What is consent and why should you care about it? Can consent only be applied to sex? What do different countries say about it? Do Christian beliefs align with the idea of consent? What are the consequences of being unaware of what it is?
Let’s talk about sex, baby.
- Specifically, about an informed and enthusiastic yes
- Without the details of Christianity’s stance of sexually active people (this post would be longer than it is already)
- Hyper-focusing on a key area of sex, which is its education.
Arguing for its importance is crucial. Here’s why.
Part 1 – Definition of Consent
Quoted by the official NHS website (the UK’s National Health Service), “consent is defined by section 74 Sexual Offences Act 2003. Someone consents to vaginal, anal or oral penetration only if s/he agrees by choice to that penetration and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.
“Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another, e.g.to vaginal but not anal sex or penetration with conditions, such as wearing a condom. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity and each time activity occurs.
“In investigating the suspect, it must be established what steps, if any, the suspect took to obtain the complainant’s consent and the prosecution must prove that the suspect did not have a reasonable belief that the complainant was consenting.”
That’s a lot, so let’s unpack.
- An “agreement” in my mother tongue
- A choice that clearly expressing desire to participate in an activity
- Given and can be taken away at any point
- The determining factor of whether rape (a crime) was committed
Consent is not
- In an individual’s clothes
- Silence or a “maybe” or an “I don’t know”
- Something that kills the mood
- Possible to give when under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Possible to give when there is an imbalance of power (age, financial and other types of abuse)
- Coerced, implied, assumed, convinced, or forced
- A yes to everything—yes to a kiss is not a yes to going home with someone; a yes today is not a yes tomorrow
I would like to point out that this way of defining rape began in the early 2000s for any country I could find data on. This is still a new concept. While rape has been a part of laws for a couple hundred years—namely England and the United states since the 18th and 19th century—the idea that the act itself is a crime unless both parties want to have sex with each other and both put their agreement into words, is a new definition.
The definition is only problematic because it isn’t taught in schools.
What kind of message does that send?
Part 2 – The Laws of Sex Education
As of 2020, out of the 28 states in America that cover both sex education and HIV, only 9 states require consent to be a part of their curriculum. Only half of the United States teaches sex ed, and only 9 states even mention, I would argue, the most important part of a sexual experience.
In Europe, only 9 countries recognize rape as sex without consent.
While sex education is mandatory in nearly all EU countries by European Union law, there are no policies across the board about the content. This leaves the education faulty and inconsistent, with a varying amount of quality scattered across the continent.
England and Nordic countries are likely to provide quality sex education, while Eastern and Southern European countries provide the opposite.
I could not find data about the rest of the European countries.
And this information merely covered sex education.
There was no mention of consent!
This is likely due to the law not basing their legal definition of rape on the lack of consent in Europe. Only 9 countries recognize sex without consent as rape.
A lot of these countries, like Sweden for example, only came to this recognition extremely recently, i.e. passing their consent law in 2018. And even with these 9 countries, the laws and the systems are not close to being perfect. We know that laws, in and of themselves, do not eradicate our problems (yes, this is a somewhat backhanded reference to abortion).
To illustrate my point of how we leave young adults completely clueless, look at this quote from a high school graduate:
“The sex education I received only taught me how to put a condom on a banana. There was no mention of consent and what it means,” said Kirstine Marie Thomsen, a resident of Denmark.
In my home country, rape is only rape if it was violent and can be proven violent. This is called a force-based definition of rape. If you did not fight back, you don’t have significant bleeding and bruises, and it didn’t happen in a dark alley with a sinister stranger (this last part of the sentence was more to express my frustration and anger than staying completely true to facts), it does not classify as a crime.
According to Hungarian law, you were not violated. No reason to report, apparently.
And don’t get me started on marital rape.
If the problem isn’t clear, I would like to help you.
The brain on trauma as a topic is significant when we talk about rape.
The brain has been shown to significantly decrease its ability to recall information as a mental protection for the survivor. Hence, some victims couldn’t remember their rape.
