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  • Reverend James Squire

Consent With A Twist

Al Vernacchio, a sex education teacher at the Friends Central School outside of Philadelphia, has gotten a good deal of press regarding a $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. He and the school received the funds to develop a sex education program around the ethical issue of consent. One of the articles that I read about his proposal stated, “Vernacchio believes the notion of consent is something that’s required whenever we interact with another person’s property, body, or reputation, and that by normalizing the idea of gaining permission, it’ll feel familiar when students discuss its role regarding sexual interaction.” He is doing the opposite of the dictum, “It is easier to ask for forgiveness than it is for permission.” In essence, he wants consent based in the normal social fabric of polite society in which asking for permission has fallen by the wayside. Our parents and grandparents would say we need better manners.

When I first met Vicki Squire, I was impressed by the cultural norms that she had received as a daughter of the South. Please, thank you, yes mam, no mam, yes sir, no sir, and excuse me were quite natural in her everyday exchanges. She had learned this approach from friends, family, and school. Somehow her thick southern accent added to the proper nature of her conversation.

Culture shapes honorable conversation. You hear the same kind of respect coming as well from those in the military. Honor codes in schools have made cheating less likely later on in a student’s life.

I think that Mr. Vernacchio is onto something important. When I think of consent I think of the necessity for consent before medical procedures after the horrible misuses of lack of consent in various medical experimentation that was done without patients knowing the possible side effects. Think of the Tuskegee Project where black men were infected with syphilis and then watched how they progressed through the disease process. That was sponsored by the federal government.

Vernacchio’s proposal for the grant was a brilliant piece of thinking. As a sex educator, he was obviously thinking about sexual permission by one of the partners as essential. But he took it a step further. Consent and permission at the sexual level needs to have the cultural backing of asking consent and permission in other areas that are not as emotionally laden.

We live in a culture where we do not ask for permission enough in everyday life so how can we believe that consent and permission would work in the heat of the moment in sexual relationships. How many times do we begin a question with, “May I…?

We “borrow” things from people with little thought of asking. Gone are the days when that last piece of pie was secured by anyone saying, “May I have that piece or does someone else want it?” Where a lack of permission is moving into the legal domain are issues related to social media. We are in the age of the retweet and too often permission to do so is not raised. Facebook has taken seriously this need for consent or permission to send posts forward by having a share option on its public domain but not on its private domain.

Consent became a very important part of my life as a priest and counselor. I indicated to people who came to see me for help that I would always ask their consent to share the content of our exchanges with others before I would do so. In most situations this was key to developing trust in our relationship. If we had this standard in our everyday lives, it would go a long way to stop the rumor mill and gossip. Consent and permission as part of our everyday exchanges would make our world a better place.

Just as honor codes created the environment for trust in high stakes military operations, asking consent more as a cultural norm will assist in making sexual relationships more responsible as well. You don’t want to be uncomfortable with issues of consent and permission in a potential sexual experience if you have not had consent in your daily experience. “Yes” or “No” shouldn’t be your first experience of giving or receiving consent from another person that you care about for sex is a high stakes emotional act.

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