Consent education boils down to two questions. What is consent? Why is consent important? The latter might feel easy to answer, given Berkeley High School’s tumultuous history with Title IX. The former, however, is a bit more complicated.
What is consent? We know that a lack of consent is sexual harm. However, growing up in a political environment that discusses legal implications of consent, as well as attending a school with such an open-yet-closed discussion about sexual harm, there have been a lot of different answers over the years. Many explained what consent is not; consent is not coercion, consent doesn’t involve incapacitation, manipulation, or omission of information. We’ve also gotten the opposite: consent is freely given, is revocable, consent is the absence of mental influences, consent is fully informed. While all of those are true, they’re less a definition and more the terms consent exists on.
So again, what is consent? Oxford Languages gives the definition, “Permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.” On a personal level, something feels off about using the word ‘permission’ in terms of consent. To my biased ears, it sounds more invasive to say permission, rather than agreement; almost as if it implies an allowance to do something, regardless of the actual boundary. Just like the word permission, this definition isn’t as intimate as consent. Dr. Lindsey Doe’s video “What is Consent?” explains personal consent by giving us the origin of the word — “consent comes from the Latin words ‘con,’ meaning together, and ‘sentire,’ meaning feeling.” This ‘together-feeling’ describes a much more intimate sense of shared circumstances, interpersonal relationships, and emotions. Together-feeling, while personal, doesn’t include anything about impersonal permission included in the consent we learn in school. So consent is a balance between the personal and impersonal — but what does that mean?
Consent is complicated. It’s both legally required and socially necessary, a balance between personal and impersonal, and it is set on specific terms. One thing most of these definitions have in common is they refer to consent in relation to sex. Consent isn’t only about sex, and it gets a lot simpler when you remove the specifics of sex, especially the legal aspects and the terms. So finally, what is consent?
The definition of consent I’ve come to appreciate is respecting personal boundaries and autonomy. Consent isn’t about the permission one has, it’s about the mutual respect, trust, and comfortability that occurs when someone’s autonomy is respected.
That’s why I prefer the word agreement, because to me, it feels more like boundaries are being heard and respected. Boundaries form impersonal-personal relationships that any outsider must have the respect not to break. Practicing setting boundaries and using consent-oriented vocabulary in regular situations helps form autonomy and mutual respect, which, to my belief, are at the core of preventing sexual harm.
If you want support for sexual harm, go to Jasmina Viteskic, our Title IX Coordinator, in G202A, or the Health Center, in H106.