If you’re understandably doubtful, please look up the Spanish Catholic schools’ sexual abuse scandals.
When these men were elementary children, as young boys they violated and videotaped by members of the Catholic church. These men, decades later, couldn’t remember the occurrence until they saw the videos themselves.
The documentary where I got this information from is called Examination of Conscience and is on Netflix.
This, of course, goes farther into the topic of child molestation and the area of consent that zeros in on the age of consent.
Back to purity culture and sex education.
The overwhelming dismissal of sex ed and the discussion around consent directly comes from religion, especially Christianity in the West. I will further illustrate why this lack of information is dangerous.
Part 3 – Consenting to X
Consent, in the context of sex, is agreeing to sexual acts. However, consent can be found in many areas of our lives. In parenting books, you find advice on asking permission from your toddler for a hug or a tickle fight. This teaches bodily autonomy (the right for a person to govern what happens to their body without external influence or coercion) and confidence, providing a sense of safety to children.
Hopefully, that is something everyone would want for their child.
Great consequences can follow when a child develops thinking their ‘No’ has no value. This is demonstrated in those who have difficulty saying no and those who tend to people-please. I am one of these people.
The same rules apply to consent in a scenario where grandma wants to give a kiss to your daughter.
The bullet points I listed in Part 1 apply. If your daughter says she does not want a kiss from her grandma, ignoring the request and going in for the kiss anyway communicates to the little girl from a young age that her no does not have value.
This is allowing children to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
This teaches them to accept what they do not want to accept.
These kinds of scenarios send harmful messages to your child. When they are older, what will these messages lead to?
If before, the idea of introducing consent to your loved ones felt intimidating, hopefully this has helped you see that consent is a lot bigger than sex. But because we don’t give consent the weight it deserves before it truly starts to matter, we tend to put consent and sex in the same category.
This idea of having the right to choose what happens to you must be taught to children, young adults, and adults, so that when the time comes where they make a choice between engaging or not engaging in sex (or whatever activity you can think of), they are fully aware of what they are entitled to do.
Being aware of what you are comfortable with and what you are willing to do with your body is essential.
Why isn’t this practiced and instigated more in our educational system?
How are we supposed to recognize the pure wrong of forcing sex on someone who is not a willing participant, when our laws and educational systems do not reflect this as a value?
Part 4 – My Experience with Sex Education
I was personally taught and wronged by an Abstinence-Only sex education in the Christian school I went to from Years 3-12. We had sex ed once in middle school when I was 14, where a teacher stood on a chair and told us that she believes none of us should date until college, and once again when I was 18 and finishing high school, where we mostly watched YouTube videos of a non-preacher preacher yelling at the audience.
The ‘health class’ that we were given in 8th grade had intense stigma around it—all of us talked of it as “the cursed class,” filled with shame and embarrassment.
We were separated from the boys, despite of the fact that the information on sex education took about a week to deliver and the course was a year or maybe half a year long, filled with dietary suggestions, fluff, and the like.
When the woman who stood on the chair stepped down and proceeded to give no educational content, she then told us that sex before marriage is sinful, and maybe mentioned something about babies.
I remember a sheet of paper was given to us where we had to fill in the blanks according to what she lectured to us, but I promise, it had no substance. I just remember everyone being uncomfortable, including the ‘educator’, creating a very toxic space where, of course, no one dared to ask questions.
Zero mention of consent.
In high school, we still had abstinence only education, but our teacher talked about STIs (referred to as STDs by them, which is problematic. It is an outdated term that has a negative connotations. Disease) and condoms in varying detail and accuracy.
Instead of creating a space of transparency and maturity, considering almost all of us were 18, the same uncomfortable and frankly stressful environment was created. Everyone kept quiet and waited in agony for the class to end.
Fear mongering was used (the action of deliberately arousing fear or alarm about a particular issue) by making us sit through YouTube videos of a Christian sex educator named Pam Stenzel.
