Valuing Consent Means Being Ready to Apologize

Valuing Consent Means Being Ready to Apologize June 21, 2016

I hate apologizing. Who doesn’t? But if you’re going to say you value consent, you need to be prepared to do it.

Two people. Photo by Charlie Foster on Unsplash.
Two people. Photo by Charlie Foster on Unsplash.

One of the questions I encounter as a sex educator is something along the lines of: “I fucked up… now what do I do?” The fuck-up could be steamrolling someone conversationally, hugging someone when they didn’t want to be hugged, or even a more serious consent violation like ignoring a boundary in bed in the heat of the moment (which could range from a “whoops I briefly touched you somewhere you didn’t want to be touched” up through sexual assault). The answer is always to communicate, and that usually means starting with apologizing.

In Good Intentions Are Not a Magic Wand, I wrote:

Asking before engaging in something that seems like The Best Idea Ever to you but may not be in someone else’s experience basically acknowledges that humans all have different needs, default settings, and comfort zones. Cultivating a more flexible worldview, and being willing to accept that commonsense or well-intentioned actions are not universals, seems like a good call whether you’re coming from a perspective that emphasizes religious engagement or atheism, sexual expansiveness or privacy. We can all do better on this front.

That post was more about recognizing the precursors to potentially intruding on someone’s conversational or bodily space, while this post is more about what to do in the aftermath. And that is to apologize.

If you are of the mindset that you can do no wrong because you’re so consent- and boundary-aware that it’s practically impossible for you to transgress… that’s simply untrue. It’s always possible for someone to mess up. People forget things, or get carried away, or are motivated selfishly. I know I’m sometimes blissfully oblivious to other people’s needs when I’m in my own head. And those are just the benevolent reasons why someone could fuck up, as there are also plenty of malicious reasons (my hope, of course, is that even the folks who’ve knowingly hurt others sooner or later realize that it’s messed-up and wrong, and try to make amends and do better in the future).

I know someone might be reading this and thinking, “Ugh, am I going to have to apologize because someone comes along and chews me out for breathing the same air as them?!” No, that’s not what I’m talking about.

The kinds of boundaries or consent situations that you should be ready to apologize for transgressing include:

  • Entering someone’s personal space or touching their body, whether or not you’ve previously had their consent to do so
  • Prying for or disclosing personal information about someone
  • Not communicating clearly or withholding information, such that someone didn’t have the chance to give informed consent for an interaction

These are just a few examples, but as you can see they’re concrete, and they have a demonstrable potential for harm. Do you get to decide if someone else has been harmed? Nope, they do. Yes, someone can get carried away; yes, someone can blow an offense out of proportion. But in order to talk someone down, especially if they’ve been triggered, you have to own your part in it (a.k.a., apologize), and then move from there.

Maybe I’m just cranky about the scripts that toxic masculinity and other contemporary American nasty traits have instilled in so many people in my life, but I think more people should be more open to apologizing. I view it as a conversation starter, something to get the wronged party to the table, rather than an admission that you’re a horrible person who can never do any good. Again, I’m super not into shame as a useful tool for, well, anything, really.

I don’t know if this will change anyone’s mind, but hopefully it’s good food for thought, or a conversation-starter. I like to think I’m getting better at apologizing as I become more and more mindful of how complex and multifaceted a topic consent is – and ideally that helps me be a better person.

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