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Consent and Language


It’s been said by some facilitators of consent workshops that one of the workshop rules is: “You are not allowed to do anything you don’t want to do.”
This language has never sat comfortably with me, but I am only now coming to understand why.
On the face of it, it sounds great – we’re doubling down on the importance of consent by not just politely asking people not to do anything they don’t want to do, but actually insisting on it.  That surely keeps everyone extra safe.  Doesn’t it?


Judith Herman, an expert in the effects of trauma in the body and how to recover from it, says:


“No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster their recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in their own best interests.”
In a Wheel of Consent workshop, we are being invited to explore our learning edges around what exactly constitutes consensual touch.  Unless much thought and effort is put into how to make this a place supportive of choice and empowerment for participants, the likelihood of someone having a flashback or memory of previous non-consensual touch is quite high.  This then raises three questions for me about the use of the phrase: “You are not allowed to do anything you don’t want to do” in this setting.
Question 1:  How useful is it to being any phrase, “You are not allowed to...” in a consent workshop?  

I think it’s important to consider how this phrase might land in people’s bodies, when it comes from a person in a perceived position of authority – i.e. the facilitator.    You might want to experiment with this right now. You could try closing your eyes, imagining yourself in a slightly stressful situation surrounded by strangers, and imagine an authority figure saying to you, “You are not allowed to!”  What happens in your body?  What thoughts or emotions arise?  What do you notice?
I notice a slight feeling of constriction and anxiety – and my guess is that at least one or two, and possibly more students in a class would feel this too.  For some there might be a flashback to the vulnerable state of being a disempowered child, being told by an adult they are "not allowed” to do something, and having to obey out of fear.  Others might have an inner feeling of rebellion - "I’m not going to let another person telling me what I’m not allowed to do!”

By contrast I notice that using invitational language like: "everything here is an invitation", "you get to choose”, "you do not have to touch or be touched by anyone”, creates more of a sense of ease and expansion in me.   The core practice of the Wheel of Consent is ‘Waking the Hands’, where we are aiming to slow down, relax and regulate the nervous system, so we can tune more deeply into what our body is telling us.   It therefore makes sense to me to use language which supports this down-regulating, rather than potentially pushing some people’s nervous systems in the opposite direction.

Question 2:  How useful is it specifically to say, “You are not allowed to do anything you don’t want to do”?  

In a Wheel of Consent workshop we will be trying things out, noticing what we do and don’t want to do.  We are practicing this precisely because it is not always easy.  We have mostly all spent a lifetime of being conditioned to ‘go along with’ touch we don’t really want.  So the chances are high that at some point during a workshop we will make a mistake.  We  might say yes to touch initially, and then not ask for it to stop immediately at the point we no longer want it.  In the context of this, being told “You are not allowed to do anything you don’t want to do” is tantamount to saying “You are not allowed to make any mistakes.”   This doesn't feel to me like a supportive learning environment.  It might be more useful to set an intention to stay within our consent, whilst acknowledging that there will probably be times we get it wrong.  And to know that’s OK, let's have compassion for ourselves and each other when that happens - rather than make it ‘against the rules’.

Question 3:  What about the difference between 'want to ' and 'willing to'?

This question is specific to the Wheel of Consent, because at some point in the workshop we going to make the distinction between 'want to' and 'willing to'.  And a core aspect of the teaching is that both of these constitute consent.  Now, if everyone commits at the start of the workshop to only doing what they 'want to do' and not what they are 'willing to do' then it’s simply not going to be possible to practice the Wheel of Consent at all!  Moreover, to set up a ground rule at the start of the workshop: “only do what you want to do” and then change it later, “now we want you to explore what you are willing to do, as distinct from what you want to do”, creates a lack of consistency, which could feel to some students like a lack of safety.

I'm currently educating myself on what 'trauma-informed' practice looks like, in which it’s clear that invitations, offers and guidelines are more broadly appropriate and effective than commands and rules.  Even where there is a clear house rule, e.g. ‘no genital touch’, then it is more helpful to phrase it like:  “We have a boundary in this workshop of no genital touch, is everyone willing to agree to that?” rather than saying, “You are not allowed to touch anyone’s genitals!”


Perhaps I'm being pedantic.  But language is important, especially when we are in a place of vulnerability and openness, in which people are likely to experience the impact of certain words in their body.  I know I do!

Rupert James Alison,  June 2019


Trauma and Recovery

Judith Herman


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