April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and this year's theme is "I Ask" because 'asking for consent is a healthy, normal, and necessary part of everyday interactions' according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. While sexual assault and harassment are major issues we are still working hard to prevent, I love this year's theme because it challenges every single person to intentionally ask for consent, every single time.
Growing up, we are conditioned to allow cordial access to our space and bodies as a sign of respect or kindness. C'mon, I can't be the only one who was told as a kid to give everyone a hug when arriving or departing a location like family gatherings, church, or holiday celebrations! Any sign of refusal was met with a threat only a kid would be frightened by but that stigma follows us as we get older. Now, as an adult, I feel compelled to hug people who extend their well-intended arms towards me, for fear of being labeled angry, standoffish, rude, unprofessional, or stuck up. Don't get me wrong, I love people! I believe most of the people who want to exchange hugs are well meaning and want to express their affection, appreciation, or respect. But, that's not the point of this article.
It wasn't until I began working with a client, where everyday, ordinary consent was a normal part of their culture that I realized that it's acceptable to not want a hug. I learned that whether or not I wanted to receive a hug was 100% dependent on how I was feeling at that time. In fact, it was with this client that I learned that saying 'No' to a hug wouldn't result in being labeled angry, standoffish, rude, unprofessional, or stuck up. For me, that was huge! It was in working with this client that I learned a lesson that has changed what consent means to me.
I have always believed that every person should ask for consent prior to any sexual advances or contact. Those things are obvious, well should be obvious, areas where consent is necessary. There are plenty of articles addressing the issues associated with non-consentual advances in the workplace. But, when was the last time you asked for consent for business appropriate signals of welcome and respect, such as handshakes or hugs? In many professional circles dominated by women, it has been my experience that hugs can be the handshake equivalent. In any case, these things have been deemed acceptable and even expected.
The #MeToo movement has catapulted to the forefront a conversation about sexual assault and harassment, particularly at work. This national spotlight has uncovered just how ingrained and systemic sexual violence are to our culture. Sexual violence is an umbrella term that covers various types of harassment and assault ranging from sexist language and behaviors to sexual advances and rape. while the majority of us can agree that sexual assault and harassment are unwelcome at work, it has not been crystal clear on where the line should be drawn. The purpose of Sexual Assault Awareness Month is to prevent sexual assault and harassment. One way we can do that is to ensure there is consent prior to any bodily contact, even if the intent is pure and friendly. It's time we make asking for consent as natural as extending a hand or arm for a handshake or hug.
"May I give you a hug/shake your hand" is a simple question but one that can liberate people and restore power back to the individual. Asking for consent for all types of bodily contact must be a natural part of our culture and workplaces.
It may sound and feel weird to place so much emphasis on asking for consent for hugs and handshakes, but when was the last time you thought about the absurd meaning we ascribe to handshakes? According to a recent Hubspot article, "Your handshake conveys so much more than an initial greeting. In business, it's your first connection with a client or candidate, and it can vastly alter the entire course of a meeting. Establishing that connection before diving into the content of a meeting allows the client or candidate to feel a sense of trust and welcoming the moment they step into the room." Let's be clear, the only thing we are establishing through a handshake is power dynamics i.e. a strong handshake indicates a strong, trustworthy, respectable person.
If you can make just one person feel more comfortable, isn't asking for permission and consent a no-brainer? Remember, consent is the behavior, the situation is irrelevant. That's how we change the culture around sexual assault and harassment.
This April, my challenge to you is to ask for consent! Yes, asking for consent will feel weird and the other person may look at you crazy, but it begins to feel normal the more you ask.
Visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center for resources and additional information on this year's theme "I Ask".