Cats and consent

I’ve seen a few articles recently about how to teach your child concepts like consent, bodily autonomy and so on. When a friend and her 5-year-old recently visited my partner and me, I realised there’s an amazing teaching aid that people don’t seem to know about: cats.

Concepts we had to get across during one short visit:

  • You don’t get to pet the cat just because you want to pet the cat. Petting the cat only happens if the cat wants to be petted.
  • There are lots of ways you can tell whether a cat is interested in interacting with you or not. There are signals that you can learn to understand, even though cats are a different species and don’t speak your language. You don’t need to get a “no” in words to realise it’s time to back off.
  • There’s a correlation between how much a cat trusts you and how much it wants to play with you or cuddle you. But you still can’t expect that on any given occasion the cat will be interested. It’s up to the cat, and they are not machines where a specific input results in a specific output.
  • There’s plenty of stuff you can do to make the cat feel more relaxed around you. If you’re sharing a cat’s space, you should do this stuff.
  • But it won’t magically result in you getting to cuddle the cat, because cats are not machines where a specific input results in a specific output. You’re doing it for the cat’s benefit, not yours.
  • Maybe the cat let you pet it yesterday. That doesn’t mean that the cat “should” let you pet it today. The cat gets to want different things on different days, just like you do.
  • Maybe the cat is really not interested in interacting with you at all. That doesn’t mean you’re doing anything “wrong”. Because you can’t control the cat’s choices, remember? (Why not? Because cats are not machines where a specific input results in a specific output.)

Written down, that might look like a lot to take in. But it’s not as if we handed the 5-year-old a scroll with “Rules of Ye Catte” written at the top in olde-timey writing. This is all just stuff she picked up from things we said and things she observed herself, over the course of a couple of days. What made me very happy was that not only did she grasp all this, she didn’t seem to resent any of it. She just accepted that this is the way cats work, and enjoyed her interactions with our cat on that basis.

We need to keep challenging the idea that consent is somehow a tricky or unclear concept. If a 5-year-old child can so swiftly grasp the basics of consent in relation to another species, most adults can definitely grasp the basics of consent in their interactions with other humans.

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