This month, we at The Consent Workshop are engaging in conversations with some interesting people as part of our #TCWChat campaign. We kickstart this conversation with Olutimehin Adegbeye, who was really pleasant and interesting to talk to. We spoke about Consent education, how society should get involved in the process of obtaining and teaching consent, and sexual assault including the role the government plays in it currently.
Olutimehin is a writer, speaker and advocate; her work focuses on rights, inclusion and justice in the areas of Gender, Sexualities and Urbanisation. She has worked with several political, cultural, civil society and corporate organisations, and has been invited to speak at events in a dozen countries across four continents. Her writing, available digitally and in print, has been translated into multiple languages. OluTimehin’s TED Talk “Who Belongs in a City?”, viewed over 2 million times so far, was chosen by TED as one of the best ten talks of 2017. She is a current Women Deliver Young Leader.
We asked Timehin a couple of questions about consent and her scope of work and here’s what she told us.
What does consent mean to you?
To me, consent means active, informed and ongoing willingness or desire to participate in any activity, including but not limited to sexual activity.
Who would you say is responsible for consent education, parents, schools, activists?
If this is in reference to children or minors, as I imagine it is, then I think anyone who engages in any kind of interpersonal interaction with them should bear some of the responsibility for educating and reinforcing positive messages about consent. The people who care for children and are most often in contact with them should bear the greatest responsibility, of course, but parents and other authority figures can’t be everywhere. It would be wonderful if consistent, affirming consent messaging—which can be everywhere—were always readily available, delivered by all authority figures. Unfortunately, this is not the case, so I believe parents, schools, and religious institutions should take this responsibility even more seriously, in order to try to compensate for all of the ways that consent education can be undermined by the wider society.
In what ways can we learn to be clear about our own sexual boundaries and make the giving of our consent more transparent?
Goodness. Even I, despite my age/level of formal education/exposure and commitment to the principles of social justice etc, struggle with this. Still, I think communication with our sexual partners is the most important thing, all of the time, even and maybe especially outside of explicitly sexual situations. I am aware that the ability to be vocal about sexual boundaries and/or desires only comes with being comfortable with one’s sexuality in the first place, so this is of course easier said than done. How do we become more comfortable with the ways in which we experience (or don’t experience) sexual attraction, desire and activity? By dismantling the patriarchy! Haha.
I also know that open and honest communication has to be a two-way street, and unfortunately far too many of us are in sexual relationships with people who are unable or unwilling to create and/or sustain the emotional safety that fosters communication about sexual boundaries, etc. So what does one do? It’s tough. But I would say, talk about sex with people you feel safe and comfortable with, even if you’re not sexually attracted to or engaging in sexual activity with those people. Talk about the things that you find/have found thrilling or satisfying or worrying or scary or even traumatic. And if you talk about nothing else, you must absolutely talk about the things you’re ashamed of; the things you’re ashamed of wanting or doing or feeling. Shame is such a significant barrier to sexual comfort. Also, if you feel the desire to, masturbate. Pleasuring your own self is such a powerful way to learn about and get comfortable with your body and desires. The more comfortable you are with your own sexuality, the easier communication about what you do and don’t want with other people will be.
Why is early consent and sex education important and what is the ideal age to begin teaching young children about consent ?
Children’s bodies are, generally speaking, not functionally different from the bodies of adults. They have the same capacity for pain or pleasure or experiences of trauma/violation, so they should be taught, at age-appropriate levels from as early as possible, what they and others can and cannot do with their bodies. No matter where a person falls on the sexuality spectrum, it is important for them to know from the moment they become conscious of their own bodies (which is, for most children, before they are one year old), that they are in charge of their bodies.
I read somewhere about a parent who told their (preverbal) infant what they were doing every time they changed a diaper, or hugged or kissed them. I found the intentionality of that very beautiful, even though I realise most people won’t go to such lengths. Still, if a child can communicate, verbally or not, then the child is old enough to begin to learn about granting and rescinding permission regarding what happens to their body.