This woman goes around America to scream at children to keep it in their pants.
She throws out statistics about death and STI rates that are absolutely false or they are exaggerated to shame everyone into abstaining.
If I could meet her, I’d love to ask her why she thinks the ends justify the means. (The ends aren’t even what she thinks they will be. 80% of people have had sex by the age of 21, including evangelical Christians.)
Here is a video of her. Turn on the subtitles—because she speaks too fast when spewing out incorrect information that she calls facts to avoid accountability—and then fact check her to see that I am not lying to you.
If you find anything that is correct, please let me know. We did this fact checking activity during a sleepover with a wonderfully amazing friend and old high school classmate of mine, only to come to find that every one of Stenzel’s stats were ridiculous.
Not only does she blatantly lie. If you could look past that, you would be disappointed with her condescending tone. This is not the voice of an educator. This is simply flat-out harmful.
As for condoms, we weren’t told even of their basic use, probably because family planning is quite controversial in the religious conservative right. What our teacher did say was that condoms do not protect you from HIV. To cite the NHS once again, “condoms are the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV.” When used correctly, condoms have a 90-95% success rate in preventing the spread of HIV.
I guess his beautiful diagram of a condom zoomed in to a microscopic level and the HIV virus fitting right on through its holes was a waste.
Why were we being taught lies and conspiracy theories?
No one should be told lies by their teachers.
After the week of Pam, we were studying a diagram “of the world” and “of God” (classic us vs them thinking). It was a pyramid that “the world” had upside down when it came to romantic relationships. The pyramid was divided into five sections that were supposed to go in a certain order.
- Physical (their looks, hugs, sex)
- Emotional (falling in love, opening up about past hurts)
- Mental (their intellect, views on different issues)
- Social (how they act around and interract with different people)
- Spiritual (do your religious beliefs align?, would you be unequally yoked?)
This was the explicitly incorrect and sinful order of attraction when you are getting to know someone you were interested in.
If you were to flip this order upside down, you were a good Christian and in favor with God, because it mattered that the foundation of your relationship was Jesus. If your order was anything else, you were classified as sinful and your relationship was doomed to end.
Wow, so helpful:
Maybe the worst part of the lesson that lasted roughly a month was the relentless effort to make you ashamed of everything about yourself. Every thought, every action, anything you ever did was bad.
To indirectly quote Pam Stenzel, imagine your partner is about to propose to you. They saved themselves for you. They are completely pure. You, on the other hand, have already been used. A damaged flower, a chewed-up piece of gum, a piece of tape that has been stuck to far too many surfaces to be clean.
You are dirty, unworthy, disgusting.
And now, to directly quote her:
“Who would want you?”
Part 4 – And the Damage It Has Done (My Rape Story)
That question rang in my ears. Its poison snaked its way through my veins. It choked me up. And opened the floodgates. I had spent the entire course our Christian Studies teacher decided to call ‘sex ed’ with non-stop crying.
I simply cried the entire hour. And I cried during lunch, and I cried when I went home.
Who would want me?
If the school spoke of rape, it was always spoken of in the vaguest terms possible. I believe our senior year was the only year we specifically discussed sexual abuse as a topic. Rape was mentioned in the Bible, and to a certain extent we discussed some of those Bible stories, but the act was never defined. I think for a long time I thought the term rape was another way to say sex outside of marriage is bad.
When I grew older, I knew there must have been something more to what rape was. I gathered enough through my childhood intuition to vaguely understand that one person feeling bad and the other being oblivious or not caring had something to do with it, but at 15, I was completely clueless.
Two women would come into our free period maybe once or twice a year to raise awareness on difficult topics such as mental health and abuse. However, they usually breezed through hard topics and did not create a safe environment where the students could interact with the material.
During their 35-minute presentation, my classmates and I were told that getting help is important and that mental health is hard. We were told “it is never the victim’s fault.”
