Friday, 3 July 2015

Handshakes, consent, and mulling things over

By Jules Hillier

Stepping into the shoes of Brook’s former Chief Exec, Simon Blake, is challenging for lots of reasons, but one of them is that I find it virtually impossible to find the time to create the kind of prolific social media presence that he is able to maintain. Simon takes inspiration from his daily life and is able to turn it into a blog/tweet/other kind of post really quickly. I’m very different – I get inspiration but I like to spend a bit of time turning something over in my mind before writing about it. My creative process takes a bit longer. All this is a rather roundabout way of saying that Brook’s blog has been quiet since I became Chief Executive – I’ve been mulling rather than writing – and I’m sorry about that.

Something happened earlier in the week that helped me move from thinking about things to writing about things, so here is my first post as Brook’s Chief Exec. Appropriate, I think, that it should be about consent because I firmly believe that if we all have a better grasp of consent we’ll change people’s lives, relationships and wellbeing much faster and more effectively. 

It’s just possible that some of you don’t know how much I dislike hugging.  I have blogged about it in the past when I had to hug 50 people in 30 days to raise money for Brook* but it still takes people by surprise when they find out that I don’t like it. Trouble with hugs is that they’re big and invasive and really intimate and when someone I don’t know well comes in for a hug, I get all tense inside. Hugging is a socially acceptable greeting to most people and I am well brought up and polite so rather than spending the last 40-odd years yelling, “Get off me! I can’t breathe and you’re in all of my space!” I have simply shut up and given a rather stiff, brief hug in return. For huggers, I can’t have been very pleasant to hug. I guess we’ve all been subjecting ourselves to sub-standard greetings & leavings all that time, which is a bit sad.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this and about the fact that everyone’s boundaries are different. I also think about the fact that despite being a perfectly capable woman in my mid 40s and despite working in sexual health and passionately advocating for better understanding of boundaries and consent for more than 15 years, I have never really exerted my right to ask people not to hug me. I’ve mused that if I find it that uncomfortable to deal with a relatively minor issue of consent, how on earth can we ever help young people really, truly, understand consent and find the skills and capability to negotiate it.

That’s why Wednesday was such a happy day for me. It was the day Justin Hancock, known to many of you simply as Bish, shared his handshake workshop with me and our fellow Sexpression UK Trustees in the pub after our Trustee meeting. The conversation came about because Justin discovered my dislike of hugging a little while ago and, rather than feeling awkward or deciding I had simply misunderstood the hug and could be converted, he actively engaged me in expressing the kind of greeting I would prefer instead. And every time I’ve seen him since, he’s offered me a thoughtful, alternative greeting/leaving gesture that has been far more pleasant than a hug.  When my fellow trustees discovered my aversion to hugging, Justin talked about his workshop and, outside a  Mayfair pub, he ran us through a little demo of how it works.

It was excellent. All of us stopped and thought not only about about our own preferences (and it turns out there are other kinds of greetings that trouble other people, but they often don’t say) but also about the needs of other people and how different to ours they might be. Justin made the very good point that my loathing of the limp handshake could well be a complete misunderstanding of some poor person who simply feels uncomfortable or intimidated by a handshake and I should be much less judgemental. We all stood there mulling over what makes something a mutually satisfying, happy and positive experience.

Everyone should do the handshake workshop and thanks to Justin’s generosity (the details are free on his website), they can. I brought it home with me and it turns out my husband’s a three firm shakes kinda guy, which is at least one more shake than would be my preference, so I also learned something new about someone I’ve known for more than 30 years. 

The very best thing about this workshop is that it helps young people not only to understand what consent is, but also to feel what consent feels like. Perhaps if we can help more young people with that, they’ll learn not only to negotiate and discuss consent, but also to recognise it, not just when it comes to sex, but when it comes to all sorts of meaningful, happy ways of communicating and connecting with each other.  I high-five that. As long as you’re all comfortable with it.

I feel very lucky to work in a field where I regularly come into contact with people devising creative ways to help young people grow learn and develop. We are living through tough times in youth work, education and health and there is so little resource for taking the time to innovate and come up with simple, but brilliant, new things. That’s sad. But probably a topic for another post. Give me a while to mull it over.

*those of you who browse that blog will note that I never finished blogging the pictures. I did finish the challenge, including the pictures, but I struggled with it so much, I lost the will to blog it.

1 comment:

Jon said...

I never read blogs. This was great; elegantly constructed and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing.