The Power of Consent
Words and image by Courtney Wittich
I was 14 years old; a shy, nervous, freshman who had just gotten her braces off. He was two years older; tall, confident, a good singer. We started dating, much to the dismay of my parents, and before I knew it, I was in the type of relationship that was meant for someone much older than me.
I was scared the first time we kissed. I was scared the next three or four times after that. I was scared when he touched me in places that had never been touched, even by myself. Sometimes it felt good, but sometimes it didn’t. I don’t ever remember him asking if I wanted it. Sometimes it happened in public, like in the backseat of his parents' car or in a movie theater. It was exciting at times, and the fact that I enjoyed it made me feel so much shame.
We had both grown up in Christian homes and any sexual acts before marriage were viewed as sin. I stopped talking to my friends and my mom because I knew they wouldn’t approve of what I was doing. I closed myself off. I thought that since this was my choice, I should deal with the consequences alone. I had said yes to being his girlfriend and I loved him; we were going to get married someday. I thought that these conflicting feelings must be a normal part of a dating relationship, holding desire and disgust in the same hand.
I broke things off about a year later. I finally told my sisters what was going on. The well of pain inside me had finally overflowed. I told my mom the truth about what had been going on and she made me break up with him over the phone. It felt like such an immature end to a very mature relationship. The months that followed were confusing. I felt anger, regret, sadness. I nearly lost my mind when he started dating someone else and informed me they were doing none of those things that he and I did. He was respecting her boundaries. Why couldn’t he have treated me that way? It wasn’t my fault that I didn’t know I needed to have boundaries with him. I eventually stopped talking to him when his girlfriend intervened and said he had nothing left to say to me. I tried to accept that I was never going to get the apology that I wanted or acknowledgment of what he had taken from me.
Fast forward 12 years. I am a married woman with two children. The “Me Too” movement is going strong, bringing about much needed change and introducing a new narrative into the world. Brave women are coming forward with their stories of sexual assault. Friends and family are adding theirs on social media. As I sat scrolling through Facebook, I saw the words “me too” all over my feed, and as odd as it sounds, I felt a sense of disappointment that I had nothing to add. I had never been assaulted, abused, or raped.
I’d been in a healthy relationship for many years with a man who valued my voice, my opinions, and my body. Sure, I didn’t always communicate very well when it came to sex. I didn’t always know what I wanted or what words to use to show him what I liked. Sometimes I felt like he wasn’t attracted to me because he didn’t make a move nearly as often as I expected. His hands weren’t all over my body all the time. I was ashamed of my desires, even in marriage; a holdover from my past relationship. I was too embarrassed to talk about the deep longing I felt to be known and to know him. We were best friends, partners, each other’s cheerleaders, and maybe it was okay that we didn’t have a passionate love life. At least I was safe.
I had come to accept that what happened in my former relationship was normal. We were young, it was innocent. I felt no ill will against my ex-boyfriend; we were even friends on social media. Then I began seeing the word “consent” all over the place. I knew the meaning of the word. I thought I understood it in the context of a relationship, but the more I read, the clearer it became that consent was what was missing from my relationship with my ex-boyfriend. He thought I was giving consent because of the way my body responded, but often I was not okay with what was happening. I didn’t know that saying yes to dating him meant I was saying yes to everything else.
That’s the way people see it: if you’re in a relationship, anything goes. If you love each other it’s not necessary to have boundaries with one another. As it dawned on me that I had been taken advantage of in such a subtle way, I started to feel angry at society. I wasn’t angry at the boy, he was just doing what society tells men they should do: be a man, make the first move, take what you want. I believe at times he felt as much shame as I did, but we just didn’t have the maturity to understand what was going on. As a grown woman I look back at that little girl and I want to cry for her. I wish I could protect her tender heart. I wish I could teach her how to use her voice, the value of consent, and that her likes and dislikes are as important as a man's.
I'm just starting to find my voice. This wonderful movement, born out of pain, has done so much for me. These women’s stories have shone a light on my experience and have helped me see it for what it was. Things were taken from me because I did not have the opportunity to give consent. But you know what? I consent now. I consent to a loving, exciting, and mutually satisfying relationship with my husband. I consent to an incredible journey of self-discovery. I am using my voice to share my desires and needs, and it feels amazing. I am opening up about my own sensuality and for the first time I don’t feel ashamed for wanting something. I feel confident and sexy, sometimes nervous, but never ashamed.
This movement has made me realize I have a reason to say, “me too,” but thankfully I can say it with so many other fearless and supportive women. I now choose to use my voice to help others see another side of the story. Abuse isn’t always obvious, and assault doesn’t usually happen at the hands of a stranger. Horrible things have been happening to women for years, but we are realizing we deserve to take up space and that we do not have to prioritize a man’s needs over our own. I hope I can instill a love for self and others in my children. I hope that together, as a community of bruised and healing women, we can raise a generation of people that truly care, listen, and love each other well.
Click to Read Next: To The One Who Tried to Break Me
About the Author:
Courtney Wittich lives in Nashville with her husband and two small children. She is a stay-at-home mom who is getting back into writing after taking a break to focus on starting a family. Now, she writes to connect with the deeper parts of herself and to share her life experiences with others. She enjoys naps, a big glass of wine, sunny days, and talking to her plants.