Here are the questions I wanted to ask them, but felt that I couldn’t:
Does this apply to people who willingly spent time with their rapist outside of sexual encounters? (yes. 85-90% of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim)
Does this apply to those who wanted to experience sex but not with the individual who forced them? (yes. wanting to explore sex does not mean you deserve to be raped)
Does this apply to people who were married to their rapist? (always. marriage is about partnership and love. taking instead of giving is an evil act towards your spouse)
Does this apply to me?
I never received an answer from them, because rape wasn’t defined. I couldn’t know what “never the victim’s fault” applied to. I only felt shame and disgust.
I was a dirty sinner. And nobody will ever want me.
I am a used piece of tape, a wilted flower.
It took me a long time to recognize what I went through. It took 10 months after graduation for the truth to dawn on me. I had to break away from that unhealthy environment to see amd hear myself again.
It took four years altogether for me to realize I was raped.
Not just once, but probably over a hundred times by the same person, over the course of three years.
I spent four years in my school with the understanding that I had sinned. And not only that, but I wouldn’t turn away from my sin.
To those of you reading who have not been raised in religious surroundings, the weight of this feeling is practically impossible to explain.
Being a sinner means you are bad. It is a reminder that you will never be good enough. You need God to save you from yourself. You are disgusted with every part of your body. Every part of your mind. Every shred of who you are. You drown in the knowledge of your evil.
These messages filled with self-hatred can very easily be taken into relationships. And, oh, that I did.
I was charmed, enchanted, and kept at an arm’s distance enough to never see the blackness that was boiling underneath a fellow student’s smile.
In March 2020, I spent hours and days and weeks gathering information about narcissists and toxic relationships. Everything I found was applicable to my experience. I lived through all those bullet points. I heard all those lies. Being on this path where I opening myself up to the possibility that I was abused allowed me to learn the definition of rape at the age of 19.
I remember being 16 and hearing a little voice in my head questioning, “Couldn’t it be rape?” after I was coerced into giving in again.
I stuffed that voice into a box and slammed it into the most hidden corners of my mind, where the tears, the heartache, the invalidation lay forgotten. Until, three years later, a much older and mature version of Dalma opened that box with tender care, allowing it to take up the space it has been forbidden to for all those years.
It could be.
The nightmares hit me again.
For nights on end, he was there in night terrors. It was the last thing I wanted to experience. But I knew it was part of the healing.
I am now clean.
I recall leaving the classroom one day, after a long lecture on sex being a great evil. I wondered if this information would have made a difference if my teachers would’ve told me this four years ago. I told myself it didn’t matter now. I was already ruined.
Even with my current mind, while I understand the harm done to me wasn’t my fault, while I know the blame is on him and on the control imposed on the student body from unrealistic expectations set by our institution, all I can think of is that my younger self just wanted something to hold onto.
I just needed someone to give my “Please, stop” value. Because thoughts like these raced in my mind every minute of every hour, unless I shut it out. Then they consumed me in silence.
Maybe if I didn’t hug him so soon. Then it wouldn’t have happened.
Maybe if I didn’t open up to him so soon. Then it wouldn’t have happened.
Maybe if I didn’t care for his thoughts and opinions. Then it wouldn’t have happened.
Never once did I consider (NEVER ONCE WAS I TOLD): Maybe if he was a decent human being. Then it wouldn’t have happened. Afterall, I had to explain basic human decency to him countless times, but I was still the one who was bad and evil in the sights of him and everyone else.
Shedding the coat of blame I wore required me to I let it all in. What ‘it’ was, is hard to explain.
It wasn’t just accepting that what I experienced was rape. It was allowing myself to feel all those moments where I was told that I was at fault. But instead of believing it, rewriting the story by allowing “I am not at fault. I am right” to flow into every shred of my being.
I wasn’t allowed to feel that before, because my peers, teachers, him—they all told me that if I believed that, I was selfish, wrong, and evil. I had to accept that I was the problem.
“I am not the problem. I am not at fault. I am right.”
It isn’t healthy to play the What Could Have Been game, I think. I cannot change what was. But I do want to change what will be.
