Aretha Franklin was onto something when she sang, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.” We don’t tend to conceptualise it that way, but respect is always personal. What it means to me, what it feels like to me, how I seek to be respected and how I naturally express respect, will not be identical to the ways respect happens for you. Respect is as diverse and discrete as the individuals we are. While the meaning of respect, the point of respect remains stable – due regard for another, a commitment to avoid harming or interfering with another, agreement to abide by another’s rights – the expression and perception of respect can differ widely across cultures, across ages, across situations and across individuals.
The other element we tend to overlook when it comes to respect, is restraint. Often, discussions of respect focus on what I expect, on my rights, on my integrity. But none of these things mean anything outside of the context of each human being’s equal, universal and inalienable rights, integrity and expectations. My human rights do not make me superior to others, they make me equal. My integrity does not make me more valuable, but equivalent, of equal worth. My expectations are not more urgent, but on equal par with those of everyone else. The outcome of this equivalence is that what we want, what we need, our claims to happiness and well-being must be balanced with those of others, must be negotiated and, perhaps, occasionally thoughtfully conceded or compromised in order to avoid impeding upon or infringing upon those of others.
Which is why the key element in respect is communication. Without open and honest communication, respect is almost impossible to confer. Respect means taking the time to talk to one another, to ask questions and hear the responses, even if, especially if, they are not the ones we thought we’d hear, or we’d like to hear. Respect means committing to being honest, being open, even if, especially if, what we have to say isn’t easy to say. Respect means considering the impacts of our words and actions on others and taking that consideration seriously. Respect means remembering to keeps others expectations, rights and integrity equally in mind, when considering what we want to do or say. Respect means always allowing for others to either accept or refuse your requests. Respect means abiding by and agreeing to their decisions for themselves.
Respect must be a universal sentiment. Respect is a basic human right. It is not earned. It cannot be offered only to those you value, or like, or admire. Respect is a basic condition for a peaceful and just society. It is a human responsibility, it is our ethical discipline, it is what is required of each of us if we are to have any chance at living harmoniously amongst each other. Respect for all living creatures must be felt sincerely. Respectful behaviour will then flow naturally from that sentiment, most of the time. But because we are human, because we make mistakes, because we can easily get caught up in our own pressing and stubborn personal needs, we need to combine that genuine sentiment with communication. We need to remember to slow down, especially in the heat of the moment, when caught up in the sweep of passion, to ask. It doesn’t have to be onerous or dreary. Seeking consent can be seductive, alluring and erotic. In fact, joyfully, flagrantly, whole-heartedly consensual sex is as sexy as it gets.
If you don’t have the willingness, the regard for others or the imagination to seek consent, each and every time, then you don’t have the right to sexual relationships. Rights don’t come without responsibilities, sex doesn’t come without consent. It really is that simple.
[You can even get that printed on a t-shirt here. How sexy is that!?!]