If you had a friend with a problematic view about consent, what steps would you take to educate this person and what would you define as Consent 101?
I have friends with problematic views about consent — don’t we all? Haha. I do the same thing with my friends as I do with my child; whenever an opportunity presents itself or the need arises, I try to open up a conversation about bodily integrity, the importance of respecting other people’s choices, and the need to recognise our own ability to do harm, even when we don’t mean to.
I think the last part — recognising our own ability or even inclination to do harm — doesn’t get discussed enough, especially among ‘good’ people. But overriding someone else’s will can only happen when we have power over them, and not only does having power over others feel good, it is also what many of us are taught to strive towards as a marker of ‘success’. Whether by becoming ‘the boss’, accumulating wealth, ’controlling our children’ or developing ‘leadership’ skills, we are all taught that power over other people is aspirational. And this indoctrination is deliberately uncomplicated, so that we don’t ask why we should desire such power, if we have a right to such power, or how to use such power in a way that doesn’t harm people. I believe analysis of power is crucial to any conversation about consent: Consent 101 is understanding that our unilateral use of power ends where another person’s body begins.
Sexual Assault Resources
Despite the increase in talks about consent, there are still high numbers of rape cases every day. How else would you suggest tackling this?
Pessimistic as it might be to say this, I don’t think talking about consent will eradicate rape. Rapists are not ethical people, so attempting to educate them on ethical conduct is a waste of time. This is not to say that consent education is useless; I don’t believe that all rapes are committed by rapists. Many rapes are the result of inadequate consent (and sex) education, in combination with socialisation that normalises and enthrones (heterosexual) male violence. So I believe consent education, as well as pleasure education, can be very useful to limit such instances. But the only thing that stops rapists is having to face real, material consequences. I think if rapists had to face significant social and economic consequences, they might enjoy sexual violence a teeny weeny bit less.
Do you think the Nigerian Constitution and government is friendly to victims of sexual assault? In a perfect world, what would they be doing right?
Nigeria is only more or less embracing of its rapists than other places, depending on where you look. Which is not to excuse this disaster of a country, but rather to say that as far as I know, even the ‘most progressive’ places stillhouse people who would close ranks around a rapist before doing the same for a survivor (I’m looking at you, Norway). In a perfect world, women and people’s humanity would be so highly valued that any form of violence against them would be met with shock and swift consequences. But here we are.
What would you say are the appropriate consequences for sexual predators?
Total social and economic destruction. Ostracisation, economic ruin, and complete ejection from society. You know, just the way we used to do it in the old days, before we were force-fed utter nonsense by those colonising, war-mongering, racist rapists and their astonishingly backward dependence on violence to maintain ‘social order’. Nobody wants to be alone, and certainly nobody wants to be an outcast. That’s why bigots use ostracism so much; it is remarkably effective for completely destroying the human spirit. And since sexual violence destroys the spirit, I think it’s fair. (Notice how I didn’t say ‘prison’. To my mind, the fact that prison rape ‘jokes’ are a thing should tell us all we need to know about the effectiveness of prisons for addressing or ending sexual violence).
Gender, Consent, and Urban Poverty
In your famous Ted Talk ‘Who belongs in a City?’, you discuss the importance of including everyone in the conversation, especially marginalized groups like women in low income communities. How would you advise organizations to teach about consent especially in communities within heightened class and power dynamics?
This is tough. Sexual norms are so different from place to place, and from class level to class level. It is unwise, I think, to just go to places we are not from or part of, or places where we have inadequate frames of reference to understand what shapes sexual behaviour, and assume that our frameworks for understanding healthy, safe and pleasurable sexual activity are relevant or even useful. I think well-intentioned organisations would benefit hugely from first learning from groups that they want to reach with consent education about their own practices and frameworks, and then providing these groups with resources that enable the people to define and communicate their own desires around safe and enjoyable sexual activity.
How do we move toward a truly equitable society?
Extremely slowly. And even then, we often regress. It’s a bit depressing, really.
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