected spousal kiss is part of rape culture), but that it’s normal and healthy for a married man to watch a strange woman being gagged, kicked, and urinated on, because he assumes that someone’s being paid for it. Did you know that that’s what porn looks like now? And that’s just what one sheltered Catholic mom happens to know about.

Remember that celebrated Duke University student who worked her way through college by “acting” in porn movies? You’re maybe imagining a little romp of slap and tickle, followed by a fat paycheck. Actually, her specialty was having dildos rammed down her throat until she vomited, and then she was forced on camera to eat her vomit while men jeered at her about her eating disorder and the cutting scars on her arms.

But she consented, so.

Based on the criteria outlined in the “teach your kids about consent” article, there is no problem with watching or participating in things like “facial abuse,” as long as there is consent. Even if a girl is gagging and saying “no” and trying to run away, she signed a contract, so she probably actually likes it. [WARNING: this link leads to an extremely graphic expose of what happens on a “facial abuse” pornography set, and how it’s advertised.]

Consent, consent, consent. Consent in a vacuum.

This is what happens when all you talk about is consent and never talk about why consent is important — never talk about why people have intrinsic dignity and why people should be treated with respect and why feelings of discomfort should be attended to. It’s not because feelings of discomfort are the worst evil! Sometimes I have very bad feelings when I’m doing the dishes, or staying up late to finish an article, or punishing my kids for doing something dangerous.

The bad feelings, the discomfort, the feelings of vulnerability, are not the final word. They point to something: they point to our intrinsic dignity. And our intrinsic dignity points to the truth that we are made in the image of God: that is, with free will, with an immortal soul, made to love and to be loved. We listen to feelings of discomfort because they are telling us something about ourselves and about other people. We use our free will to make choices about our behavior, and what behavior we will allow, based on that intrinsic dignity.

When we teach kids that we are all made in the image of God, and that therefore we all have intrinsic dignity, then the idea of consent follows naturally. A boy who fully, thoroughly understands that girls are human beings is not going to drag a girl behind a dumpster and shove pine needles in her vagina even if he somehow thinks she might not mind. A girl who fully, thoroughly believes that she is a human being is not going to allow strange men to defecate on her while screaming insults in her face, even if they pay her.

So yes, absolutely, teach your kids (boys and girls), in so many words, that “no” means “no.” Teach them that when they’re making someone uncomfortable, they need to back off, even if they don’t understand what the problem is. Teach them that it never hurts to ask, “Is it okay if I do this?” Teach them that no one can buy their bodies, with money or in any other way. Teach them to listen to their feelings of discomfort.

But teach them why all these things are important.

Teach them about consent, but teach them why consent is meaningful. Otherwise, you’re just grooming them to become deaf to the cries of their own intrinsic human dignity.

 

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