Consent and the Body
(See also this related article on consent and physical touch in Yoga Classes)
Content warning: non-consensual touch.
We have all been touched against our will and without our consent, many times. As babies this is inevitable: we have to be dressed and have our nappies changed, and even if our caregivers were extremely loving and attentive, there were times when we screamed and yelled in protest, and our shouts went unheeded. As we grew older, most of us continued to experience unwanted touch, ranging from the mildly uncomfortable to, for some of us, much, much worse. Our status in society, our privilege or lack of it, our gender, sexuality, racial background and many other factors influence the amount and type of unwanted touch we have experienced. But none of us has escaped entirely unscathed.
And research increasingly shows that our body remembers and stores this. The body remembers how going along with unwanted touch was often safer than protesting against it. We don't need to have experienced anything exceptionally horrific for the effects of trauma to reside in our body. Most of us have learned to switch off or numb our feelings of protest or disgust arising from unwanted touch, and in the process we have switched off some of our bodily autonomy and access to pleasure too.
And yet receiving nurturing, meaningful touch is one of the deepest longings and needs of being human.
So how can we get our needs for healthy touch met, without slipping into ingrained habits of ‘going along with’ whatever happens to be on offer, or what’s being pushed onto us?
This is where the Wheel of Consent comes in. It's an embodied practice, which helps us slow down and regulate our nervous system, so we can tune more deeply into what our body is telling us. More specifically, the Wheel invites us to keep noticing, over and over again, what happens when we bring awareness to the following five, consensual, experiences:
What do I experience in my body when I am touching someone else the way I want?
What do I experience in my body when I am touching someone else the way they want?
What do I experience in my body when someone else is touching me the way I want?
What do I experience in my body when someone else is touching me the way they want?
What do I experience in my body when I am touching an object the way I want – with no one else involved?
Each practice only needs to take a few minutes, and requires clarity of communication between the participants, which is where the diagram of the Wheel comes in. Many people find the benefits of these practices extremely rich, precisely because we have been so often shamed for expressing our desires, or had our boundaries crossed and ignored.
In Wheel of Consent workshops, any shared touch is purely optional, fully clothed and mostly limited to the hand and fore-arm. We learn to express, moment by moment, our boundaries, limits and preferences, in a practice where we are moving slowly enough for us to keep track of them. By experiencing these five practices in this simple way, many feelings may arise:
we may feel enjoyment or pleasure if we touch or are touched in exactly the way we want
sometimes sadness may arise, as we reflect on how little of the touch we have received during our lives has involved such a high level of agreement and honouring
we may occasionally switch off, and need to pause or end the practice, if painful or challenging memories start to arise
we may feel a deep sense of relief, when it finally feels 'safe enough' to fully inhabit our body
For all these reasons, we offer emotional support and create clear, choice-based and trauma-sensitive ground-rules and guidelines before starting the practise. Participants are encouraged to pause, stop, keep asking for changes, and keep expressing their needs and wants, as and when they arise. And of course, any and all shared touch is entirely optional. Sometimes, choosing not to share touch is the most powerful choice of all.
The Wheel of Consent is many things, but perhaps at its core it is the practice of carefully and systematically unpicking the deeply toxic and sometimes traumatic messages around physical autonomy, intimacy and pleasure, which patriarchy and capitalism have implanted into our body-minds.
Judith Herman, a trauma expert, has the following to say about recovery from trauma:
'The core experiences of psychological trauma are disempowerment and disconnection from others. Recovery, therefore, is based upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.'
The Wheel of Consent directly addresses these two areas of healing: self-empowerment and creating new connections, together with an understanding that almost of of us hold some degree of trauma in our bodies.
The unwanted touch we have received throughout our lives can never be undone. But there are many ways in which we might journey towards reclaiming ownership of, compassion towards, and pleasure in our own body.
The Wheel of Consent is the most powerful one I have yet come across.
Rupert James Alison
Our workshops last anything from 2 hours to 2 days. Please contact us to find out more