Late last week, sexuality expert Deanne Carson became the centre of an international media (and social media) storm. Hundreds of outlets around the world – from the UK, Canada, America, Europe New Zealand beyond – unleashed a torrent of criticism after an interview Carson gave ABC Melbourne last week about creating a culture of consent. Here, in her own words, Deanne Carson explains what she meant, and what it’s like to be in the middle of an international social media pile-on.
I’m Deanne Carson, the ‘crazy’, pink-haired #nappyconsent woman.
There’s a lot of things I want for this world. One of them isn’t babies sitting around in dirty nappies all day. The idea of that is ludicrous.
I was recently asked by the ABC to comment on how we teach consent to children. The request came off the back of the Four Corners episode on incredibly courageous rape survivor Saxon Mullins, and the subsequent announcement by New South Wales Attorney-General Mark Speakman that there would be a review of the consent laws.
I speak for a living but TV isn’t my home.
For my television interview I was given a little bit of information before being rushed into a booth minutes before going to air, cabled up with a mic and earpiece by a really lovely tech guy, and told to stare at the light on top of a very large and intimidating camera.
Was I nervous? Yup.
Was my explanation a little clumsy? Probably.
Frankly, I haven’t watched the interview and probably never will.
When Nappygate hit social media, the reaction was overwhelming. I was ridiculed and harassed. People – mostly men – inboxed me on Twitter, Facebook and two social media accounts. They wanted to know if I had children, if I was a man, a woman or an ‘it’, and whether I would do the world a favour and kill myself.
I wanted to keep my socials open because I was also receiving messages from survivors of sexual trauma who wished they had grown up in a culture of consent. But I couldn’t. It just wasn’t physically possible to delete the vile messages faster than they came in.
A final message telling me I needed a bullet between the eyes was enough for me to pull the pin and get offline. And all because I said we can set up a culture of respect and consent from birth, using an example about nappy changing to model compassionate communication.
Yet early childhood educators were scratching their heads. We already do this, they said. We’ve been doing this for decades. We give children a warning that they need their nappy changed. If they are holding a precious toy we encourage them to bring it with them, we try to make sure that the person changing them is familiar to the child and we interact with them throughout the process.
Indeed, early childhood educators try to make sure that every physical interaction they have with children make them feel cared for and valued.
The point of my comment was not to suggest you need a baby’s consent to change a nappy. When it comes to health, hygiene and safety, there are some things that are not negotiable.
The strategy is about modelling active communication between two people in intimate or vulnerable moments from a young age. Showing a child what care in those spaces looks like, creating a family culture where the skills needed to negotiate consent as adults are embedded into every day interactions.
When it comes to nappy changing, care and respect is telling a little person you have noticed that they are wet or dirty, asking them if they are ready to be changed, giving them a little time if they are deeply engaged in something else, talking to them and explaining what you are doing throughout the process, keeping an eye on their body language and facial expressions for any sign of discomfort or impatience and letting them know that you recognise what’s going on for them.
Believe it or not, this is consent culture in action: it’s telling our littlest people that we see them as people in their own right and it’s modelling how to interact with other people when they may be feeling vulnerable.
Creating a culture of consent from birth doesn’t mean talking to babies about sex. It means laying foundations and familiarising children with reciprocal communication. It means modelling empathy and teaching our children how to recognise other’s boundaries and respect them.
From our earliest days we are teaching children other skills that they may not develop for many years. We sit our infant on our lap and read them a bedtime story. Our babies can’t even talk yet but we are giving them the building blocks of literacy skills. Daily doses of Hairy Maclary set up a love of rhythm and language, an association of reading being a positive, loving time, and an immersion in language that will inform the child’s vocabulary.
There is no reason why consent should be any different.
After appearing on the ABC, I would later tweet: ‘I don’t want to talk about #consent anymore, I want to talk about care, joy, generosity, empathy and delight.’
And that’s the core of what I was trying to address.
So often teenagers and adults come at the conversation about consent from a legal perspective. When I walk into a high school classroom, the questions always seem to start with, ‘but what if …’
‘But what if we’re both drunk? But what if she doesn’t say no? But what if she changes her mind halfway through? But what if …’
Seriously? That’s the bar of sexual interactions? That we go into an encounter pushing the boundaries to see how much we can get away with before we have crossed the technical line into rape?
How about we approach consent like this instead.
When instigating intimate touch with another person, what can we do to ensure that we are entering with empathy, care and a desire to bring joy to the other person?
Yeah, right, Deanne. That’s easy to say, but how do we create adults who approach sex in that way?
How about we treat children this way, model empathy and teach our children how to treat others? And whilst we need to clearly say, ‘don’t hit, kick or bite’, let’s not make that our focus. Instead let’s celebrate the beautiful acts of kindness by our children – especially our boys.
Saxon Mullins was 18-years-old, inexperienced in sexual intimacy and drunk when older, more experienced Lazarus approached her in the nightclub his father owned. A dark building unfamiliar to Mullins and very familiar to Lazarus. It took him four minutes to lure Mullins outside into a deserted alley where she reports he anally raped her. He had told her that he was taking her to the VIP room. She had told him that she had never had sex before and wanted to go back to her friend.
Lazarus was found guilty, but on appeal Judge Robyn Tupman found that, while Mullins didn’t consent, Lazarus had reasonable grounds for believing Saxon was consenting. It is this discrepancy in the law – where a person can not consent but fail to gain a conviction because the other person didn’t know they weren’t consenting – that has instigated the review of consent laws.
Fair consent laws are really important.
But I can’t help but wonder. What if Luke Lazarus had chosen to be the kind of person who entered every intimate interaction with care, generosity, empathy and an intent to bring joy and delight to the other person?
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