consensual festivities

Consensual Festivities

Christmas, gatherings or holidays, are often really stressful for a lot of people. This Christmas in particular is going to be even more stressful given what’s happening in the world.  If we tried to have more consensual festivities, it would be a lot more fun.

This guide is to help you bring a bit more consent into your celebrations, your family time, and your life in general. Consent isn’t just about sex and it’s not just about yes or no. We can all have more consent in our lives, and thinking about how to do this can mean we can all have a better time, especially at Christmas. 

What can’t you do?

Spend a few minutes thinking ahead and thinking about past festivities. What do you really not want to happen? Either to you or generally. Thinking about this year in particular, what are the things that would be too tough or too tricky. 

It’s better to be honest about this stuff because then everyone knows. When people are able to be real in this way, it’s awkward but it’s so much better. No more just gritting your teeth and baring it. Gone are the days of fake smiles and pretending to like sprouts (hey I like them now). It should always be okay just to say that there are some things you really can’t do. Just because you’ve done them before, or ‘always done them this way’, doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it.

Divide up your festive times to think about how much you can do
Divide up your festive times to think about how much you can do

If you know that it’s going to be a struggle hanging out with people in real life during your festivities, be honest with yourself and everyone else. How many hours of ‘people time’ can you do? For example: perhaps you can do an hour or two of ‘festive happy times’, two or three hours of low-key chill times, and the rest of the time you need to be pretty much solo. 

Remember, so that other people can have solo time, or ‘low key chill nice times’, you will probably need to do some work. Wrapping presents, setting the table, washing the pots, blowing up balloons, etc.

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I think a really good way of thinking about consent is to think of spectrums. I’ve talked about this a lot on here, and also in my new book, because I think they are useful. They give us more information about how much or how little everyone is into something. This is important because it means we can compromise with people more. 

How keen are you to do something?

If you go into any festivities only thinking about what you definitely want to do, then you’re going to affect how much other people can do what they want to do. So the things you really don’t want to do, put them at the ‘nope’ end of the spectrum. The things you aren’t keen on you could put in the – 3 to -1 bit. Put things you are ‘okay’ about or ‘quite keen on’ in the 0 to +2 bit. Whatever you are well keen on and would be unhappy if you didn’t do them, put them at the other end. 

Because festivities often involve lots of people, having this kind of spectrum makes it easier to negotiate. It’s also important to remember that if someone else is a +4 on (for example) carol singing, and you are a +1, you will enjoy that they are enjoying something. Being able to find ways to help other people do something, even if it’s something we’re meh about, is really generous. This generosity is what makes festive things festive.

Talk about different ways of doing something

Alongside this ‘spectrum’ way of thinking about consent, it’s also really useful to think about different ways for people to do something. I think that we get too obsessed with what we do for festive times, rather than how we might do it. For example: let’s say you’re a -2 on watching the King’s Speech, or the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special from 1977, but everyone else was a +4 on everyone watching it together. You could say ‘well I’ll watch that so long as I can take the piss about it on my phone with my friends.’ Or make a Tik-Tok or whatever young people do nowadays. 

Plan to do less

In ideal consent conversations, everybody would be upfront about what they can and can’t do from the outset. However, it’s not always possible for people to be clear about what they can or can’t do. Also it should be okay for people to change their minds at any time. This means that you have to allow for some wriggle room. My rule of thumb is whatever we are doing we shouldn’t be at 100% capacity for too long, so aim for 80% maximum capacity. So maybe look at your festive plans and knock 20% off. 

Plan for 80% not 100%
Plan for 80% not 100%

Spread it out

Depending on your festive occasion, you should be able to spread out what you do. For example Christmas only starts on 25th December. That twelve days of Christmas song you sing? The first day of Christmas is Christmas Day. This gives you many more days to spread out the festivities. When you spread things out over a longer period of time there’s less pressure on you to do things you don’t want to do. I personally take a lot of my Christmas rituals into the end of January, because January kind of sucks.

Give information 

Surprises and uncertainty stress us the F out. Surprises can be a nice kind of stress, but uncertainty often isn’t. This is particularly true this year when we’re all stressed out and when a surprise visit could also bring coronavirus. So we need to give each other information about what is happening, when, how, and for how long. This is called informed consent: if you’re not properly informed about what is going to happen, it’s harder to consent to it. 

