Harm Reduction and Consent

The following was originally written for, and posted with, the Anti-Violence Project. It has been reworked for this site and posted by the original author with full consent.


Humans are messy creatures. Interacting with each other, especially in vulnerable ways, comes with risk. Although usually unintentional, we hurt each other often. In colonized society we are taught entitlement to bodies from a very young age. For example, a relative can pick you up, hug you, or pinch your cheeks – even if that’s not what you want. The lessons we learn as young ones are deeply embedded by the time we are adults – we assume it’s okay to touch people without asking like going in for a hug. There’s lots of nuances in this around culture and the depth of relationship we have, and especially around race. How many times has a non-Indigenous person touched your regalia, beadwork, or medicines without asking? Let’s not even get started on assumed entitlement to land and resources!

We’ve all messed up in the past by not engaging in consent practices or listening to people’s boundaries. And we’ll probably do it again because humans are imperfect, messy creatures that make a lot of assumptions. Many people go their whole lives without learning about consent. How do we learn about these things when our entire society is upheld by entitlement to bodies, land, and resources?

The concept of harm reduction is often only used when talking about increasing safety in drug and substance use – however, the principle applies to basic interactions between people as well. When we practice consent, we reduce harm. Consent practices give us tools to check in with ourselves and each other about what we (body, mind, spirit) really want. These practices also give us tools to express boundaries, to listen to answers, and to respect them. This allows us to create a culture of care where everyone’s needs and boundaries are important and respected. With this model we do less harm to one another, and to ourselves.

Consent and harm reduction are also about care and respect for every body including the waters, the land, plants, animals, and all things in nature. These things have always been a part of our cultures and we need to return to them, to unlearn colonial teachings of entitlement and access, and return to self-determination for everyone. And we know that we’re still learning too – even those of us who have been doing work around consent for years are learning and figuring out more ways consent does not exist in systems and in our actions. It’s deeply embedded in our society and we are smart enough and brave enough to learn new / old ways <3

Kîwetinohk Kîsik (trish pal)

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