I do not want more stories like mine. Nobody deserves to have a story like mine. Nobody deserves to be taken advantage of in an environment that shuns and continues the cycle of abuse.
It really is the perfect recipe for abuse to get worse. You must hide and keep this a secret. Nobody can know. And if they were to find out, they could not and WOULD not accept you, which is why you need him. He is the only one who understands.
Lie, lie, lie, lie! Nobody acted as if they were lies. It made it so easy for him to manipulate and isolate me.
It wasn’t him who was given private bible studies about self-control, IT WAS ME.
It wasn’t him who was lectured and held accountable. IT. WAS. ME.
And it wasn’t him who had to suffer through all those years thinking he was dirt.
Can I blame him, if I spent thousands of words and time on an argument that is written fully about the importance of sex education and the consequences of its lack thereof? If I can turn this situation into something good? I would have reasons to go both ways, but in the end, it is my decision to choose which path I take. I firmly think choosing both at the same time, not just one or the other, are valid.
Occasionally, there would be some who’d tell me the right thing to do is to forgive. I think this isn’t about forgiveness. I think this is about two words that I’ve always loved, and they happen to be from Christianity.
I believe it is right for me to be angry. I truly feel that is right. It is a way I can stand up for my past self, the way nobody did for her at the time. My anger is right. Simply sitting around and forgiving that my past self was called a slut, whore, prostitute and many more by the student body, that all this was written off as silly Christian school gossip… that would be wrong. Abandoning myself like that would be wrong. So I won’t.
I don’t need to forgive the institution for not giving me the resources to make informed decisions that would have protected me. I don’t need to forgive the people who said my future job would be standing in the corner of a dark alley, waiting for men.
I don’t need to forgive anyone in order to be free, healthy, and well.
I can let it go without forgiving it. To quote the mighty Kesha, “Some things only God can forgive.”
Part 5 – Takeaways
My first-hand experience has taught me that Christians fear sex. They are afraid to talk about it. They are afraid of thinking about it. They would be perfectly happy if they could fully avoid everything about it (until marriage, I guess) and most tend to wish or even expect the same from their children.
It is an impossible task to express the helplessness that I feel. In knowing that the numerous problems are about to arise in the upcoming years, consequently from children knowing little to nothing about consent. My fear is for these future Dalmas and for every unaware individual.
After thinking and working on this post for over a week, I still haven’t concluded whether Christian beliefs align with the idea of consent. I know what my understanding of God would say about consent, but the interpretation sadly depends on the Christian.
Some progressive ones would likely have views that differ greatly from what people would describe as an average Christian. Progressive ones would likely support the reality of consent, its education, and encourage discussions about it in the home. Other conservative ones would likely be very strict in their views. They could potentially refuse to believe in consent (especially after marriage), although this is not to say that these stereotypes are all that apply.
I’m certain most Christian communities would be willing to learn and improve their teachings on sex. If they can see that refusing to talk about sex leads to neglecting the vital conversation of rape, there is hope. But I acknowledge the piled-up years of history and tradition that is standing in the way of truth.
My faith is in changing minds through the argument of morality.
Every child deserves to learn how to identify what I couldn’t.
No child should suffer through the confusion I went through, as a result of sex education that lacks the education and the sex part.
We need to be better.
It is about time to provide safety, knowledge, and power to our innocent.
Let’s be better people today than we were yesterday.
Legyünk jobb emberek ma, mint tegnap.
Seamos mejores personas hoy que ayer.
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Boundaries, True. “True Love Consents: Why Teach Christian Youth About Boundaries”. Christianity Today, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/november-web-only/true-love-consents.html. Accessed 20 Oct 2020.
Maxouris, Christina, and Saeed Ahmed. “Only These 8 States Require Sex Education Classes To Mention Consent”. CNN, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/29/health/sex-education-consent-in-public-schools-trnd/index.html. Accessed 20 Oct 2020.
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Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth. 2010.
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