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Consent and Gender Role Conditioning 

I love exploring the complexity of who we are, how we feel and relate to ourselves and one another. My work helps people create more internal ease, which allows us to be inside the discomfort of hard conversations.

When people who love you exploit or abuse you, whether it’s a whole country, a parent, a lover, or humans overly consuming the earth’s resources, your relationship to love becomes much more complicated than straightforward good feelings. Loving also means supporting and respecting what someone needs to feel empowered, vibrant, and safe, which leads us to the topic of consent.

Recently, I interviewed author Carvell Wallace on my podcast, and we discussed how as a young man he didn’t know that saying “No” was an option in sexual situations. He was introduced to boundaries and consent at a sex party as an adult and his mind was blown.

What would the world be like if, starting in elementary school, everyone learned embodied consent practices and understood they always have the option to say “no” at any point? Understanding this intellectually and your body knowing how to execute it are two different things. Gender and sex-role conditioning play a huge part in why Cis-men may not see saying “no” an as option. Men are supposed to always be ready and hungry for sex.

I remember in high school kids saying “Men can’t be raped by a woman. They wouldn’t get a hard-on if they didn’t want sex.” While our genitals may have boundaries for us (by going soft or getting an infection) when we have conflicting feelings about having sex, a body can simultaneously feel scared or want to say “no” and still get physiologically aroused and ejaculate during sexual abuse or assault. Often this causes confusion, self-blame, and shame after and during the encounter. It’s important to remember the role power plays in boundary crossings. As a kid or teenager, even a few years difference creates a power dynamic.

Of course, cis-girls are often conditioned to not disappoint and to please. This pressure can lead to overriding their own boundaries and neglecting their needs in sexual situations. Girls who do this then often become adults who still freeze up and don’t give voice to what feels good. You can’t give consent if you don’t know what your boundaries are. 

In my experience, everyone needs embodied boundary training. A lack of boundaries or ability to attune to others is a universal affliction that we can all get better at. We all have blind spots.

Here is an exercise:

If we were in person together, I would have you stand up and do a martial arts-based practice with me, but studies show that even by visualizing an action, muscle teams fire, and new neural pathways in the brain are formed. With Practice, these neural pathways that didn’t previously exist, get reinforced and support you acting in new ways you couldn’t access in the past. Instead of defaulting to freezing, with practice, you can develop the option to say “no”, push or walk away.

Close your eyes if you feel safe doing so. You can also grab a pen and paper to take notes as you go or to journal afterward. 

  1. Get grounded in your body. Everyone has a different starting baseline. What does it feel like when you feel more settled and solid in yourself? Maybe your legs are heavier and your head feels clearer or your chest feels less tight and buzzy.  Put your attention on your lower belly, breathe here, relax your pelvic floor, feel your feet and the back of your body. A full belly pressing against your ribs as you breathe in it activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms the body. We will keep coming back to this grounding practice in between our visualizations. The more you practice coming back to this place you will find it with ease over time.
  1. Imagine you are walking down the street and a stranger walking past you asks for your phone number. One person freezes up and doesn’t know what to say. You may feel fuzzy, can’t think clearly, stop breathing and your torso and legs feel tighter. Someone else feels nothing. Or If you’re attracted to this stranger, maybe you are intrigued and something warms up and opens in your body. Pay attention to your sensations, thoughts, emotions, and memories. Have you felt this way before? What were you feeling emotionally? Scared, excited, or blank? Maybe you default to being tough and feeling nothing. What thoughts came up? “I have to be nice.” “I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” How familiar are they? Are your body’s signals something you pay attention to or ignore and override? Where did you learn how to do this? Who in your life modeled this
  1. Now, imagine that same stranger grabs your arm once you stop. Are the thoughts, emotions, sensations, and reactions the same or intensified? Moment to moment your state and your needs change. If we aren’t paying attention it is hard to respond to ourselves and perhaps change course. Maybe you were ok giving your number but someone grabbing you sets off alarms. “What right do they have?” “Who do they think they are?” and feel the impulse to push them away or run away. Pay attention to your breathing? Has it changed?
  2. Imagine you have a big brother or sister, some ally who is there to protect you, who is standing with you. Rather than dismissing or minimizing what you are feeling or telling yourself, you should feel otherwise, this ally says,” You have a right to feel that. I’m here with you. If you are uncomfortable that is enough of a reason to say no, don’t touch me.” What is it like to have an adult there with you? What happens in your body when this ally speaks up for you? People don’t always have bad intentions, but your need for safety is your need for space and you do not need to apologize for it. It can change once you feel safer or may get activated with someone you previously felt safe with. You get to change your mind. We have brilliant bodies that are always communicating with us. If we listen we often sometimes anticipate or avoid situations that become dangerous.
  3. Again come back to putting your attention on your body in the present moment. We are going to ground again. Feel your lower belly, breathe here, soften your jaw, feel space between your lips and teeth, relax your pelvic floor, feel your feet and back of your body. If you need to orient by looking around the room and notice the textures or colors you are drawn to do that. If you feel disoriented at all remind yourself what date and time it is. Say it out loud.
  4. Let’s practice again. For some people practicing with a stranger is harder while for others it is people from our past or present that feel more charged. 

Recall a situation where you wish you could have said “no” or a situation in the present that you want to be able to. If you already feel agitated when you think about doing this, Don’t pick the hardest scenario. If 10 is the scariest or hardest then pick a situation that would rank at 3. Who comes to mind, where are you, how old are you? Use all of your senses to conjure the scene.

  1. How is this different or a repeat of what happened when you imagined a stranger? What are you thinking and feeling emotionally and physically? Once you have taken an inventory of your state and you are registering how much info your body gives you, again come back to grounding and orienting to the present moment.

(image by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash)

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© 2022 By Charna Cassell, LMFT. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. MFC 51238.

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