Headscarfs still cause a lot of debate in the Netherlands, some feel it’s a form of oppression and we shouldn’t allow it. I’ve always felt forcing women to undress themselves when they don’t want to would be far worse. Covering female breasts is a sexist cultural norm as well, but we don’t change that by stripping women naked against their consent. It is my body, and i have the right to show or cover it as I wish. And honestly, the tone of the debate makes me so angry sometimes I just want to cover my hair to make a point – I am not an object, I am not an idea or ideology, my body as a woman is not a political battle ground. This is my head, my hair, my breasts, and if I don’t want to show them to you, you have no right to see them.
I really can’t see this issue separate from sex workers’ rights and reproductive rights and women’s rights in general. The idea that as women we decide what we want to do with our own bodies seems so radical sometimes. Instead of allowing others to decide for us, as if we are children, we get to use our bodies as we please. Whether I want to cover my body, have sex for my own reasons including money, show my breasts in public or stay a virgin is my business and mine alone.
(Cartoon by Malcolm Evans)
Mara is from the United States and it’s interesting to compare her ‘culture of origin’ with the Dutch, because there are so many differences. The way we deal with racism for example. But there’s another thing that I thought was interesting, and it’s something that I’ve noticed when I visited San Francisco and when I read books or articles by American kinksters: we deal with consent differently. I read a writing a while back about ‘consent violations’ at BDSM parties in the USA and how somebody touched her arm or her back without her consent. People were outraged, apparently it’s not considered acceptable behaviour in the United States to make physical contact with another person’s body without their explicit consent. That was weird to me, and I thought it was completely inappropriate to call unwanted touching ‘consent violation’. I think it has something to do with cultural differences. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t go around touching people without their consent in the Netherlands. But I think us Dutch people feel more like our bodies exist in interaction with other people’s bodies, and other people have (to some extent) the right to touch us. I also feel like Dutch people see consent as more of a complex and interactive thing, where certain levels of consent are assumed and everybody tries to be sensitive to other people’s boundaries. We don’t have the same affirmative consent hype here and I’m so glad. When meeting someone new in a non-professional setting it’s quite normal to kiss each other on the cheek (three times!) while resting a hand on their waist. I’ve had sexual stuff happen that I did not want, so I said I did not want it and that was that. I don’t consider that consent violation, I consider that an erroneous interpretation followed by effective communication – success! My colleagues feel free to touch my leg, give me a playful hug or get close to my body. If you tell a person to stop and they don’t that’s consent violation, and there’s a limit to what kind of touching can be assumed to be okay (you can’t grab a breast and then check for consent), but generally speaking, it seems to me Dutch people tolerate touching far more than (some?) Americans do.
At the same time, there’s a lot of awareness about consent and I feel like things are actually still changing for the better. Especially among kinky people consent is considered important even for light touching. But I think it would be an even bigger improvement if we stopped regarding consent as a black-white thing and instead focussed more on the well intentioned, complex and interactive issue of figuring out what everyone feels happy doing. Consent is not simple, consent is not a ‘yes’ and consent certainly isn’t an emotion or performance where you’re constantly expressing enthusiastic consent in a pre-defined way. And I think understanding, kindness, forgiveness and flexibility will get us further than consent-policing.