As the first few weeks of living in Montana unfolded, I was seemingly teleported back in time to my childhood. It really was as if grown up-me was in a dream watching child-me go through the day-to-day of living with my father. He and his wife are raising her granddaughter. I really am sitting back and observing day-to-day, moment-to-moment foundational occurrences in this girls life, that were part of my childhood, and being fully aware of how it has impacted my life, specifically in my tendencies towards abusers.
I am, and will always be, grateful for the fact that my father has been a willing listener and participant in these conversations since I’ve been here. He has listened to me bluntly, honestly open up about how I feel about what I’m seeing. Neither of us have been perfect at these conversations, but we are both giving our best effort to have them, and keep a positive relationship with each other. If he weren’t being so amazing at taking in, thinking about, and accepting what we’re discussing, I would not be healing as quickly as I am.
A Conversation about CONSENT
We were in the kitchen, M and I. He had walked by us three times, going back and forth to get something he needed. Each time he walked by he touched her, touched her shoulder, poked her side, patted her butt. It was routine. It’s what he does.
He thinks he’s showing endearment; he doesn’t mean anything by it. He doesn’t understand, I tell myself.
But I remember the same thing happening to me. I remember being young and all the little pokes, the little rubs, the playful pats. I remember the duality of not wanting to be poked all the time and missing the pokes when he was upset with me. I remember feeling that it was an endearment; it was how he showed me he cared. And he’s my dad, I want him to care.
Everything we learn about society is built up from what we learn at home first. How we interact with the world outside the home is a version of what we’ve learned about how to interact at all.
I asked my dad, “If you had a magic lens and you could see into M’s day at school, and there was a teacher or another student that touched M every time he walked by her, innocently enough, nothing overtly sexual, would you be ok with that?”
He quickly sat up, offended, “No, that’s not ok.”
So I looked at him and I reminded him of how he did exactly that same thing to her, every day. I could clearly see the confusion on his face.
Without realizing, he is teaching her/ taught me that men can touch her/me without her/my consent; that it is endearing to have someone touch without asking first. We were taught to ignore or not pay direct attention to the fact that our body was not our own to decide what happened to it. We, being children, were property, he being the patriarch was in charge. And seemingly without intention, he put himself in charge of our bodies as well. (We, being girls, would later also be socially inundated with objectification to tack on to the back of being raised as property.)
Our fathers are our first interactions with men. That relationship helps us learn what to expect of ourselves and others in our future.
I learned not to pay attention to being touched by boys/ men. And that lack of response is a test abusers use. It’s a red flag test I blew through time after time.
As hormones hit and life becomes the erratic whirl of our teens, we all begin trying to figure out the differences and similarities between love, sex, and all the chaos in between. What was endearment touches are now possible love touches by others. And don’t we all know that, in our teens, each and every love is our eternal soulmate and each loss is devastating beyond measure. Our need/ desire for physical contact is all mixed up with our need/ desire for the goal of our own partner. Then add in all the unhealthy, abusive ways we are shown to expect from one another. How are we supposed to come out of that and into adulthood with a healthy understanding of how to be in a relationship?
If we don’t know how to be asked consent, how to expect to be asked consent, how to ask for consent, how are we supposed to all of a sudden, in the midst of new mature physical bodies with hormones running amuck, start expecting and understanding consent? Yes, this goes for boys too.
“So”, my dad asked, “then what do I do”?
You ask for consent to touch her. Teach her how to listen for it. Teach her to expect it. Set the example for boys/ men to follow your lead.
“Hey, can I have a hug?”, “Fist bump”, “Come here, I wanna tickle ya”
Anything, but something verbal that announces to her (him) that you want to engage in healthy, acceptable, endearing physical contact and gives her (him) the chance to disagree or agree. It should become natural habit, not forced, example
“Awww, can I have a hug”, vs. “M, is it ok if I give you a hug?”
IMPORTANT * Accept the response. If she says no, don’t coerce her, make her feel bad, do it anyway, or anything else except not do whatever it was you announced wanting to do. Without any negativity, show her that her no is accepted. Teach her see the response you want her to expect from others in her future.
Also, don’t withhold physical intimacy. Children need that physical assurance of your love. Just make sure it’s appropriate, healthy, and asked for.
Here is where my dad is starting to struggle. But, that’s normal I think, for this new into an understanding. He’s having to work through a lifetime of being “the boss” at home. Letting someone else be in charge of their own bodies means he’s not in charge. He’s staying “in charge” by not doing anything while he works through the massive change that knowing brings.
I think this is one of the Let Go and Let God type of understandings. But no change is easy, comes right away, or perfectly. It’s a process.
Consent for sexual touch has to begin with consent for any physical touch. Each step along the way, from innocently holding hands, to knowingly going through a sexual act, consent needs to be asked for and given. There is no point, in any relationship, that you should touch another person without their consent.
Certainly consent is given a kind of implied sense within a romantic relationship, but there should always still be the ability to show or say, “not right now” and have it be accepted, whether it’s a hug, touching the shoulder, or sex.
As I type this, and maybe as you read this, you’ll think, “That seems pretty obvious to me.”, but I’ve been talking through this with other people, and you’d be surprised how many looked at me with the same confusion my dad had and said, “I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
We learn how to interact with the world in our families. We build our understanding of what is acceptable or not, behaviors to look for or ignore, with those earliest moments. Everything we do as parents affects long-term, especially if it is a pattern. We are creatures of habit. We like the comfortable and used-to things. We migrate towards people that make us feel secure in our patterns.
We need to look at the patterns we teach our children about consent while they’re young, before we send them out into the world and expect them to just know.
I sent my kidittos out with mixed messages. The more I learn about the patterns I didn’t see, the more I see how many patterns I passed on in ignorance. But I also see the many ways I did better than I thought I had. Parenting is rough business sometimes. We don’t get a handbook. I wasn’t being parented through my teens, and I was practically a parent through my pre-teens because I had to basically raise my siblings, so I was mostly able to parent my kidittos without preconceived ideas of how to do it. That was good and bad.
What I taught them through my words to them, my actions to them, was good, but they were counter-balanced by what I taught them through my actions with their dad and to myself in that relationship and the others I had post divorce. They saw my words for them and my actions for myself being juxtaposed and incongruent.
I learned what to do to get out of, but not what to do to not get into an abusive relationship. That’s got to mess with their heads a little. It messes with mine.
For me the good news is, that no matter what age, if we talk to our children about what we see from our past, we can help the future. I talk to my kidditos about my relationships because I want them to be “informed consumers”. That’s not the best term, but it gets the concept across. As I have walked through life, so many of the relationship mistakes I’ve made have been because I didn’t know any better at the time. Having more information will help them make better decisions in the relationships they have in the future, I hope.
Fighting through the fear of talking to my dad about these relationship issues has been difficult. This was only one conversation, one red flag. But I think it’s a big one. Pushing through that fear and actually having the conversation was tremendously validating and healing.
What are your thoughts on this?