The Importance of Consent in Everyday Situations

Yesterday, I had my hair cut.

As the stylist called my name, she asked if I would like a shampoo. I politely declined. She then noticed how thick my hair is and she said she was going to take me back to the sink to wet it. And being incredibly used to this, I readily agreed and followed.

But just as she had finished wetting my hair and I expected her to turn the water off, she started squirting stuff on my head.

I froze. I’m not great with confrontation, especially with strangers, and have difficultly forming exactly what I want to say in just a short moment. She kept rubbing my head, then squirting some more, rubbing and squirting, rubbing and squirting.

The salon smell was all around me, and finally when she’d finished rinsing, only to squirt yet more stuff on my head, I blurted out “so what’s all this stuff you’re putting on my head?”

“You don’t use conditioner?” she asked incredulously.

Once she’d finished lecturing me on why I should use conditioner, I opened my mouth again to say, “I mean, before, too. You put a lot of things on my head.”

“Oh, that? It was shampoo. Don’t worry, I’m not going to charge you for it. It just makes my life easier.”

The problem was that it made my life a whole lot more difficult.

You see, I’m allergic to almost all artificial scents. Quite a few popular natural scents, too. I can’t walk down the shampoo aisle, or the soap aisle, or the laundry detergent aisle in the store. I have to go to natural food stores and actively seek out all natural, unscented products, which is usually not an easy task. I can’t use normal cat litter or home cleaning agents, I can’t borrow a friend’s lotion, and I cringe at being around someone who is wearing cologne or perfume. If these products are actually put on my body, it’s a very unpleasant thing, indeed.

So I sat there through my actual haircut just waiting for it to be over, and begging for it to end soon. I tried to take breaths as shallow as possible, to keep as much of the scent out of my nose as I could. When she asked, this time, whether I would like any product put in my hair, I declined and said “I’m allergic to most products, actually.” Her “oh” was a guilty one, and I dropped other plans to rush the 20 minutes home and hop directly in the shower. My third shampoo and blow dry for the day complete, I could finally breathe again.

Contrary to how this post looks, I’m not writing it because I want to complain about a bad experience in customer service. I don’t doubt that the stylist was genuinely trying to make her own life easier, and genuinely thought she was doing me a favor in the process. I’m writing this post because of the simple fact that a favor to one person is not a favor to another. I’m writing this post because such situations are so common and can be so very, very easily avoided.

In the end, it could have been a lot worse. While I’m allergic to just about everything, my allergies aren’t particularly severe in the big scheme of things. My nose itches and runs, my eyes burn, and my head hurts. But I don’t usually break out in hives or a rash. I don’t get migraines and need to lay down for hours after exposure. My eyes don’t water, my skin doesn’t puff up, and my airways don’t close. I don’t have chronic pain issues that could be triggered by certain scents. I don’t have sensory issues that make it difficult to be touched. And surely there are many, many other problems I don’t have that I don’t even know enough to be aware of.

Though I don’t consider my own personal allergies to make me disabled, this is in part a disability issue. It’s in part about the way that most people seem to assume a “norm” and forget the huge number of people who don’t fit it, and who can be harmed by the assumptions. It is in part about the way that certain conditions are made invisible, forgotten about, or assumed to not exist until or unless told otherwise.

But ultimately, while accessibility, accommodation, and awareness are huge issues, and I think that every one of us should do our best to learn about those disabilities that we ourselves do not have, the problem I had yesterday was not even an issue of someone not being aware enough of what precise impact her actions could have on me. Though it certainly could have solved the problem in this particular instance, the ultimate cause of it was not her failure to consider that not all people can well-tolerate just any product being put on their bodies.

The issue was consent.

Consent is not just an issue in sexual situations, though we tend to talk about it largely as though it is. Consent is something that we negotiate or fail to negotiate in all of our interactions with other people, every time we touch or ask if we can touch. In this case, I consented to having my hair wet down. I didn’t consent to having product put in my hair, or to having my scalp massaged. My consent was assumed, and falsely. And while quite likely most people would have easily consented if asked “is it okay if I shampoo your hair free of charge,” I wouldn’t. The only way to know whether or not a favor is really a favor is to ask.

It’s wrong to take a person’s consent to one activity as consent to all related activities. And while those of us in anti-violence work already recognize this, it’s more than time to extend the principle beyond sex.

Many feminists and disability rights activists have made the argument long before I have, but I think it’s worth a repeat and a revisit. What if we didn’t assume our right to touch in everyday, non-sexual situations? What if we didn’t just take for granted that a certain touch will be okay? What if we were to not consider our own desires and thoughts about a certain touch, but those of the person we’re touching? Many would undoubtedly argue, and have argued, that the world would be a much colder and less intimate place. But I argue that it’d be a far more communicative place. It’d also be a world much safer to a wide variety of people. It’d be a world with a far more genuine respect for bodily autonomy and personal rights.

And yes, it very likely would transform the way that we view sex and sexual assault. If we viewed all touch as not a right but a privilege, all physical contact as requiring consent rather than acquiescence, our views on what a sexual interaction looks like and on what constitutes rape would also undoubtedly transform. But even if they did not, bodily rights matter in all circumstances, and reclaiming them in all situations, including those that are non-sexual, quite simply just matters. Our autonomy does not begin and end in the bedroom, or center around our erogenous zones. Our bodies belong to us, and every part of them has value.

(Reprinted with permission from Cara Kulwicki at The Curvature)