Here’s an article about stress and the people around us

Speaking of surprises, remember that some people like them and some people don’t. Think about this if you are giving presents and maybe have some chat about how people feel about surprises. Do you have a list of things you want, or do you want surprises, or a bit of both? Have these conversations beforehand because these things have different meanings for different people. I’m on the ‘I prefer to give ideas for things I want’ end of the spectrum, other people I love are ‘I prefer surprises.’

If something is important, say so

As well as spectrums, another thing we could talk about is how important something is. So for each thing that you are wanting to do, or being asked to do, you could give a rating of how important it is to you. Think of this as a volume level for each one. 

Also different things have different meanings for different people at different times. Think of all the reasons for why people have sex, or why people have romantic relationships, it’s a lot. Now just apply this question to why do people celebrate? Why do people want to spend time with their families? Think of all the different reasons for why people give gifts. You can see that everyone has different reasons and motivations. If you have something that you want to do, that has a particular meaning for you, please say so! 

Pay attention to the festivities you can have, not those you can’t

This Christmas (for example) might be quite different again from the Christmases we’ve had from before Covid started. We may have lost relatives, or we might have a lot less money (due to the cost of living crisis imposed on us by governments and bosses). So this ‘looking backwards’ thing and longing for festivities of the past might feel very real this year. However, this also happens every year. Either because we tie ourselves to traditions that we ‘have to do or it’s not the same’ or because we are longing for a magical Christmas that we feel we have never had.

So try to be with the festivities you’re having. Instead of thinking what is lacking, think about what is possible. It’s okay to be sad about things being different but it’s also okay to let some traditions or expectations go. 

Of course, many of us will be experiencing really painful loss because many of our friends and relatives have died due to a poorly managed virus. ‘Having to be happy’ the whole time is a festive tradition that is totally fine to let go of in my opinion. If you are able to approach festive times with more consent you might be able to allow everyone to feel their feelings as best as they can.

Pay attention generally

Everything I’ve said up to now has been about different conversations we might have with people to make festive times more consensual. But it’s also really important to pay attention to each other all the way through. Just as with sex, we communicate non-verbally in all aspects of our life. 

At some point you’ll spend ages flicking through the TV channels trying to find something that you can all agree you want to watch. Even once you’ve verbally agreed, you can still pay attention to see whether in fact you’re the only person who is in fact interested in watching the show. Are people sighing, nodding off, looking restless, chatting on their phones, then maybe they have changed their mind. 

Consent is on-going and we all change our minds all the time. So we need to allow for this kind of flex if we are going to have a more consensual festive time. 

Christmas should stories

In my book (did I mention that?), I talk about ‘Should Stories.’ These are rules that dictate how we should do things that are to do with what society says is normal. Not ethical, or ‘right’, just ‘normal’. There are ‘should stories’ about sex (doing it in a particular order and always involving penis shaped things) and relationships (dating, going out, married, kids, happy ever after). And yes there are ‘should stories’ about festivities: ‘best day of the year’ ‘the best food’ ‘everyone just has a really good time’ ‘it’s just great that everyone is happy and getting along with each other.’

Be careful telling festive 'Should Stories'
Be careful telling festive ‘Should Stories’

As you might have gathered, I’m not really a fan of ‘Should Stories’. They put pressure on us all and they limit what, how, when, and where we do things. If we are pressured to follow the ‘Should Story’ rather than to try and have a nice time with ourselves and the people we love, we’re just not going to have a very nice time. Consensual festivities means letting go some of these should stories and also not telling them to each other.

So can you ignore the adverts on TV. Scoff at the music videos of perfect Christmases from years past. Maybe be a bit side eye about the ‘back in my day it was better’ stories from your older relatives. Instead, pay attention to the story of what is happening this time, this day, this hour. By doing that, and being with the people you love as best as you can, you might have your best festive times yet. Or not. 

If you loved this you might also love a couple of podcasts I made about Christmas with my mate Meg-John over the last couple of years. This one and this one

Please leave a (nice) comment below if you like or ask me a question here.

© Justin Hancock, 2024 Find out more about me and BISH here.

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’ve been on the telly and the radio and have written articles for newspapers and magazines. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Read more about me and BISH here. Find out about my other work here Justin Hancock

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