Consent: The importance of boundaries in relationships

From: Dr. Monica Valencia de Castro, psychotherapist and psychoanalyst
Professor at IPI Panama and IPI Washington and member of the Panamanian Association of Psychoanalysis (APAP)

Statistics from the Panamanian State Department note that in January 2022 there were 472 complaints of crimes against sexual freedom and integrity. The average is just over 15 cases per day. It is important to note that 2 out of 3 cases of sexual assault go unreported.

Of the total cases brought to the attention of the authorities, 170 involved rape, 27 double rape, 173 sexual intercourse with a person over 14 and under 18, 66 lewd acts and two sexual harassment cases. . . These cases increased by 13% compared to 2021.

The US statistics are also alarming. About 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse. According to the 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS), one in three college students (30.6%) will experience sexual assault at least once in their lives while studying at university.

These percentages highlight the need for sex education that clearly covers the issue of consent, which only occurs when all those involved in a sexual activity agree to participate voluntarily. It is also important that they have the freedom and ability to make that choice.

Usually, a young person first hears about the issue of consent after they have been affected by sexual violence or when someone has taken them too far.

Therefore, it is crucial for people to be clear about what consent means and have the tools to recognize, respect, and set boundaries so they can navigate relationships in a healthy way.

They must receive training that includes the right to choose whether or not to engage in a sexual interaction and the techniques to act if that situation arises. There is an urgent need to empower people, encourage respect and create a mental space to examine whether or not they are comfortable in this or that situation. That is, perhaps a person only wants a kiss, but nowhere else to be touched, and this decision must be confirmed and honored.

We must teach our children that there are parts of their bodies that no one is allowed to touch, except in exceptional situations with their parents or medical staff. Many of the sexual assaults occur within the family or by loved ones, due to the trust that closeness inspires and the minor’s ignorance of the limits that can and should be placed on that closeness.

They also need to be confident that they can relate what happened to them without fear of punishment.

On the rare occasions that sex education courses are offered, they tend to confine themselves to explaining the different contraceptive methods and ignore the necessary tools young people need to have to protect themselves physically and psychologically.

For this reason, there is a need to promote sexual health that allows people to feel they have a right to their own bodies without fear that their limits will not be validated. You should also not worry that the image that others have of him or her will be negatively affected.

In the world we live in, we seem to constantly seek validation from others. And it’s not just about how we look, it’s also about being accepted (‘being cool’) as part of the group. This creates a difficulty in setting boundaries in the sexual realm, causing fear of being labeled old-fashioned, stupid, and so on.

Abuses and assaults often take place in public places. It’s not uncommon for them to take place in parking lots or at certain locations at parties where others are watching.

Sex education, although insufficient, is provided in some schools, particularly private ones, and the need to teach it in the public system has caused much controversy in the country. But at best, the children are only taught where we come from.

Whilst it is true that this material should be taught in an age appropriate manner and to the extent that the boy or girl can handle it, it is also true that education in this matter falls short and as such we are not teaching young people at this time … when they start their sex life.

Those opposed to sex education claim that giving sexual information to innocent children or adolescents is counterproductive, forgetting that they learn about the issue very early through social networks and peer relationships. By turning a blind eye to this issue, we miss an opportunity to support the implementation of more responsible sexual practices that take into account the physical and emotional health of both the individual and the other person.

It is important to explain how important it is to recognize at all times how we are feeling and how the other is feeling. This is important in any type of relationship, even in the case of a sexual approach. It’s common for young people to think when they ask, “Can I kiss you? or do you want to do this or that?” they will break the “mood” (the wave). The desire to preserve an image causes the inner world to be neglected.

It is imperative that the other person involved in the sexual interaction consents. That means you must have the freedom and opportunity to choose. If one of the members has taken too much, their ability to think and express themselves is reduced, so contact should not be continued.

If the person is unconscious or asleep, initiating a sexual act is an assault even if the person has said minutes before that they wish to engage in sexual activity. If the person remains silent and cannot tell whether or not they want to continue, sexual activity should stop immediately.

No means no! It is striking how difficult it is to set boundaries in such situations. “Maybe some other time…it doesn’t provoke me…let’s wait” are ways in which one of the participants tells the other that they don’t want to continue.

A prerequisite for agreeing to sexual advances is that the person is sober, has willpower, does not feel compelled, is enthusiastic about sexual contact, and can talk openly about what they like and do not want to do.

Agreeing and asking for consent means setting boundaries and respecting your own rights and those of others. Non-consensual sexual activity is sexual assault.

One of the myths that remain is to associate the sexual relationship with the type of clothing. It is believed that a person who dresses provocatively announces that they want to have sex. But the truth is that the way you dress doesn’t determine whether the person is interested in sexual advances or not.

“I don’t know if that’s what I want…I’m not sure…I’ve changed my mind…I want to quit…I’m not enjoying it…I’m drunk.” All of these phrases are clues that it’s not a good time to proceed with sexual interaction.

Giving young people the tools to say no, listen to each other and recognize when to stop and stop sexual contact is crucial.

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